What makes a good meeting?

Community groups need to balance task and group maintenance (or process). We need to make sure that we are working towards our goals and that we get things done (task) while also ensuring we have processes that are inclusive and encourage people to be involved. Many community groups depend on community engagement and so it is important that people want to be involved.  It can be tricky as some people like being really task oriented and just want to get the job done. Other people like building relationship and feel intimidated by formal processes.

I like to get things done, but I tend to emphasise process. We had a Transition Newcastle meeting at our place last night.  We started with a shared meal (very tasty) and then had a check-in. I think these are good ways to start a meeting (although a meal can be a challenge when we have children or other commitments) but we probably could get better at keeping on task when we are working. Quite often we don’t have a clear agenda and tend to drift from one topic to another and then back again.

As I take the minutes, I sometimes help facilitate from the side and try to make sure we have made clear decisions. I’m sure our process would be quite annoying for a task oriented person. We did get some work done in a very relaxed atmosphere, but it took longer than it might have.

Over the years I’ve attended heaps of meeting. I don’t mind attending many of them as I seem to think best by being able to bounce around an idea with other people. Some are pretty boring and painful to attend, but others are worthwhile and get something done.

So what makes a good meeting?

  1. Creating a container or environment that is conducive to what you are trying to achieve. I generally like a relaxed atmosphere. The Family Action Centre starts most meetings with a check-in and I think this is a very useful process. It allows us to be sensitive to how other people are getting on and whether they are full of energy or need a bit of nurturing. At the P&C I like to start each meeting with introductions and usually a check-in. I’m not very good with names so when I first started it took me ages to remember who everybody was.
  2. Being clear about what the purpose of the meeting is and having an agenda. I think it helps to allow some flexibility in the agenda so that topics can sometimes be discussed if they come up naturally.
  3. Having inclusive processes. I believe it is important that people feel included in discussion and decisions. I’m not a fan of formal meeting procedures (e.g. moving and seconding, majority rules) and prefer to move towards consensus. I quite like the Quaker concept of the “sense of the meeting”. It isn’t quite consensus but captures the essence of the discussion and agreement.  Somebody might not agree with a decision but they can agree that it is the sense of the meeting and that they can live with it.
  4. Taking clear minutes or notes. Particularly with more informal processes we need to be clear about what is actually decided. It can be a good idea to read out how the agreement has been recorded in the minutes. It is also important to record who has agreed to do something. We generally don’t get things done in meetings – they do is help us to decide what to do after the meeting.
  5. Having an appropriate pace. The appropriate pace can vary depending on the people there, the purpose of the meeting, the topics under discussion, the time of day and the energy levels.
  6. Allowing time for humour. At times I find a bit of humour can help the meeting along, revive some energy or relieve tension. It is a matter of balance but I want to enjoy the meetings I attend.
  7. Treating people with respect. If we genuinely respect people we want to make sure they have the chance to be heard, we take the ideas of other people seriously, we are willing to challenge ideas or actions (and are willing to be challenged ourselves) and ensure that other people are heard.
  8. Evaluating our processes and outcomes. We will occasionally evaluate or reflect on how well we are doing in relation to both task and process.
  9. Being gentle on ourselves and other people. At time we and other people will stuff up, say the wrong thing or have a bad idea. That’s OK. We don’t need to humiliate people. I was once at a P&C meeting where the treasurer was berated because they hadn’t done something that needed doing (they thought somebody else was responsible). The treasurer was a volunteer and just learning the ropes. I think it would have been much better to focus on what we could have done to rectify the problem and how we could ensure that it didn’t happen again.

When I attend a meeting where people are enthusiastic, following up on actions and where there is a supportive atmosphere, I find it invigorating. Meetings can be an important part of community engagement – we need to ensure that they get the right balance of task and process for the people involved.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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