Are you a leader or a follower? Chances are if you are reading this article you fall into the leader category.
And if you are recognized as a leader, sooner or later you will be asked to chair a meeting or perhaps a longer term commitment to chair a committee. Leadership skill building tends to be cumulative … you build upon previously learned and mastered ones. Unfortunately, far too many people take on a chairing role without any real skills or experience to do so. And we wonder why so many meetings are ineffective and “a waste of time” in the minds of the more cynical and vocal group members?
This article provides tips & techniques to not only make your meetings more effective, but help you to stand out as a Master Chair.
Ground Rules & Agreements
The rules for the meeting attender give them great freedom and they are looking at the chair to set and enforce the meeting rules and to enforce them with respect to all participants and in the best interest of the meeting itself.
Agreements are specific guidelines, agreed to by all meeting participants. Starting on time (probably the most difficult for the new chair to accomplish) is a common example. Agreements are intended to promote positive meeting behavior. They commonly emerge from the implicit expectations of one or more participants, such as “I wish people would speak more supportively.” By making these wishes public, expectations become explicit. Then they can be examined and adopted as agreements or rejected by the group.
Some common agreements for meetings include:
- Support the objective of the meeting by keeping discussion focused on relevant topics.
- Respect the views of all participants.
- Keep time schedules: be on time, start on time, end on time.
- If you agree to something, fulfill it.
- Communicate immediately if you think you may not be able to fulfill an agreement.
- Allow one conversation at a time, no side conversations.
- Attendance requirements
Ground Rules for Effective Groups from Roger Schwarz “The Skilled Facilitator.”
- Test assumptions and inferences
- Share all relevant information
- Focus on interests not positions
- Be specific --- use examples
- Agree on what important words mean
- Explain the reasons behind one’s statements, questions, and actions
- Disagree openly with any member of the group
- Make statements, then invite questions and comments
- Discuss undiscussable issues
- Jointly design ways to test disagreements and solutions
- Keep the discussion focused
- Do not take cheap shots or otherwise distract the group
- All members are expected to participate in all phases of the process
- Exchange relevant information with nongroup members
- Make decisions by consensus
- Do self critiques
How do you create agreements?
Agreement terms must be clear and observable. You can observe people being on time, but you can't observe them “having a good attitude” because that is too subjective. Agreements must also be entered into freely and remain open to renegotiation.
To create agreements for your meeting:
- Think of one or more guidelines that might help the group be more effective.
- Propose the guideline to the group: “I'd like us to agree to…”
- Encourage others to discuss for understanding. Don't permit evaluation or counter-proposition at this time.
- Ask for a vote of those willing to agree to your proposal.
- If the vote is not unanimous, ask those who voted against it what it would take to make the proposal work for them. Listen to their answers and modify your proposed agreement.
- Negotiate until you reach unanimous agreement or withdraw your proposal.
- Post the agreement on a shared display.
A key role of the Chair is to maintain order when a disturbance takes place. The maintenance of order is a most important requirement that a meeting attender seeks, but seldom, despite their frustration at being unable to hear another individual speaking, ask the Chair to do something about it. Unfortunately what usually happens is that the ignore the breach of rules or etiquette and pretend that nothing is wrong, hoping that hoping that a subsequent speaker will explain or give a hint of what was said.
A common mistake occurs when a speaker gains the floor and inadvertently starts a lengthy argument for or against the some point that the group has either already adopted or rejected firmly in prior debate.
Inexperienced Chairs often have the view that a large meeting is harder to manage than a small meeting. Not so. Management problems are a function of how many people are participating in the discussion, not of how many are in the room.
As the Chair you are the leader and are serving as a role model by listening, showing interest, appreciation and confidence in members.
As people first come into the room do a check of the body language of each person. Is there tension in the room? Does someone have an obvious vibe that you might need to tap before the meeting starts?
Actions do speak louder than words. Applying this maxim to meeting management requires that you take careful stock of your meeting room and where people will sit. How much does it matter? In his book Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian reports the percentage of a message communicated through our different communication channels in this way:
- Words we say: 7%
- Tone of voice: 38%
- Body language: 55%
Scan the meeting room continuously for communication with the audience. Look for raised hands, troubled expressions, lack of interest, or inattention, and learn to read minds, anticipate problems developing, and notice anything that may interrupt the flow of communication from everyone to everyone else. You can learn a lot, but you need to do this without taking your focus off the speaker. With experience you will develop a sixth sense that allows you to anticipate problems in the audience before they grow into mammoth time wasters.
