Professional Trainer, Facilitator and Speaker

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Managing Meetings

As a manager, meetings are an integral part of your job. Roughly, one-third of your workday is consumed by meetings. Yet there is a method to managing the whirlwind of meetings you face every day. With a little preparation, you can learn to make your meetings what they were truly meant to be: beneficial.

Being Prepared Makes a Difference: You can schedule all the meetings you want to, and if you are not prepared to take charge then you’re wasting your time. The time you invest planning a meeting is time well spent. The sooner you take action, the sooner you can enjoy the fruit of a productive meeting.

Focus on the following factors when planning a meeting:

  1. Purpose: Before you schedule a meeting, determine its purpose and necessity. Document specifically what you expect to accomplish during the meeting (including goals and objectives). A clearly written plan allows you to focus solely on the issues you need to address. Next, determine whether this purpose can be more efficiently achieved by some other means, such as a phone call, a written memo, or an informal conversation.
  2. Size: Keep the size of the meeting as small as possible. The larger the group, the more complicated communication becomes and the more garbled the purpose may get. For example, with a group of two, there are two communication channels, add a third person and six channels have been created. With each additional person, the number of communication channels increases expedientially.

When selecting participants for the meeting, consider the following criteria:

  • expertise in the topics
  • contribution to the discussion
  • pre-existing personal conflicts
  • need for new information
  1. Time: Select a time to meet when participants are most likely to be punctual and attentive. The most productive time is generally early morning, after employees have had a chance to drink their morning coffee. The least productive time is usually right after lunch or towards the end of the day when other work remains unfinished.
  2. Length: Set a specific time limit on meetings, ideally a maximum of 1 ½ hours. Get into the habit of starting the meeting on time, regardless of attendance. If you wait for late comers, you penalize present attendees, and encourages tardiness. Adjourn the meeting at the appointed time, even if all items on the agenda have not been completed. You can always reconvene at some other time.
  3. Agenda: At least one week before a meeting, develop the agenda and send it to expected participants. The agenda must clearly indicate:
    1. the meeting’s starting and ending time
    2. location of the meeting
    3. items (goals) to be covered and desired outcomes (objectives)
    4. items listed in priority order
    5. time planned and scheduled for each item
    6. preparation expected of participants
    7. the person responsible for presenting each item

People usually plan an agenda backwards, placing the most important item last and the minor items first. However, you must plan the agenda the opposite way, by placing the most important item on the agenda first and the least important items last. This way, if you run out of time, you will have covered the crucial topics.

  1. Environment. The physical environment of a meeting weighs heavy on its outcome. Plan ahead to make this impact a positive one. For example, try to locate the meeting in a well-ventilated room, where distractions and interruptions are minimal and lighting and room temperature are comfortable. Use a wide table and place it in a central location so participants won’t be cramped or tense.
  2. Seating. Seating arrangements affect the tone and participation in meetings. The chairperson must be in a central position to facilitate governance of the meeting most effectively. In small meetings the manager must sit at the head of the table, and in meetings with 12 or more participants, in the center on the side. Seating around a rectangular or round table, or semi-circle arrangement, where all participants can have eye contact is generally best. For problem-solving and idea generating meetings, this seating arrangement promotes a team-like atmosphere.
  3. Visual Aids. Visuals, such as flipcharts and transparencies help you establish a context for the meeting and have a longer lasting effect that just oral presentation.When you rely solely on oral communication, it is estimated that 80 percent of a message is often misinterpreted or forgotten entirely soon after it’s conclusion.

Characteristics of an Effective Facilitator: As chairperson, focus on the meeting’s goals andobjectives throughout the meeting. Most everything you say needs to serve that purpose. The written agenda and visuals serve as reference points and help to reinforce your purpose. You will make your greatest contribution by asking questions. Questions help to stimulate thinking,navigate the direction of the discussion, and sidetrack irrelevant issues. Specific questions might be: “Where would that idea lead — What are the consequences?” and “Is this line ofdiscussion consistent with our objectives?”

  1. Eliciting Information: Get participants to contribute by getting asking stimulating questions. For example, ask “Would you give me an example of that idea?", Or “What do we have to assume for things to work out that way"?, “What other possibilities exist?”
  2. Restating: Paraphrase the important issues that participants bring up. This confirms your understanding by clarifying ideas for further discussion.
  3. Reviewing: Outline, identify and repeat the important issues discussed during the meeting. This helps correct distorted perceptions. This technique also helps to provide movement toward goals. This is of prime importance when moving from one agenda item to another especially with a time lined agenda.
  4. Confronting: Rephrase negative comments in a positive way to help participants redefine problems, and frame your questions in action-oriented language. You might ask, “How much consideration have you given that idea?” or “What are some of the positive aspects that idea has to offer?”
  5. Summarizing: An effective summary recaptures the essence of the discussion and sets the stage for goal achievement. Develop a plan of action, including due dates and assigning project leaders. Each items need to have a targeted completion date and a follow-up schedule to review progress.

