Meetings are necessary for making decisions, communicating information and developing relationships. Meetings can take up a lot of time and if they are to be of maximum benefit they need to be run properly. The following information contrasts helpful and unhelpful meeting behaviours and then offers some suggestions for ways in which you can improve your meeting.
Helpful meeting behaviours
Helpful meeting behaviours occur where:
- Everyone who wants to, can have a say and feels safe in expressing their views.
- The business gets finished on time, but with adequate consideration of the agenda.
- Everyone is clear about what happened and what decisions were made.
- There is consideration of people from non-English speaking backgrounds and people with a disability.
- There is care and sensitivity to people's different cultural backgrounds and experiences.
- Everyone understands the meeting procedures, the jargon and the abbreviations being used.
- The business is not too rushed or too slow. The chairperson sets the pace according to the meeting.
- The group is welcoming and encouraging of new or quiet people.
- The chairperson is neutral.
- Everyone feels that their contribution is valued.
Unhelpful meeting behaviours
Unhelpful meeting behaviours occur where:
- A few people dominate discussion and decision-making.
- Business is never finished: agenda items are carried on from one meeting to the next, the meeting finishes very late, and everyone feels frustrated.
- There is confusion or unresolved conflict, anger or fights.
- New people feel unwelcome or alienated.
- Formal procedure is used, but only a few people understand it.
- Jargon and abbreviations are used that only a few people understand.
- Decision-making is raced through by a dominant chairperson who pushes his/her opinion all the time.
- The chairperson is biased.
The format and formality of a meeting will depend on who is at the meeting, what is being discussed, and the type of community association. While Annual General Meetings of most associations are usually conducted formally, many Management Committee meetings are held around a kitchen table with a cup of coffee. The larger the group, the more formal the proceedings usually have to be so that order is maintained and the meeting can process its business. It is generally the task of the person who chairs the meeting to guide the style of the meeting procedure. An inappropriate meeting procedure style will cause difficulties.
The provisions of the organisation's constitution, rules and legislation such as Associations Incorporation Act ought to be observed at all times, particularly those requiring accurate minutes and records to be kept. Under the Model Rules provided to guide incorporated associations (Schedule 4 of theAssociations Incorporation Regulations), the secretary is responsible for ensuring that full and accurate minutes of meetings are kept, including all questions, resolutions and other proceedings. The chairperson of the meeting is responsible for verifying accuracy of the minutes.
Under the Associations Incorporation Act and the Model Rules, meetings of the Management Committee must be held at least once in every four calendar months. Meetings can be held via communication technology, for example teleconferencing. There must be a quorum for a meeting, otherwise any decisions made are not valid. The model rules define minimum numbers for a quorum and set out requirements for adjourning meetings at which a quorum is not present. The Management Committee agenda should be prepared in advance and sent out to everyone attending the meeting. Committee members should be given the opportunity to place items on the agenda at the beginning of each meeting. They should prepare a brief explanation of the topic, to advise other members of the reason for placing it on the agenda. Also, the reports from the treasurer and staff members as well as urgent letters received by the secretary should be included with the agenda. The committee as a whole should agree to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting as well as to the order of priority given to items being discussed and any time limits placed on items.
The agenda will often have the following framework:
- Date, time and place of the intended meeting.
- Welcome to regular people and especially to any visitors or guests.
- Apologies - acceptance of the names of the people who have advised that they cannot attend.
- Minutes of the last meeting - the minutes are accepted as accurate or amended so that they are accurate.
- Business arising - one by one, those items of business which were discussed at a previous meeting and needed action are reviewed to see how the action is progressing. The progress and any further instructions or guidance which is given to those responsible for the continuing work is minuted. This process continues at each meeting and therefore keeps on top of projects which could either go astray or be abandoned as people forget their responsibilities. You should also consider bringing forward any business which was scheduled for the last meeting, but was not actually discussed or resolved.
- Correspondence - deal with all letters that have been received and sent since the last meeting. This does not mean you should read each one at the meeting, but rather the secretary should present a list of incoming and outgoing letters and seek guidance on important or difficult topics.
- Treasurer's report - the treasurer gives a report of the organisation's money situation, i.e., what has been received and spent, estimates for the coming month and any other important matters. The report should also reflect whether expenses and income are in line with the budget of the organisation for that period. The Associations Incorporation Act and Regulations require the management committee to approve or ratify the association's expenditure and ensure the approval or ratification is recorded in the management committee's minute book.
- Staff reports - reports from the staff about the work done, important issues arising, plans, statistics, and so on.
- Other reports - for example from sub-committees.
- General business - the general items on the agenda are now discussed.
- Any other business - this is where you discuss any extra items members have raised.
- Meeting close, setting date and time for next meeting.
Chairing a meeting involves a range of facilitation skills. It is important to draw on the individual skills, capacities and strengths of all members. As a chairperson you need to:
- Know your agenda - identify which items are the most important and decide how long you need to allow for each of them.
- Know the rules of your organisation and be clear about the procedures. Understand how your group usually runs its meetings and, if you want to change these procedures, take the time to explain why.
- Take the lead - introduce each agenda item by giving a quick summary of background points. Start the discussion by asking someone else what they think.
- Stay neutral - if you feel strongly about an item and want to join in the discussion, leave the chair. Ask someone else to take the role of chairperson for that agenda item.
- Encourage discussion - however, keep it under control. Let everyone have their turn.
- Involve everyone - ask the quiet people what they think.
- Keep the discussion on the topic - if people start talking about something else, suggest it be put on the agenda and discussed at a later time, in the proper order of business.
- Be democratic and firm - remember it is the committee that must make the decisions.
- Listen carefully so that you can clarify and summarise where necessary.
- Mediate when necessary - if there is conflict between members, stay neutral and allow each person to explain their point without interruptions.
- When a topic has been fully discussed, summarise and put it to the group for a decision or vote. Ask if anyone can put forward a motion. Make sure everyone is clear about what they are deciding on/voting on.
- Make sure everyone is aware of the decision that has been made and that it is written down in the minutes.
A good and neutral chairperson will reflect the wishes of the committee and guide the meeting through an agreed process. If special problems prompt a change to the agenda, eg, extending the time spent on an item, or calling a special meeting to deal with one issue, then you first need to have the approval of the meeting. Suspend the discussion on the agenda item, obtain approval for special circumstances, then either return to the item or carry on with the agenda, returning later to the item which was a problem. It is wise to set a time limit for discussion of difficult items, otherwise they will be discussed forever. A good chairperson will remind the meeting of the relative importance of different agenda items and schedule the energy of the meeting accordingly.
Using the meeting space
The physical space in which the meeting is held has an enormous impact on people's feelings and reactions. Lighting which is too harsh or too dull, uncomfortable chairs, cramped or poorly ventilated conditions and bad acoustics can all contribute to bad meetings. A comfort break may be needed during the meeting to 'stretch the legs' and regain concentration. Think about sitting around a table: it can give a sense of formality and purpose. Make sure each person has enough table space to work with.
Intentionally or not, seating arrangements sometimes reflect the structure of organisations. The chairperson at the head of a long table gives an impression of authority. This may not reflect the style of leadership the organisation wishes to present. Having people sitting in a circle is less hierarchical and can be used if the group wants to promote feelings of equality. A seating arrangement with tables in the shape of a "T" can also be useful. This allows people to see each other and also helps to discourage people from chatting to each other whilst business is going on.