Particularly watch for signs of the following problems:
- Someone unable to hear someone else because of poor speaking, poor acoustics, or interference from talking by others. Correct this situation immediately.
- Someone not comprehending what is being said. Although this incomprehension may be caused by poor acoustics, it is more likely caused by poor rhetoric, poor explanation, or other errors by the speaker; it must be corrected immediately if time is to be saved.
- Someone disagreeing with what is said. This requires knowledge of facial motions and expressions but is highly important in expediting the search for a consensus and preventing a waste of valuable time.
- Someone who is directly involved leaving the room for a few minutes. If the discussion continues without that person, the whole subject will be back in debate as soon as they return. The best action is to stop that topic and not waste time on it until the key person returns.
- Someone who is too hot, too cold, or otherwise uncomfortable to the extent that the chairman should do something about the discomfort.
- This problem is most important of all: someone who has just expressed their opinion to a meeting fails to hear why the following speaker disagrees. An inexperienced meeting attendee will often make a point in a meeting and immediately engage in private debate with a neighbor, usually on the same topic. They now become impervious to any argument, pro or con, on their proposal.
Because of its overwhelming importance to the satisfaction of participants, planning for discussion management or facilitation is a critical skill for great meeting leaders.
As well as being aware of the problems previously identified, the Chair needs to ensure the following:
- Ensure, at all times that the whole meeting knows what item and what question under it are being debated. Explain this repeatedly.
- Ensure that before an issue is beaten to death, the whole meeting is made aware of who is on which side and their reasons and who is undecided and their reasons.
- Never allow a proposal or even a suggestion to be ignored by a meeting. If you defer consideration of it, explain this and obtain the concurrence of the meeting. If objections exist, find them and have them explained to the meeting. Have the meeting act on the proposal or set a time or date for its consideration.
- Encourage group discussion to get all points of view and ideas. Ideas, activities, and commitment to the organization improve when members see their impact in the decision-making process. You will have better quality decisions as well as highly motivated members. They will feel that attending meetings is worth their while.
- Watch for comments which create a negative environment and point it out to the group.
- Ensure that one person speaks at a time. Others are expected to listen. Eliminate side chatter. Depending on the size of the committee you may want to institute a “raise your hand before speaking” rule. The speaker should be recognized by the Chair.
- When regaining control of the meeting is required, rather then shouting or screaming for silence, keep your hand up until all are listening.
- Maintain focus in the meeting by writing the issue being discussed on a blackboard or on paper so meeting participants can see it and keep track of what is being discussed. For a minor diversion, treat the occurrence lightly: “OK, let's come back and focus on the problem we need to solve. . .”
Often, agenda items spawn dialogue among a small group who have important views to share with each other. However, when other attendees have no interest in the conversation, they become bystanders at their own meeting.What to do:Make the spontaneous break-out session public by saying: “This discussion appears to involve only a few people. Is it something that can be resolved rapidly or is there another way to handle this? What does the group want to do?”
- When you suspect a conversation has abandoned the objective or agenda of the meeting, verify your assessment by calling for a clarity check (sometimes called a process check). Get the group’s attention and then say: “Excuse me, I'm not clear that this conversation is on-topic, I’d like to check to see if it's important to pursue now.” If it's not important, other participants will confirm your assessment and those engaged in the conversation can be asked to continue after the meeting.
- When participants have been seriously diverted, say: “This discussion appears to be veering into areas outside the scope of this meeting. Can we table it or do we need to add it to the agenda?”
- Ensure that members sign up for tabling, action committees, and other specific tasks. Keep track of who has committed to what and follow up with those individuals.
- Maintain time agreements. Time agreements are typically broken in two ways: 1) The start and end times of the meeting aren’t honored. 2) The actual versus budgeted time for a given agenda item isn’t honored. Both problems can prevent the meeting from reaching its objective and cause participants to feel frustrated by the process.What to do.
Call for a realistic agreement: “I’ve noticed that we don’t follow our rule of starting and ending on time, which causes problems for me. Could we make a new agreement that reflects our true intentions and practice?”
Announce it when agenda items run over budgeted time: “We have spent more time on this item than intended. What does the group want to do?” Of course, if you assign more time, you’ll need to reallocate the entire meeting’s time budget at this point.
- Don’t let the end of the meeting deadline push the group into a poor decision. The “lets just make the decision and get out of here” mentality often results in a poor decision. It’s better to take an extended break.
Compiled by Rae Stonehouse
Top photo credit Nguyen Hung Vu courtesy of Flickr CC.