What do people need to feel heard?

Local officials and staff know that not everyone is going to be happy with the decisions they make.  As Abraham Lincoln famously pointed out, “You can never please all of the people all of the time.” However, if residents feel as if their input has been considered carefully, and that their ideas are valued by government, then they will be satisfied overall with their government even if they don’t agree with every decision – that, at least, is the theory.

But what does it mean in practice? Faced with angry residents at public meetings, officials often ask, “What does it take for people to feel heard?” At a time when conflict and polarization seem to have reached dangerous levels at community meetings, this is a critical question.

The answers to this question come from a range of fields, from neuroscience to anthropology to political theory, and they all have implications for how communities can improve local democracy.

  • Reading the body language of the listener. The first answer is the most basic, and it is wired into our brains: people are more likely to understand each other and empathize with one another when they are face-to-face in a one-on-one or small-group setting. We subconsciously process countless variations in facial expression, posture, and small utterances; our brains accumulate all of that data to form a sense (again, often subconsciously) of whether what we say actually matters to the other person.
  • Seeing the ideas in writing. Again, this answer has its roots in neuroscience and in the study of learning styles. Most people are visual learners, and when they see their opinions recorded, on a sheet or a screen or a blackboard where others can see them, they are more likely to feel like their input is being considered.
  • Getting a response. This can take many forms, but when people get some sort of response to what they have just said, especially when it is coming from someone with decision-making power on the issue or advanced knowledge about it, they are more likely to feel heard.
  • Encountering different views. Many educators and practitioners use dialogue to help students learn or help residents make decisions. Research on these practices shows that when people with different ideas, understandings, or beliefs talk with one another in a reasonable atmosphere, most of those participants gain not only a better understanding of the issue, but a stronger sense that their own views matter. The need and ability to negotiate with other people makes you more aware not only of the limits of your contribution but its worth as part of the larger whole.
  • Understanding the agenda, the process, and the parameters of a decision. Basic knowledge of how public decision-making happens can help people understand how and when to contribute, what limitations government officials and staff may face in responding to or using input, and whether government has the latitude to act on an idea or concern. However, if the process seems arbitrary, opaque, or unjust – or if it is presented as “the way we do things here,” or something that can’t possibly be improved – then understanding it will make people feel less valued rather than more.
  • Closing the gap. People often feel distanced from their institutions – both geographically, if they have to show up to places that are not very accessible, and culturally, if those places seem foreign and/or intimidating. Institutions can close these gaps by meeting people where they are, making spaces more welcoming, letting people know that language services are available, and in other ways.
  • Having a vote. People feel heard when they have a chance to register their opinion through voting. Finding out what percentage of the community agrees with them can also temper their expectations about whether and how government should act. (Voting directly on issues, even when the vote is purely advisory, is not always possible or advisable, but the point stands that when people can vote, they are more likely to feel heard).
  • Seeing, or at least knowing, how the input mattered to the outcome. When people know how their input was considered, and how it figured into the final decision, they are more likely to feel heard or valued. This can include many intermediate considerations, such as how much it would cost to implement a particular idea, or knowing whether it is allowed under law, in addition to a final explanation of what role the input played in making the decision. When people can see a long-term outcome of a decision – such as a new park that was created with community input – that conveys an even stronger sense that their ideas mattered.
  • Having titles, offices, ranks, awards, and honorifics. When residents’ contributions to their community are recognized in appropriate ways, such as serving on a commission or being given an award for service to the neighborhood, they are more likely to feel valued and heard. Even addressing someone as “sir” or “ma’am” when giving them an opportunity to speak can communicate some respect and a sense that you are listening.


In most communities, on most issues, the official processes for making public decisions fail to satisfy most or all of these ways of making people feel heard. They usually do not provide space for one-to-one or small-group discussion, input is seldom written down, officials and staff do not respond (sometimes because responding is not actually allowed by law), people of different views don’t usually talk through their differences, policymaking processes are often opaque or not well explained, voting on issues by residents is uncommon, and officials often fail to report back on how input was used. On top of all that, conventional public meetings may make things worse simply by the layout of the room: officials sitting on a dais with nametags, microphones, and comfortable chairs while residents sit down below on uncomfortable chairs, with one microphone.

Not all of these ways of making people feel heard are practical, legal, or wise; officials can’t listen to every single constituent one-on-one, and there shouldn’t be community-wide votes on every single policy decision. But one overall approach that officials and staff can take is to shift the communication from a “government vs. the people” dynamic to one that acknowledges that different community members have different opinions and should be listening and negotiating with one another, in addition to their government. People feel heard when someone – anyone – listens to them; it doesn’t necessarily have to be the mayor.

There are also many ways to incorporate meaningful listening into public meetings and processes, such as:

  • Proactive, network-based recruitment to bring larger numbers of people, with a wider range of viewpoints, to the table
  • Deliberation in pairs or small facilitated groups, either just before or during the meeting
  • Voting by residents as part of decision-making processes (such as in participatory budgeting)
  • Processes for agenda-setting that give people opportunities to suggest topics and ideas for upcoming meetings
  • Digital technologies (such as Mentimeter, PollEverywhere, or Pol.is) that allow people in a meeting to make comments, suggest ideas, participate in polls, and find common ground – in real time, and with the results visible to all
  • Meetings that are televised and allow viewers to participate using the digital technologies listed above
  • Holding meetings in places where people already congregate, and offering services like language interpretation and childcare that allow more people to participate
  • Stronger supports for the “ground floor of democracy” – neighborhood associations, homeowner associations, parent-teacher associations, local online networks, service clubs, youth leadership programs, resident academies, and other groups and activities – so that they engage larger, more diverse numbers of people in more participatory ways, with stronger connections to local government – all so that people know more about public issues and processes, understand how they work, and have more accessible ways to contribute

We are exploring these challenges and solutions as part of our “Better Public Meetings” project, made possible by the support of the AAA-ICDR Foundation. In this work, we’ll be working with communities to generate more and more creative answers to the question of “What do people need to feel – and be – heard.”

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