The qualities of a healthy meeting
What's your reaction when I suggest we attend a meeting?
Yech! Why would anyone want to do that?
You have all these other things to do, like eat, check in with the spouse and kids, do the dishes, take out the garbage, read email, trash email, relax, read MORE email....
Wait a minute! Consider the title of this series of columns: "Together." For all our avoidance of meetings, meetings are a time to be truly together. To be a community. So let's take time for meetings (and togetherness).
But first, we need to make meetings worth our time.
As a journalist and public "communitarian," I am a veteran of hundreds of meetings — the good, the bad and the, well, the REALLY bad. But trust me, at their best, meetings can be educational, collegial, productive, and even fun and inspiring.
Here, then, are 10 suggestions on how to make meetings really, REALLY good.
Arranging the chairs: The first thing you notice about a meeting is the tell-tale configuration of chairs. Intentionally or not, the arrangement implies how you will be treated, how the meeting will be structured and what the ground rules (stated or unstated) will be. Most meetings set up chairs so there's a "front." The message is all wrong. Move the chairs into a circle or oval, where all are equally positioned to participate. Sitting in a circle, you aren't stuck staring at the backs of heads and the napes of necks. With no "front,' a circle is unifying. (Oh, and ditch tables to sit — or hide? — behind. And NEVER, EVER put officers or facilitators on an elevated dais or behind a lectern.)
Hearing: I have hearing issues, but they are particularly bad at meetings. I know I am not alone in saying this. Circles help with hearing by directing voices to all and by allowing faces and lips to be "read." But that's not enough. Remember to speak up — address the person farthest away from you. It isn't rude to ask people to speak up; it's a sign you value their words. By the way, SW Neighborhoods Inc. offers the use of hearing devices.
Debating: Encourage debating to learn, not debating to win. Encourage listening intently to understand. Plotting rebuttals while another is speaking closes your mind. Be vigilant for points of agreement. Make sure you articulate them. They are openings to agreement.
Sharing the floor: Make a rule that no one speaks for a second time until all others have had the opportunity to speak.
Going beyond words: Words can be barriers to understanding. We hear words through our own unique and biased filters of experience and ignorance. As an antidote, try a little shared silence. A common "language" resides in stillness and centering. As little as a minute's shared silence puts a gathering in touch with its larger purpose. You may discover that silence resounds with unity.
Avoiding voting: Voting and Robert's infamous "Rules of Order" inherently produce winners and losers. Toxic byproducts are frequently resentment and gloating. Often voting creates more and worse problems than it resolves. Robert's Rules of Order are, in fact, Robert's Rules of rigidity when fluidity, flexibility and native wisdom are required.
Finding consensus in shared discernment: The alternative to divisive voting is reaching unity through consensus. It may take time for deeper reflection and listening. It is time well-spent. Consensus also can mean agreeing that you can't agree. Further discernment is indicated. One approach is to appoint a representative committee to come up with a proposed consensus recommendation to be considered at a future meeting.
Ending: The tired old Robert's Rules "motion to adjourn" doesn't cut it. Somebody bangs a gavel (or the verbal equivalent) and people head for the door. The meeting deserves better than that. The agenda (see below) should leave as the last "item" time to honor what's been accomplished and to share thanks with all.
Finally, two final concerns beg brief consideration.
Agendas: These are road maps — make sure each participant has one. Also, as with life, maps can be inaccurate. Some depicted roads have become impassible or sorely need repair. Sometimes it's best to pull over to a shoulder and wait things out, or to plot an entirely different route.
Minutes: This modestly named document, unlike temporal minutes, is hardly fleeting. Once approved, minutes become the lasting, "set-in-stone" official record of what's happened. Make sure that before you approve them, you have read them. You may be astonished to learn that some groups require the minutes of a meeting to be composed, read and approved by attendees before adjournment. That may seem like an impossible burden, but it makes sense given the importance of drafting accurate minutes while memories are fresh.