Meetings: The Three Laws

In this section we explore an approach to managing the meeting members.

Much of this content appears in the Video Arts training film More Bloody Meetings. It centres around the Three Laws of Meetings. The video is available for hire or purchase from www.managementbooks.com.au

Link to training video web site www.videoarts.co.uk where you can preview the video and support material.


Meeting Laws

A meeting isn't a battleground, but it can be a jungle. We're all capable of behaving differently on different days, at different meetings, with different people — and consequently, we may all need handling differently as the occasion demands. The chair's task is to plot a skilful route through the jungle, however beastly people may behave, and get the most out of the participants.

A meeting is a process, and a successful meeting is a building process, where the chair promotes collaboration and avoids damaging conflict, combining all the positive elements from all the contributions made by different participants, moving forward despite awkward moments to add together all the good bits from suggestions and ideas to reach a positive, useful outcome — or decision.

It's not the chair's task to batter the participants into submission; into accepting either his own or anyone else's views. The aim should be to secure commitment to a consensus. It really doesn't matter whether the meeting is formal or informal, peer-group or mixed levels of responsibility.

Everyone attending has a part to play, otherwise they shouldn't be there. The chair has to make them play to the
best of their ability, and as a team; to maximize each individual's involvement, and get the best return from the meeting.
If you fail to build the right decisions, which people understand and agree with, then you will find it much harder to get people to implement them later. If people leave a meeting committed, they will be prepared to cope with any difficulties which might arise. There's no point in reaching a decision which nobody feels happy about, or which leaves half the participants at the throats of the others.


Unite the Group

unite group

Chief danger Aggression
Techniques Let off the steam
  Don't take sides
  Bring in the others
  Stick to the facts

All too often, meetings become bogged down with conflicts between a couple of individuals. Some conflict is inevitable, and a healthy thing. The knack is to harness it for the good of the meeting, not to let it pull the place apart. And remember, the meeting should be a contention of ideas, to find the best solution, not of people.

It's important that people give vent to their feelings, whether positive or negative. It's pointless to say "Let's keep feelings out of this", because they're already there and, as like as not, already expressed. The key thing is to let people let off steam without letting them get carried away. Don't be afraid to ask what's wrong. "What's the trouble, Marcus?" "What do you mean?" "Well you sound a bit angry about something"

But having got the feelings in the open, the Chairman should never get himself involved, and not let anyone else get involved either. Otherwise it will quickly turn into a skirmish.

Anger will make people behave irrationally. They'll become pig-headed just for the sake of it. But if you let the person with a gripe get it out of his system and into the open, he'll soon calm himself down and become more relaxed, and more receptive to facts and reasoned arguments. He'll start to behave rationally.

LET OFF THE STEAM

It's important that people give vent to their feelings, whether positive or negative. It's pointless to say "Let's keep feelings out of this", because they're already there and, as like as not, already expressed. The key thing is to let people let off steam without letting them get carried away. Don't be afraid to ask what's wrong.

"What's the trouble, Marcus?" "What do you mean?" "Well you sound a bit angry about something"

But having got the feelings in the open, the Chairman should never get himself involved, and not let anyone else get involved either. Otherwise it will quickly turn into a skirmish. Anger will make people behave irrationally. They'll become pig-headed just for the sake of it. But if you let the person with a gripe get it out of his system and into the open, he'll soon calm himself down and become more relaxed, and more receptive to facts and reasoned arguments. He'll start to behave rationally.

DON'T TAKE SIDES

Don't get personally involved, and be constantly alert to signs of tension or withdrawal. Not everyone expresses aggression in the same way, and you no more want people withdrawing and sulking any more than you want them ranting and raving.

Don't take sides, and avoid any allocation of blame, which will merely promote more aggression and get you involved in an argument. If you feel someone needs a good dressing down, this is best saved till later and in the privacy of your office. The chairman who loses his temper will quickly lose his credibility and the respect of the meeting.

Good humoured laughter can help keep a meeting cool and defuse tensions, acting as a useful safety-valve. But laughter should never be at the expense of particular participants or combatants.

Ideally, you shouldn't let fights start in the first place, but if they do, don't join in, and know when to pull in the reins, and bring the aggression to a constructive conclusion. "Hold it Doug. Delivery dates for out-of-stock goods are a real problem for Marcus. We'll put it top of the list."

BRING IN THE OTHERS

Aggression often conceals a positive desire to get something put right. Find Out if there is a real problem to be ironed Out, first of all by asking the person what his problem is, then by bringing in other participants — non-combatants — to contribute to an appreciation of the scale of the problem.

"Brenda, what computer difficulties are you having in your department?"

