What’s essential for great meetings

You have a meeting tonight. Based on your past experiences – whether it’s serving on a volunteer board of directors, in a community group or taking part in family meetings – how excited are you?

For many people, the answer is: not at all. Meetings, at their worst, take your time but give you nothing in return. While many ideas are discussed, few are ever translated into action.

Why do meetings fail? Ask Michael Goldman. As founder of Toronto-based consultants Facilitation First, he leads a cross-Canada team on a mission to create meetings that get results. His team teaches meeting facilitation and serves as external facilitators.

“The number one problem with meetings is that there’s no structure,” says Goldman. “There’s no clarity about why we’re here, what our purpose is and what we are here to achieve. Even if we understand the purpose and outcomes – the why and the what – there’s no one to manage the process. The how.”

Role of the facilitator, chair or leader

As Goldman sees it, the key figure in any meeting is the chair or facilitator. It’s the facilitator’s job to provide the three must-haves of any successful meeting: purpose, outcome and process. In other words, what are we here to do, what will we achieve and how will we do it?

Does your meeting’s facilitator have a firm grasp of purpose, outcome and process? This will normally be apparent the instant the meeting begins. As Goldman explains, a leader can advance or sabotage a meeting simply by how they show up. If the facilitator is open and seems to listen to others, that can stave off conflict. If the leader doesn’t listen or seems more concerned with pushing their own agenda, conflict is almost certain.

Goldman has also experienced a different meeting dynamic based on whether the people around the table are paid employees, non-profit volunteers or family members.

“When people are paid to be in that meeting, they tend to understand there’s a certain amount of decorum expected,” he says. “When non-paid people are sitting at a meeting, they can be more emotional, because they're putting in their own time and have a strong personal tie to the topic.”

No one enjoys chaos. We all like to think there’s a thoughtful design at work. If the facilitator maps out a clear path, people will tend to fall in line. If not, the meeting can quickly get off track, and interpersonal conflict is typically the reason.

In any meeting, after all, each person brings their own personal agenda, emotional framework and past organizational baggage. Unless the meeting facilitator can manage inter-personal conflict, the success of the meeting will be at risk.

“As a facilitator, how I show up and how I structure the meeting are proactive techniques,” says Goldman. “Even so, there’s still the people dynamic and stuff happens. We have to have some reactive tools in place to manage those sudden outbursts.” 

The 4 biggest meeting-killers

One way to have great meetings is to know and mitigate the factors that create bad ones. Michael Goldman’s decades as a meeting facilitator and trainer have highlighted these four culprits to avoid above all.

  1. A weak meeting leader. If the leader is not willing to keep people on topic and referee challenging personalities, other people will dominate, go off topic and take over.
  2. A weak structure. People will throw out random ideas and jump into the conversation in ways that don’t necessarily make sense and don’t logically flow.
  3. A poor inter-personal dynamic. If people aren’t willing to hear other people’s perspectives, this can shut down the discussion.
  4. Insufficient readiness. If people coming to the meeting haven’t prepared for it, you have nothing to talk about.

Internal facilitation, or outside perspective?

If you’re leading a meeting – whether for a community group, producer association or family farm discussion – the success of the meeting is ultimately in your hands. Still, the meeting facilitator naturally has their own personal opinions. In Goldman’s experience, this needn’t be problematic.

“I believe the facilitator can create perceived neutrality,” he says. “They do it by declaring their bias up front and challenging the rest of the group to come up with other alternatives that can be ranked alongside their preferred option.”

Considering the importance and complexity of the meeting leader’s job, some organizations prefer to have key meetings led by an outside facilitator. While there’s a cost to doing so, Goldman believes it can be a sound investment.

“It’s not only family farms, it’s when there’s a meeting where all the people in the meeting have a strong vested interest in the content,” he says. “It’s hard to be involved in the conversation and also manage the structure of the conversation and the inter-personal dynamics. It’s too much of a multi-tasking role. The person who bears all that will have a lot of problems to manage.”

From an AgriSuccess article (June 2018) by Kieran Brett.