Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships


            Have you been in a meeting that was a waste of time? Were a couple of picky agenda items talked to death while the important items got a short shrift? Did people leave the meeting feeling angry? Was there a chance for people with minority views to be heard? Was the meeting really necessary in the first place?

A good meeting just doesn’t happen. It takes work, skill and preparation. Many people end up leading meetings even though they haven't been trained in how to do it. The skills for leading a meeting can be learned.

Why meetings fail to accomplish their objectives.

- Not goal-oriented. The purpose of the meeting is not well defined. There is no consensus on the nature of the problem being considered.

- Poorly planned and organized. Meetings lack direction. The group spends excessive time on inconsequential problems not worth solving and avoids addressing important issues.

- The meeting is inadequate for the scope of the problem. There is not enough time, effort or resources to resolve the issue at hand.

- Inappropriate agenda items. Failure to recognize who should make a decision and that some issues are more appropriately handled by staff or committee.

- Inadequate delegation. Group members need to be given responsibility in order to take hold and make a meaningful contribution.

- Emotional processes prevail. Decisions are based on opinions and value judgments rather than on available facts.

- Fear. The risk of being wrong makes the group avoid resolving an issue.

- Problem personalities. Personality “powderkegs” who “bomb” group consensus.

Factors in an effective meeting. Successful meetings depend on developing and using an agenda as the governing plan for the meeting. Being prepared and expecting others to be prepared is important. Having the agenda available before the meeting and checking ahead with members about their responsibilities improves the quality of the meeting.

The most formal structure requires rules for discussion and decision-making that makes the meeting fair and orderly. The most common set of rules is Robert’s Rules of Order. The basic principles behind the rules are:

- Only one subject under consideration at a time.

- Each item is entitled to a free and full debate.

- All members have equal rights.

- The rights of the minority must be protected while the will of the majority must prevail.

- Once a decision has been made, every member of the group must support it.

            The moderator is a big key. An effective meeting depends on a strong moderator. The moderator takes charge and establishes control over the meeting. The overall objective of the meeting determines the amount of structure or control the moderator wishes to exert.

The moderator is to keep the group focused on the topic. He or she needs to be gently and respectfully assertive in redirecting discussion to the appropriate part of the agenda.

The moderator manages the time of the meeting, in starting and ending and keeping the agenda moving at a productive rate. When the discussion starts to be repetitious, the moderator determines when to resolve the issue.

The moderator is goal-oriented and moves the group toward a consensus decision while making sure the discussion has been thorough and inclusive. Decisions are made through a formal process.

At the end of a meeting, the moderator summarizes decisions, reviews assignments, thanks everyone for their participation and reviews the date and time of the next meeting.

Resolving conflict. The moderator draws out opinion and conflict from the group. Everyone needs to have his or her views fully heard. One or two strong personalities should not dominate the process at others' expense. One role of the moderator is to ensure fairness in the meeting.

People in the meeting assume different roles such as idealists, pragmatists, analysts, realists, advocates and critics. The challenge of managing the group process is to draw from the strengths of each member without violating their sense of importance, competence or acceptance.

The moderator must manage conflict in the meeting and keep it at moderate levels. A moderator encourages participation by having a safe atmosphere for discussion. A moderator has to defuse emotion in the meeting by artful interventions such as tabling the discussion, calling for a brief recess, interrupting and redefining the conflict in gentler terms. In this process the moderator keeps his or her own emotions under control.

The moderator must not use his or her power to thwart majority rule or to promote a private agenda. The moderator can yield the chair to another member when he or she wants to participate actively in discussions or advocate for a position.

Everyone is responsible. The responsibility for having a good meeting isn’t all on the moderator. Group members who understand what it takes to have a good meeting can govern their behavior, stick to the agenda, follow the rules, be constructive, show respect and be open-minded to others’ opinions.

            They need to become skilled at compromise and negotiation rather than confrontation to resolve disputes. Leaders can coach some group members on meeting etiquette prior to the meetings to prior to the meetings to prevent problems from reoccurring.