Don't try to jump to conclusions or solutions, but probe the scale of the problem and if it's justified, build it into the overall trend of the discussion. It is equally important not to shut out the aggressor altogether when you bring in the others, but just start to calm him down.

STICK TO THE FACTS

When you bring in non-combatants, or probe to explore the cause of the aggression, make sure you stick to facts which will help illuminate and elucidate. The last thing you need is 'opinions'. Opinions will merely prolong the agony, since they are likely to be either pro or anti the aggressor. But facts, as they say, are facts.

"How many times has it happened this month?" "Well, in my opinion."

"No opinions for the moment, Doug. Let's stick to facts." It helps to ask a specific question rather than a general one;
"How many times" rather than "Does it happen often?". The less value-laden the question, then the more likely you are to get the kinds of answers which will help lessen any tension.


Focus the Group

focus group

Chief danger Getting off the point
Techniques Stay alert
  Keep a hand on the wheel
  Test comprehension
  Paraphase/check back

The second law is 'Focus the Group', and the principal threat which blurs the focus is letting people ramble, or get off the point at issue.

We're all prone to rambling, especially if it's possible to get onto matters more parochial: good places to eat, last night's television. A little ramble can sometimes be helpful, especially if the issue under discussion could do with a 'breath of fresh air' to help everyone re­concentrate their minds. The secret is not to go too far, and to get back onto the original track as soon as possible.

STAY ALERT

Listen with an open mind, don't just hear what you want to hear or select those bits from what the last speaker said which relate to an issue that concerns you more. Listening actively, instead of passively, is what's called for.

The chairman needs to stay particularly alert to the flow of dialogue, and taking notes which summarise the main points participants are making can be a very useful aid. It helps you sort the wheat from the chaff, and also makes sure you stay awake.

Listen to make sure that the real point of someone's contribution isn't being missed or skipped over, and that other people aren't jumping in too quickly with apparent similarities, or going over old ground. Listening will also help make sure that all the topics being discussed are relevant ones.

KEEP A HAND ON THE WHEEL

If you're in the driver's seat, keep both hands firmly on the wheel, making all the light and right touches as needed. Don't wait until you get so far over the other side of the road that you have to swerve and veer violently to get back on course — or worse still, take a wrong turn.

There are lots of polite ways of doing it, even when someone else is speaking. Cough, lean forward, fix your eyes on the speaker, tense your muscles, raise your eyebrows. Or if none of this fits your personal style, make a comment.

"Hm.. We're getting off the point aren't we?" or

"Well, I reckon that's your 3 minutes George. But we do have to move on."

Or you can bring in a different speaker to take up a point of detail which a rambler has raised, and so get the discussion back onto the right track. It helps if this can be specific and factual.

"Introduce new manuals. Good point George. Who could write one, Ian?"

There are various techniques and phrases which can be applied in this way to get wanderers back into the fold, and for those who meet together regularly, the participants will soon get used to the verbal and non-verbal cues from the chairman. They'll spot your signs, and respond to your hand on the wheel.

A final comment here. Don't be too tolerant with people who take the meeting off at a tangent, because if they do it regularly you will lose the respect of the other people at the meeting as well as lose your direction.

TEST COMPREHENSION

Always check your assumptions. It's all too easy to talk at cross-purposes, and misunderstand what someone else is saying, whether consciously or unconsciously.

None of us like to appear stupid, and sometimes it's easier to act as though we've understood a speaker's contribution rather than risk asking the obvious:

"Hang on a sec. I don't understand."

If you don't ask, you'll never find out. The meeting will start to pass you by and get out of control. So always test your own comprehension of what's been said, ask follow-up questions as necessary, and don't forget that the others might not have understood either.

PARAPHRASE/CHECK BACK

A useful method of making sure everyone has understood is to paraphrase what the last speaker said (here's where taking notes can really come in useful) and check back with them that this is accurate.

"So what you're saying Brenda is that we went for the wrong servicing tariff."

This will help avoid bored or blank expressions, as well as prevent talking at cross purposes.


Mobilise the Group

mobilise group

Chief danger Squashing
Techniques Protect the weak
  Check around the group
  Record suggestions
  Build up ideas

The Third Law of Meetings is 'Mobilise the Group', get them moving in a positive direction, together. The chief threat or danger is 'squashing' — the tendency to shift to the negative rather than the positive end of the spectrum, ignoring or belittling contributions which anyone else might want to make.

PROTECT THE WEAK

Sometimes this is known as 'solutionitis' — jumping too quickly to one conclusion without considering all the alternatives and without giving adequate airing to the problem itself. Active listening is again important here, forcing everyone to concentrate on what's being said and exploring the positive aspects of a contribution to help build towards a positive solution, rather than just 'plump' for one. Four other techniques are also very helpful for effective mobilisation.

