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How to ask Good Questions at a Community Meeting

What Questions Should I Ask the Developer and the City?

We have a Community Meeting to attend on March 1, 2023 at the Erindale Secondary School. We know that microphones will be set up to permit residents to ask questions of the Developer, the City Planners, and some, but not all, politicians. What questions can and should I ask?

Young lawyers learn very quickly, through difficult experiences, that learning to ask questions is an important skill of their work. When I first started out, as a criminal law lawyer, I prepared long lists of questions to use in Court. They got me nowhere and sometimes had unintended consequences. I sometimes asked one-too-many questions. A witness might respond with an answer that destroyed my case. I watched more experienced lawyers. The best ones asked very few questions. They made only a few notes. They listened intently to everything said by everyone else. They learned what everyone else, especially the decision-makers, were thinking. They waited and listened. Their very few questions had tremendous impact in the long run.

 

One of the best continuing education trial advocacy courses that I attended, taught me to change my approach to asking questions. Henceforth there needed to be a PURPOSE to every question, especially during cross-examination of witnesses. I needed to define and list my purposes in advance. I needed to think through the flow of possible questions and answers in advance:

1. how might the witness respond in a way that could hurt my case?

2. what will my follow-up questions be depending on which x, y, or z the witness responds to the first question?

3. if the witness does not respond in the way that I want them to respond, how do I bring them back on track?

4. is there a prop, image, book, or reference that I can use to hold the witness where I want them to go?

This approach requires careful listening to exactly what the witness or person responding says. Careful listening! Not just looking at your notes. Not ignoring what the witness says. Facing the witness and controlling what they say.

Your follow-up question needs to deal with what the witness actually said, not what you thought they were going to say.

I think it is best to think of the Community Meeting as live theatre. The persons asking the questions and the witnesses responding are the actors.  Your audience is the neighbourhood community watching. The City Councillor is the critic. Ultimately you will want the neighbourhood community watching, to RESPOND at the end of the play in such a way that the audience TAKES ACTIVE STEPS to have a major impact on the decision-makers, i.e. the Developer, the City Councillors, the provincial politicians, and the Ontario Land Tribunal hearing an appeal.

So what is your purpose in asking your one question at the Community Meeting?

Is my purpose to influence/nudge the owner Developer in some direction?

Is my purpose to influence/nudge the Developer's planning team in some direction?

Is my purpose to influence/nudge the politician in some direction?

Is my purpose to influence/nudge a City planner in some direction?

Is my purpose to nudge my neighbours in some direction?

Is my purpose to restore civility at the community meeting?

Is my purpose to provide new information/data/context to the City planners?

Is my purpose to help build an evidentiary record for future decision-making by City Council or for use on an appeal before the Ontario Land Tribunal?

Is my purpose to play bad cop with the Developer and the City?

Is my purpose to play good cop with the Developer and the City?

Is my purpose to encourage a settlement with the Developer?

It is also important to remember that everyone in the audience has a different perspective. We need to treat everyone with civility even if we strongly disagree.

Sometimes the media is present at a meeting. If they are present, you may want to make sure that something you say is not taken out of context. Be careful about sound-bites. If you use a prop or sign, please consider that it may be photographed. We want to encourage civility and reasonable thought about these issues so that we get a good result in the long term.

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