By David Rose
What is an effective chair? Arguably something that we don’t always see in meetings…
1. Why are meeting chairs often not effective?
Considering the central role meetings play in our day-to-day working life, why indeed?
Well, let’s consider a parallel.
I’m sure many of you give presentations in your work. None of you would dream of giving a presentation without planning it carefully. Additionally, if you give them at least reasonably regularly, you’ll probably be given or choose to follow some specific training or coaching, recognising presentations is a learnt, technique-driven skill.
Chairing meetings effectively also requires a specific skills set that equally needs to be learnt and developed over time.
Surprisingly, many organisations that provide presentations training for their people then expect them to chair meetings with little or no training support at all…
So, I’d argue the inconsistencies we often see in the ‘quality’ of meeting chairs are due not to a lack of motivation or effort on their part, but simply a lack of technique.
2. What should an effective chair be?
I frequently ask the same lead-in question at the start of meeting facilitation training:
“Which core characteristics are essential for an effective chairperson?”
…and I usually get a good answer along these lines:
We all know what an effective chair should be…
To be frank, you can google “chairing meetings” or “characteristics of a good chairperson” and find literally hundreds of articles outlining (albeit in a lot more words!) roughly the same as the table above.
The real question (and so my second one in the training!) is… how?
Well, I’m going to show you five strategies that, if consistently applied, will make a significant contribution to your effectiveness as a chairperson.
So, without any further ado, here they are…
3. Five strategies to raise your game
(a) Before: plan your agenda strategically
(i) Them not you
- Which issues will be the most ‘problematic’/contentious/complex from the participants’ point of view (i.e. where can you expect the most discussion/disagreement)?
- Which positions/opinions are you expecting on these points?
- Ensure the agenda isn’t overloaded relative to the time budget
- Have a clear idea of what opinions to expect from the participants on each point and how you are going to pre-empt and subsequently deal with any predicted disagreement (think about speaking to participants individually before the meeting to sound out their views)
(ii) Positioning agenda items
- Will you put contentious points first to ensure they get covered in time?
- Should you group contentious points together on the agenda or separate them?
- Don’t start with a contentious point – put a more straightforward one first to get the meeting going and build up some positive momentum
- Separate contentious points – sandwich them between ‘easier’ points to lower the temperature and provide some easy progress. This progress can then be referred back to in more ‘difficult’ moments to focus people on positives
(b) The start – set clear expectations
- What exactly should you state at the beginning of the meeting (and how does this contribute to creating a sense of purpose)?
- How long should your ‘opening statement’ be?
- Clearly and concisely (maximum two minutes) outline the following for each agenda point to create a clear sense of purpose:
→ What exactly it deals with – topic and sub-themes
→ Why it is there – i.e. its purpose: brainstorm? decision? revision? etc.
→ How long is provisionally allocated to it
→ How you view it – i.e. a simple point? a complex one? a contentious one?
- Briefly explain/remind participants of the housekeeping rules, e.g. comments via the chair, how to signal to intervene, any suggested limits on the length of interventions, use of mobile phones or other devices etc.
(c) During – managing time and relevance
(i) Using your opening comments
- Can you use your opening statement as a point of reference during the meeting to ‘nudge’ people regarding time and relevance?
- Remind everyone about the provisional time budget and objective at the start of each agenda point, then refer back to it as needed to gently:
→ ‘Speed things along’ (e.g. “We’ve had almost half our time on this so far, so I suggest we limit ourselves to briefly commenting on our main points”)
→ Keep people on-topic (e.g. “I understand your comments John, but we need to stay with our main aim of <X> – I suggest we put this in AOB/on the agenda for the next meeting”)
- How often and when should you summarise the discussion?
- Briefly summarise: (i) at the approximately half-way stage for each agenda point – the state of play to focus discussion; and (ii) at the end of each point – to formalise opinions +/- decisions (who, what, when) and ensure they are shared
(d) During – managing disagreement/conflict
(i) ‘Strong comments’
- How exactly should you deal with ‘strong’ disagreement and strongly negative/’emotional’ comments?
- Focus on content not behaviour – most comments, even if expressed in ‘strong’ or ‘emotional’ language, have an objectively valid basis from a content point of view
- Don’t: ‘fight fire with fire’ – i.e. criticise the person’s way of expressing their view rather than focussing on the view itself – this will only raise the temperature and possibly elicit a counter-reaction
- Do: ask them the person to better explain their content – e.g. a person comments “NO – that’s not possible” in an ‘emotional’ way → you respond “could you clarify your exact reasons for your disagreement for us, please?”
- Remember: the best time to deal with a person’s repeated ‘inappropriate’ behaviour is out of the meeting room on an individual basis, without an audience
(ii) Dealing with ‘blocked’ discussions
- What’s the best way to ‘unblock’ things if two (or more) sides just can’t find agreement?
- Tactic 1 – (i) stop and summarise first what they do agree on (common ground) and then the points of ongoing disagreement with a request to consider their positions
- Optional tactic 2 – (i) call a short break with the suggestion of bilateral conversations between the sides to discuss possible compromises/solutions; (ii) ask each side to briefly report back on any progress made during the break
(e) The end – wrapping up well
- Is a detailed summary of discussions/decisions/agreements needed?
- If you’ve already summarised well at the end of each agenda point – i.e. already formalised action points and decisions/agreements, you can simply: (i) make a very brief and general comment about the progress relative to the expectations outlined at the start; and (ii) note the details of the next meeting (date, time, place) and any ‘pending’ points to be included in the agenda
So, in a nutshell:
- Effectively chairing meetings requires automatic control of a very specific skills set
- These skills aren’t naturally automatic – they have to learnt and practiced
The five strategies outlined above – if consciously employed over time in your meetings – will help you improve your overall performance as a chairperson.
So… now it’s over to you!
Have you found this article useful? Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you feel your organisation can benefit from my company’s personalised, cost-effective communication skills training services.
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© 2012 David Rose LACS Training