I'm a member of the human race, but I don't have to go to the meetings.

--George Carlin on Tom Snyder Show


Meetings Make the Difference

Meetings consume a considerable portion of our working and leisure lives. Meetings need to have a purpose. Meetings should not be held for the sake of holding meetings. Figure out sometime the average cost of salaries for the people assembled at a meeting. You will be astonished at the estimate. In a 1995 study by Mosvick, it was estimated a loss of nearly $55 million dollars a year because of ineffectively planned and conducted business meetings.

Many good books exist about meetings, and I will try to share a few of these excellent sources with you on this hyperlink. First, we should be aware of one of the most recent books on meetings:

Mosvick, Roger K., and Nelson, Robert B. We've Got
to Start Meeting Like This! A Guide to Successful
Meeting Management. Revised ed. Indianapolis, Indiana:
Park Avenue Publications, 1996.

Whenever you lead a meeting (and most of us should seek that opportunity), certain principles have to be kept in mind:

When you are a member of a committee or a meeting, please observe the following:

Find the Good Books

So many good books exist on meetings. One of my favorites has become Mastering Meetings: Discovering the Hidden Potential of Effective Business Meetings by the 3M Marketing Team. In the book the authors compare meeetings to funerals. You usually have a eulogy or several remarks at the funeral. You have a leader who talks during the agenda and also calls on members of the committee or whatever for their reports. Most people do not enjoy attending funerals, and most people do not like meetings. Most funerals have a purpose, and most meetings are meant to accomplish something. The analogy could probably go on forever.

Meetings can be deadly. Witness a meeting I heard described recently where the participants argued about the use of the word, debt, for two hours. Is that the best use of the participants' time? Why should one word create such a problem in the prospectus or the company documents? The participants, as I understand it, were arguing over how debt sometimes is not debt and vice versa. Oh, my.

Find Memorable Lines

In class we have viewed the videotape, Persuasive Speaking, where the narrator suggests we should have some memorable lines saved to utter at the right moment in the meeting. That idea has merit. As the 3M team observed, we are judged by our utterances and our presentations at meetings. Are we managerial material or not? People listening to you at the meeting will make those judgments.

McGinty Offers Insights about Meeting Behavior

In the February 2, 1998 issue of Fortune Sarah McGinty from the Harvard University School of Education offers some fascinating insights about how to communicate more effectively in meetings. She does not believe you should look from person to person. You should concentrate on what you are saying. You should avoid saying, "I'm sure Carol would agree with me," because that weakens your position. You should remember your power stance and your message.

Dr. McGinty believes you should be careful about the phrasing you use with fellow committee members. It is important not to say, "I don't agree with you, Bob, on that issue." You are personalizing your message too much. Stay with the problem to solve. You might say, "I think we can solve this problem in this way by doing . . ." That way you are concentrating on the problem instead of the individual who disagrees with you.

You should use power, not gender, in meetings. Power-oriented individuals will offer ideas and solutions rather than asking questions and interrupting. They come with an agenda. Dr. McGinty advises you keep notes at meetings and observe carefully where conversations are going. Notice the individuals who are spotted by the chairperson and what they contribute.

Principles of Meetings Make a Difference

When I think back over the meetings presided over, I remember good and bad meetings as president and national president of several professional organizations. The good meetings involved well thought-out agenda and assignments for committee members. The poor meetings remained off schedule with too many agenda items and no time to complete. Sharon Lippincott has shared her experiences about meetings and their principles in the book, Meetings: Do's, Don'ts and Donuts--A Complete Handbook for Successful Meetings(1994, p. xiiii):

  1. Be discerning about the need for meetings.
  2. Plan meetings with purpose.

    Think about: Lippincott believes meeting masters emphasize preparation. You can delegate some of the preparation, but the agenda still needs planning. You can become a Back Seat Leader and request certain information for the meeting. In any case, preparation cannot be left to chance.

  3. Use meeting ground rules to maintain focus, respect, and order.
  4. Take personal responsibility for meeting outcomes.
  5. If your meeting isn't working, try another tool.
Lippincott provides a practical way of having an individual become a Meeting Master. She does not believe meetings just happen. I particularly liked Lippincott's listing of types of meetings: task oriented, problem-solving, creativity/innovation, communication (to present something), general purpose (variety of objectives), and policy definition. For fun, let's try a little quiz about your meeting know-how. Your answers can later be found on Answers Mysteriously Appear" web link. You decide by yes or no whether the meeting is worth attending (adapted from pp. 30-31 of Meetings: Do's, Don'ts, and Donuts):

  1. Are you formally obligated to attend (i.e., membership on a board)?

    [ ] Yes.
    [ ] No.

  2. Do you have valuable information to present about an item on the agenda?

    [ ] Yes.
    [ ] No.

  3. Do you need to obtain information from the group?

    [ ] Yes.
    [ ] No.

  4. Can you benefit from learning other people's thoughts on an issue?

    [ ] Yes.
    [ ] No.

  5. Will the outcome of the meeting directly affect you or a project you are involved with?

    [ ] Yes.
    [ ] No.

