Meetings

by   Steve Roche

Opening a meeting

Depending on the type of meeting this could be anything from a simple ‘Let’s get on with it’ to a protracted round of introductions.

However you choose to start, it is important to state the purpose of the meeting sooner rather than later. Explain the outcomes, and then get agreement that these outcomes are what everybody is at the meeting for. With this in place, it is much easier to keep the meeting focussed on what is important. People feel that a meeting that is outcome focussed was worth attending, so plan your meetings well, and people will be glad to attend them.

Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to discuss the agenda and make changes if agreed, and even to discuss and perhaps modify the overall outcomes and goals of the meeting.

As part of giving people an overview of the agenda, talk about timings.

  • When is the meeting due to finish?
  • Does anyone need to leave before that time?
  • When are the breaks scheduled, and how long are they?

If applicable, review the minutes from the last meeting. If you are running a series of meetings, you will need to establish continuity between them. It may help to create a brief summary of decisions reached in previous meetings, and actions that were taken as a result.

Ground rules

These are a set of arbitrary rules that govern the way people behave in a meeting. Even if they are not made explicit, and they often aren’t, they always exist. We just expect people in a meeting to behave reasonably. Implicit rules will vary depending on company culture. You will find that what is acceptable meeting behaviour in one company may be considered unacceptable in another.

The problem with just using the prevailing implicit rules is that they are not easy to enforce, as they are not defined and actively agreed by people. Think about the way your meetings work and decide if making some ground rules explicit, and seeking agreement from attendees, would help.

Examples

Examples of ground rules:

  • All views have equal value
  • One person talking at any time: no side conversations
  • Turn off mobile phones, pagers, laptops
  • Anyone can invoke the five minute rule
  • We start and finish on time
  • It is OK to disagree
  • Silence (and absence) is construed as consensus
  • All discussions are confidential to this room
  • People can leave (after asking the chair) if they feel that their presence is not needed or warranted

Having a set of agreed rules for the way the people in a meeting conduct themselves is important because it helps to...

  • set the boundaries
  • clarify the role of the chairperson
  • create a feeling of trust and safety
  • provide a tool to challenge disruptive behaviour.

If you are conducting a series of regular meetings, take time to establish ground rules. It is time well spent. If it is a one off meeting, you may well be able to work on the basis that the implicit rules about behaviour are adequate.

The rules will be much more effective – and more readily accepted – if suggested by the participants themselves, rather than being imposed by you. Once specifically agreed by all present, they represent a valuable way to keep direction. You can get people back on track by saying,

I’ll just remind you here of ground rule X, which you all agreed to earlier

You can also introduce light-hearted ‘penalties’ for breaking the rules, such as putting a fine into a charity box.

It is also worth considering what circumstances would justify someone being called away from a meeting, and making sure that secretaries and receptionists know these. You could use the ‘100 mile rule’. If a person would be called back to the office, even if they were 100 miles away, then they can be called away from the meeting.

The five minute rule

If discussions are getting too detailed or straying off the point, anyone can invoke this ground rule to get the group back on track. At that point a further five minutes is allocated to resolve the issue: if it’s still unresolved then it is ‘parked’, taken outside the meeting or designated as an action point.