Open Meetings: Worth the Risk?

Posted on June 7, 2010 by

Author: Beatrice Briggs
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #147

Q: Our group is committed to education and to sharing our lives in community openly with others. We frequently host visitors, and also offer regular workshops and courses. We have traditionally welcomed visitors and program participants to attend our weekly community meetings, believing it gives them even more insight into how we work as a group. We have been able to establish good boundaries about when their verbal input is welcome, and have generally encountered few problems with that. Some members have felt self-conscious in the presence of outside observers, and suggested that we not invite them to our meetings, but usually we’ve decided that the educational benefit of including them outweighed some of our personal preferences to have more privacy and intimacy. Members always have the option of calling for “closed session,” although this has rarely been invoked.

Recently, however, one short-term visitor used information gleaned in a community meeting to attempt to blackmail the community (on questionable grounds, but it cost us considerable time and worry), and two other disgruntled program participants started spreading damaging rumors in the local area, based on dynamics they observed while we talked as a group. These experiences have made many of us skittish about allowing outsiders to observe our meetings, and moreover we don’t feel able to freely discuss this troubling dynamic in the presence of visitors. We have held one closed meeting about this issue already, and that itself had repercussions and started curious visitors talking. How can we balance these competing needs and concerns?

Beatrice Briggs responds:

Although in theory, I support the idea of open meetings, I cannot see the benefit if (1) outsiders are converting what they see and hear into grist for the local gossip mill and (2) this is causing community members to feel inhibited and uncomfortable in their own meetings. In addition, I imagine that the effort going into dealing with the situations precipitated by the open meeting policy is detracting from the time and energy available for addressing other pressing issues.

I suggest that you declare a one-year moratorium on open meetings to let things settle down. No need to explain to the outside world why this step has been taken. If asked, just smile and say, “We are on an extended retreat” or something along those lines. During this period, observe carefully whether the sensitivities uncovered by the visitors’ behaviors diminish and group members begin to speak openly and honestly again in meetings. If some people are still acting inhibited, the problem probably goes beyond the visitor factor. There may be underlying issues that are not being addressed. At the end of the year, revisit the open meeting policy.

Tree Bressen responds:

Have you traveled by airplane in the past decade or so? If so, you’ll undoubtedly have noticed more than a few “security enhancements.” Taking off your shoes, getting patted down or scanned with a metal-detecting “wand,” being prevented from bringing a full water-bottle through security, that kind of thing. I personally had a small, sealed bottle of horseradish confiscated last year. Was my horseradish dangerous? Maybe if thrown at someone’s head, but basically, not really. So why was it taken? Because ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the US and other countries have been making changes to airport security based on worst-case situations. At the time of this writing, banning all carry-on baggage is seriously being discussed.

That’s kinda like closing the barn doors after the cows are gone, but it happens all the time. And i’ve seen it a bunch in communities, where after a bad incident, legislation (policy) is passed in an effort to help everyone feel safer and more secure.

Of course groups need to learn from their mistakes, and change is not always bad. Particularly if a similar situation crops up more than once, the universe—in the form of your members (or in this case, visitors)—might be trying to tell you something, in which case it could be a good time to put those finely honed listening skills to use. And on certain occasions, even once is enough to insist that change needs to happen, like when an agricultural commune relying on visiting volunteer labor changed a few of their procedures to increase physical safety after a terrible accident. But no matter what kinds of changes you make, bad luck’s still gonna crop up sometimes.

If you are unfortunately hosting the kind of person who would attempt blackmail or spread damaging rumors, they’d probably start mischief of some kind whether they attend your meetings or not. Which doesn’t mean you need to make it worse by inviting them: visitors need to understand that attending community meetings is a privilege, not a right. And i think your group should feel fine about holding closed meetings to explore this particular issue if that’s what you need.