Control the strong and protect the weak. Make sure everyone who has something to say gets to say it, and that everyone else listens. Otherwise why bother having a meeting in the first place?

The dominant, garrulous ones need slowing down. But don't shut them out altogether. Just make sure that once they've had a turn, someone else gets a chance.

"Hang on a minute Doug. Brenda, you look as if you'd like to get a word in.''

You can even make it a formal rule that no speaker is allowed to interrupt or disagree with a previous one until they have summarised what the last speaker said. This will always slow the fast ones down, and make the meeting more lucid for everyone. It will save a lot of time in the long run if 'testing' and 'paraphrasing' techniques are used to keep everyone on the ball and on the same wavelength.

Drawing out the quiet ones is just as important as restraining those who always jump in quickly. You may need to probe to find out why they are quiet, especially if normally they would not be. If the silence is caused by apathy or hostility, then perhaps time should be set aside for general discussion on the meeting itself and how it could be improved. Silence could also mask aggression. But don't bend over backwards to get contributions from people who say nothing because they have nothing to say.

Never try to compete with the strong, talkative ones, or with the abusive or sniping ones. Question them on their facts, bring in others, but don't turn it into a battle of wits. This will merely terrify the weak and drive them further into their shells. If necessary, have a private word afterwards with anyone who gets a bit out of hand. And again, don't take sides. Don't protect the weak to such an extent that you become their spokesman.

CHECK ROUND THE GROUP

Remember at all times, the aim is to motivate and mobilise the group as a whole, not just one or two participants, even though the implementation of decisions may ultimately fall to particular individuals later.

It can therefore prove helpful to call a pause occasionally, and check round the group to see what everyone thinks.
"Right. Let's see where we all stand on this so far. Winnie, you firsts"

This can also help control the strong and protect the weak, especially if you start with the least rather than most dominant participants — or in meetings of mixed levels of responsibility, with the more junior members of staff.

Everyone should be encouraged to chip in, and this is one way of letting them do so. Even if their comments don't seem very good, they might spark off something better, and together you build towards a solution.

RECORD SUGGESTIONS

It will help enormously during the building process if you write down all the suggestions and contributions, preferably so that everyone can see them. The ideal method is to use a flip-chart. If you fill one 'sheet, you can rip it off and sellotape it onto the wall, and continue on the next.

Using a publicly visible flip-chart encourages everyone to be more positive, especially if you write down every suggestion. Once you begin to evaluate, you can continue to use the flip-chart sheets as your building-blocks, taking all the suggestions put forward and beginning to group and analyse them. Again, it's important that this should be a process in which all participate. The chairman should not simply take on the task of awarding Brownie points to some ideas but not to others.

Recording ideas for all to see ensures that you don't lose the minor contributions which in themselves might be trivial, but which when added to others build towards a very constructive outcome. It also reassures the contributor — once he sees his suggestion recorded he doesn't feel he has to keep repeating it.

The aim is not to impose a decision, remember, but to achieve a commitment to a consensus. If no consensus is possible, then when the decision is finally taken, those who opposed it will be much more disposed to try and make it work if they feel they were given a fair hearing first.

BUILD UP IDEAS

This runs through the entire meeting. It's often called 'creative thinking', but this term can put people off because they think 'creativity' is a special skill in the gift of a few talented individuals.

It's not so. We're all creative individuals. The chairman's job is to harness and exploit that creativity by fostering the conditions in which it can flourish. It's all a matter of being positive, rather than negative, about every contribution no matter how small; and of letting nobody be critical until all possible ideas are out in the open and made as strong as possible.

The Chairman should be firm on this, and can follow a few simple rules for sound building.

  1. Don't allow anybody to criticise any idea, whether their own or someone else's, no matter how silly the idea may at first seem, until all ideas have been put forward.
  2. Encourage diversity, and let people be adventurous, even outrageous, in the ideas and suggestions put forward.
  3. Give the same initial status to every contribution, and write them all down, to stimulate more ideas.
  4. Make positive noises throughout. "Good." "Any more." "Anybody add to that?"
  5. Once you've exhausted the supply of ideas, you can begin to evaluate and compare them. Not until then.
  6. Commence evaluation by looking at the positive elements in every idea. Make an idea as strong as possible before looking for its weaknesses and pitfalls.
  7. Try and build up several practicable alternatives before you start to choose between them.
  8. Add together as many positive bits as possible, from as many different suggestions as needed. This will help you build that decision to which all can be committed.

Throughout this process, and indeed throughout the meeting, the chairman should be seen to be as impartial as possible. Supporting some ideas rather than others without letting them be fully explored, will merely discourage further contributions.