  6. Can your expertise help solve a worthwhile problem?

    [ ] Yes.
    [ ] No.

  7. Can you build or nurture an important relationship?

    [ ] Yes.
    [ ] No.

  8. Is attendance politically correct?

    [ ] Yes.
    [ ] No.

Special Meetings: Jury Service Provides Opportunity

How often have you been called to jury service? Have you placed your jury summons form in the wastebasket? Shame on you. You are presented with an opportunity to improve your meeting skills.
Jury service means you interact often with total strangers and learn their habits of analyzing evidence. In a civil trial you deal with the preponderance of evidence. In a criminal trial you are concerned with reasonable doubt. Either way, you are given the chance to serve your citizenship and make a contribution in a special meeting.

First, you have to be selected to the jury. Granted, you wait endless hours to decide whether the prosecution (plaintiff) or the defense will challenge your answers in the courtroom. You are usually asked about your name, occupation, occupation of your children, and prior jury service. Once the preliminaries are out of way, you begin your service. You have survived what the court calls the preemptory challenges and the challenges for cause.

You now have to make up your mind whether you prefer foreperson or simply a member of the jury. I usually work hard to be considered for foreperson. The foreperson is the leader of the jury. The foreperson signs the necessary documents, including the jury's verdict(s). The foreperson deals directly with the bailiff and makes any written requests for exhibits or special circumstances from the jurors. The foreperson acts as a kind of "traffic cop" during the deliberations, reminding jurors to let everyone have his or her say.

Suppose you don't want that leadership role thrust upon you. You may elect to serve as a jury member and nominate someone else to serve. Often, jurors choose that option because either they do not want the responsibility or prefer to spend more time pontificating their viewpoints as members. As a juror you are expected to listen to other people's opinion without interrupting them. You are expected to deal only with the evidence and not side issues or personal experiences. You are expected to avoid side conversations at all costs, so your total listening skills are exercised. I will never forget serving on a jury as foreperson and having to constantly remind certain jurors to avoid side conversations. They became so intense with the evidence and doctor's reports they forgot each person on the jury must have a say.

If you are the foreperson of the jury, you should ask for straw votes from time to time. These preliminary votes allow everyone to first express their ideas and then vote. The straw votes can be oral or written. Eventually, the final vote is called for. It is amazing how group dynamics take over, and certain jurors will change their votes to conform to the group. It is important to recognize even the shy person who has little to say about the case. Any disagreements or violent remarks should be dealt with immediately to save the dynamics of the process.

Parliamentary Procedure Means Smoother Meetings

Students often tell me their meetings of their student organizations are not smoothly run. I suggest the word, structure, comes to mind immediately. Meetings need structure. They need purpose and organization, too. I have always found Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised to be of considerable help. When we talk about structure of meetings, we mean the ability to make motions, counter motions, obtain approvals of agenda items, and create an orderly discussion of issues. All that involves protocol.

Protocol means we the way we do business. Certain traditions and habits of acting assist a meeting. Does it mean a meeting should always follow Robert's Rules? Not necessarily. However, some kind of order from a manual facilitates business. I learned my Robert's Rules by participating in formal professional association and moving up the ranks of officers. When Robert's Rules becomes apparent, you have been given the task of running the meeting. You are either an officer (e.g. President) or a chairperson of a committee. You need rules and regulations for business to be transacted effectively.

In the last few months I met an authority on parliamentary procedure, Kim Goldsworthy. Mr. Goldsworthy so clearly explained the important Robert's Rules that sharing with you became appropriate. Mr. Goldsworthy has given permission for selected rules to be introduced as a starting point when you are asked to run a meeting.

My years in the Faculty Senate, professional associations, departmental membership, school/college membership, and neighborhood councils have sharpened my efforts as a student of Robert's Rules. You can find this reference in most good college and commercial bookstores. I urge you to make Robert's Rules or appropriate source part of your bylaws of whatever group you belong to. Your bylaws govern the way your organization is structured.

Mr. Goldsworthy calls his analysis of parliamentary procedure myths that people believe happen in meetings, but the correct interpretations are not there. A myth is a falsehood. Let's deal with the first set of myths. I will comment on my own experience after listing each myth.

Myth No. 1: A majority is 50 percent plus one.

People are always concerned in meetings about what constitutes a majority. That becomes important in critical votes. A majority is simply more than half. The 50 percent rule does not strictly apply in interpreting Robert's Rules.

Myth No. 2: Abstentions count as "ayes" (or as "nays").

That statement is definitely false. Organizational members often achieve laziness by their voting as an abstention. Abstention to these people mean they neither agree or disagree with the position. Certainly, a person can vote that way, but the interpretation of the vote count means something different in a strict interpretation of Robert's Rules. Let's say the vote count is close with ayes and nays. People voting as abstentions think they have shifted the vote count to nays. It is as if the organizational members were not even present with the ayes and nays. The ayes could carry the day even though the nays and abstentions add up to a larger count. People voting abstention should realize they are technically losing their vote and the ability to influence the outcome.

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Last updated Friday, August 8, 2003

(c)copyright, G. Jay Christensen, All Rights Reserved