Avoid Common Meeting Pitfalls: To get maximum results from any meeting you need to understand the group's dynamics. That is, the interaction of the content, process and participant behavior which impacts the functioning and effectiveness of a group.

Knowledge of the following dynamics can make you aware of the flow of information and participant reactions. Your intervention may often be necessary to insure that issues are being addressed in ways that relate to objectives.

  1. Group content: statements, ideas, and opinions of the participants.
  2. Group process: how communication is handled, i.e., interactions between members of and response to certain subjects.
  3. Member task behavior: behaviors designed to help the group complete it’s task.
  4. Member maintenance behavior: behaviors designed to promote a sense of belonging and enhance team spirit.

The Overpowering Chairperson: Participants usually let a chairperson rule the meeting,especially when this person is also their boss. As a result, the actions of the chairperson may carry a great deal of weight. For example, the chairperson may contribute personal opinions or suggestions, and of course, favor them. When the participants sense this favoritism, their sense of commitment may be reduced, and in the process a successful outcome is reduced.

Whether participants approve or disapprove of an idea, they mustn’t be penalized or given a raise. If you start criticizing people who disapprove, then you’re only making your meetings less productive. Likewise, if you start handing out raises to everyone who agrees with you. This kind of behavior conditions participants to contributing only to win approval, rather than honestly contributing. Participants may focus more on developing ideas that meet approval, rather than generating their own creative ideas. To promote a free and creative sharing of ideas, the chairperson needs to exercise support of authority. Their role is to encourage participants to express their own ideas freely and fully.

Talkers and non-talkers: Nearly every meeting has talkative members and quiet members. A quiet person may have an important contribution, but may feel intimated by the spontaneity of the meeting. Try to get past this by making eye contact with them while asking for a response from the group. Acknowledge a response from another member only if the quiet member gives no response. In effect, this will encourage him/her to answer the question without pinning them down.

A more difficult problem to rectify is quieting members who try to dominate meetings. Dominating people usually have immediate responses and go into endless detail if given the opportunity, while sometimes getting off the point and sidetracking the meeting. These participants are usually bright and valuable yet they can ruin a meeting if they are not stopped. You want to manage this person without alienating them. First, when you believe you understand the point being made, close the topic by saying “Thank you, I understand.” Second, avoid making eye contact with this person and/or hold up your hand as a casual stop sign. Finally, if all else fails, tape record the meeting and ask them to listen to the tape recording. This usually solves the problem.

Meeting Disrupters. If two participants are carrying on a personal discussion that interferes with a meeting, direct a clear and simple question to one of them. In order to avoid embarrassing them, address them by name before asking the question. An alternative is to restate a previously expressed suggestion and then ask them for an opinion.

Hecklers: A participant with a negative viewpoint can continually undermine the flow of a meeting with snide comments or emotional tirades. Don’t argue or chastise this person. Focusing attention on emotional barriers, such as a heckler, deflects responsibility away from participants and the issue at hand. If you lose your cool, the heckler wins. Beat a heckler at his/her own game by asking the person what they would do. Ask the same questions of other participants by asking the same question. Raise questions that bring in the other sides of the issue or put responsibility on the individual by taking a positive approach to redefining the problem. If the heckler continues to be disruptive, chances are the group will take care of it, since the heckler is now heckling them.

Enemies: If you know two participants with conflicting viewpoints are going to attend your meeting, reduce the conflict with carefully planned seating arrangements. Discourage “dividing up sides", which occurs when participants with opposing views line up on opposite sides of the table. Break up opposing groups since any united front will promote rigidity and entrenchment in preconceived ideas. When people are separated physically, they naturally tend to think separately and less dogmatically. When two individuals are continually at odds, a different approach may work: seat them side by side. Their physical proximity often lessens volume,intensity and verbal attacks are less likely.

Sore Losers: Voting is the quickest, most clear-cut method of making group decision. However,it may also be the least effective. Taking a vote may force participants to make a choice before they are prepared which divides the group into “winning” and “losing” camps. Those who lose may feel that their position did not get a fair hearing which results in their lack of motivation to help implement the winners' decision.

A more productive way to reach a decision is through consensus. The matter must be discussed until all of the participants are ready to accept the solution. Although everyone may not feel like a winner, they all can have greater satisfaction by contributing to the solution.

In summary, to insure that goals and objectives don’t get lost in space, you can take several steps. First, at the conclusion of any meeting, summarize the main topics covered at the meeting and any decisions. Second, indicate what steps need to be followed, assign responsibility for each step, and set due dates. Third, prepare minutes of the meeting, including the names of those present, topics discussed, resolutions made, assignments, and due dates. Circulate the minutes to participants within a day or two after the meeting. This not only reinforces the outcome of the meeting, it also reminds participants that your meetings are serious tools for improved productivity. Finally, follow through on all decisions by making sure assignments and due dates met. This way you’ll know what needs to be done next and you’ll always be in control.