However, my experience has been that the most damaging things that happen to communities happen from their own members, not from visitors. Internal lawsuits, embezzlement by a community accountant, or just really nasty interpersonal conflicts that stew for years. While many of us may have ideas on what forms of membership screening are more effective than others, i don’t think any group has discovered a sure-fire method for screening.

So if you accept that bad things are going to happen occasionally, then i think the key question becomes: How can you build and maintain resiliency? For example, if you have strong relationships with your neighbors because you are constantly helping them out with chores, riding with the volunteer fire-fighting squad, or singing in the local church choir, then they’ll be a lot less likely to believe any damaging rumors that might come their way. Particularly if they’ve known you for 20 years compared against a random newcomer who just wandered in.

In the aftermath of a negative incident, making changes like these—changes that take time for their effects to grow—might not address the part of your brain that’s crying “Alarm!,” but they might best serve your community’s well-being in the end. If you’re not sure, then it’s probably a good time to invoke the Quaker practice of “seasoning” a potential decision for a month before moving ahead.

Laird Schaub responds:

My basic advice to groups is to be as open as you can stand. There is a basic principle that applies here about how information flow is related to trust: the more information is shared (so long as it is accurate), the greater the tendency to trust; the more information is restricted, the more trust is impaired. It’s that simple. Thus, I applaud the group’s historic approach to open meetings. And the benefits go beyond that. In addition to trust building and the educational component named by the narrator, I have found that encouraging (not just permitting) visitors to attend meetings is a great way to assess the social skills of non-members.

Over the 35 years that my community has been around, we’ve found that screening prospective members for communication skills is the surest way to predict a good fit. We figure that very few people get to us without already having sorted themselves out for a reasonably good value match, and thus, when it comes to what our ongoing relationship with them might be, we look closely at things like: how well they listen; how well they can articulate their feelings; how easily they can switch perspectives to see another person’s viewpoint; how well they can distinguish between personal preferences and what’s good for the collective; how they work with conflict.

By having them observe a meeting (and use their judgment about if and when to speak) we get a lot of valuable information in a short time. We try to debrief with the new person right afterwards to hear their impressions and answer questions, the better to understand how they saw things, and to nip any misinterpretations in the bud. This is enormously valuable as a screening tool.

All of that said, there’s no doubt that bad things can happen when you trust strangers to use appropriate discretion with privileged information. While my overwhelming experience with extending trust is that it leads to benign results, it doesn’t always. Now what?

In the two examples given (one of attempted blackmail by a short-term visitor; the other of spreading negative rumors by unhappy program participants), I think it’s better to focus on how the group handles conflict than on who it allows to attend meetings. The root issue is that relatively new people had a problem with something that was happening in the group and chose to act on negative conclusions outside the group rather than work it out internally. That’s not good.

If, as I was suggesting above, the group was checking with non-members after meetings to see how they were doing with what they’d observed, then I think it would have been obvious that the new folks were having a bad reaction, and/or laboring under a misunderstanding. Forewarned, the group would then have had an opportunity to address this (Luke, there’s a disturbance in the Force) well before it evolved into blackmail or rumor mongering.

To be fair, handling conflict effectively is a sophisticated skill, and not all attempts end well. Nonetheless, it’s well worth developing that ability and I recommend that the group look first to how it can do a better job of processing tension, rather than considering structural changes (restricting access to meetings) to better contain the potential negative consequences of poorly resolved conflict.

Finally, I want to address the situation where the group feels it’s necessary to hold a closed meeting. As the narrator suggested, there may be times when the members’ desire for safety and full disclosure trumps the commitment to openness. While I agree that this should be an option, I think it works best (that is, minimizes negative repercussions) if the group commits to providing everyone who was excluded from the meeting with a summary of what was discussed. This offers a middle ground between full disclosure (an open meeting) and a secret meeting (where no one knows what was talked about if they weren’t in the room). For this to work well, it’s important that the summary be as complete as possible and delivered as shortly after the closed meeting as can be done.

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