A common problem with meetings is that they are long and slow, or do not start or finish on time. Group members end up frustrated or angry and the agenda is never finished. To address these problems, try:
- Encouraging the group to take responsibility for setting time limits on the agenda items and the speakers.
- Tabling correspondence rather than reading it all at the meeting. The secretary and/or staff can draw attention to anything that needs a decision or is of special importance.
- Sending out minutes from the previous meeting before the meeting. The chairperson can then move for their acceptance, without them being read aloud at the meeting.
- Sending out reports in advance along with the previous minutes. The meeting can comment and deal with any particular issues arising from them.
- Rationalising the number of items on the agenda, delegating more work to sub-committees, or scheduling an extra meeting or two to catch up with business which is outstanding, but which deserves everyone's input.
- Contacting everyone the day before the meeting to remind them of start and finish times.
- If people arrive late, either briefly stop and summarise the important business they have missed or ask someone in the meeting to do so quietly, so as not to disrupt the meeting.
- If people have to leave early, ask them if they have any comments to make regarding the remaining agenda items.
Keeping on track
Another issue with meetings is that the discussion can easily get off track, people get confused and the group finds it hard to focus on the agenda. Some useful strategies are:
- Suspending the discussion to allow the chairperson or another group member to summarise the discussion thus far. Remind the meeting of, and clarify, the main arguments. Using a white board or butcher's paper can help people see the options which require a decision.
- Using time limits and making sure no one person, or group of people, dominates the discussion. Stop people saying the same thing over and over again in different ways.
- Asking the meeting to take a few minutes break at the table for people to collect their thoughts and maybe to write them down.
Techniques to encourage participation
An effective meeting is one where each person can have a say when they want to, though without dominating the discussion. Some techniques to help people participate include:
- Time limits for each agenda item, each speaker and/or for the whole meeting.
- Asking people to speak through the chair, that is to address their comments to the chairperson and not to each other.
- Preventing people from saying the same thing over and over again by allowing each person to speak only once to a particular item, except to answer questions.
- Using a 'round robin', where each person has one minute to speak on an agenda item.
- Encouraging less dominant people to gain more confidence, through training in meeting skills, group dynamics, assertiveness, public speaking or self esteem.
- Giving out more information prior to the meeting and encouraging people to think about the issue and work out their opinions.
- Using the authority of the chair to point out when people appear to be dominating the discussion.
- Enforcing a rule which allows people to speak without interruption but within a time limit.
- Provide inductions to new members.
- Breaking into small groups to discuss an issue then reporting back as a large group to make the decision; quiet people will often feel more comfortable in a small group.
- Using the help of an interpreter when language stops people from joining in. Encourage people to speak slowly and clearly. It may be necessary to change the format and style of the meeting to fit the needs of these members. Try to recognise and be sensitive to cultural differences.
Sometimes meetings can run into problems with conflict, tensions or negative feelings amongst members. Strategies to help resolve problems include:
- Adjourning for a short break and asking the whole meeting to cool down.
- Asking for a short silence. This gives people a chance to collect their thoughts. During this time members could write down their ideas on the issues being discussed.
- Refocusing the meeting on unifying themes, such as the vision or goals of the organisation. Start again from first principles and work from there.
- Breaking into small groups where the factions are separated. Ask each group to brainstorm the issue and to pick out two or three important prime points. This also works when there is confusion about the issue.
- Adjourning the debate until the next meeting (or a special meeting). Distributing information prior to that meeting will give people time to discuss the issue informally. It's a good idea to start the new discussion of the topic with a 'round robin' so everyone knows what each other thinks.
- Stopping the discussion from drifting into personal conflicts, attacks or old battles. Make sure members criticise ideas, not the people holding them. Recognise there is a place for feelings, and if necessary make a special time for a mediator to deal with any negative feelings or personal conflicts which exist amongst the group.
- Enlisting the services of an outside neutral mediator for a few meetings. This may help the group move through the difficult issues.
The Community Door section on Resolving conflict provides further information and strategies for dealing with such issues.