- Discuss how to prepare for group meetings
- Identify strategies for effectively facilitating meetings
- Understand how to use technology to aid in group communications
Meetings are a part of how groups get work done Some view meetings as boring, pointless, and futile exercises, while others see them as opportunities to exchange information and produce results. A combination of preparation and execution makes all the difference. Remember, too, that meetings do not have to take place in a physical space where the participants meet face to face. Instead, a number of technological tools make it possible to hold virtual meetings in which the participants are half a world away from one another. Virtual meetings are formally arranged gatherings where participants, located in distinct geographic locations, come together via the Internet.
A meeting, like a problem-solving group, needs a clear purpose statement. The specific goal for the specific meeting will clearly relate to the overall goal of the group or committee. Determining your purpose is central to an effective meeting and getting together just to get together is called a party, not a meeting. Do not schedule a meeting just because you met at the same time last month or because it is a standing committee. Members will resent the intrusion into their schedules and quickly perceive the lack of purpose.
Similarly, if the need for a meeting arises, do not rush into it without planning. A poorly planned meeting announced at the last minute is sure to be less than effective. People may be unable to change their schedules, may fail to attend, or may impede the progress and discussion of the group because of their absence. Those who attend may feel hindered because they needed more time to prepare and present comprehensive results to the group or committee.
DECIDING HOW TO MEET
If a meeting is necessary, and a clear purpose can be articulated, then you’ll need to decide how and where to meet. Distance is no longer an obstacle to participation, as we will see later in this section when we explore some of the technologies for virtual meetings. However, there are many advantages to meeting in person. People communicate not just with words but also with their body language—facial expressions, hand gestures, head nodding or head shaking, and posture. These subtleties of communication can be key to determining how group members really feel about an issue or question. Meeting in real time can be important, too, as all group members have the benefit of receiving new information at the same time. For purposes of our present discussion, we will focus on meetings taking place face to face in real time. Later in this chapter, we will discuss virtual meetings.
FORMULATING AN AGENDA
If you have a purpose statement for the meeting, then it also follows that you should be able to create an agenda, or a list of topics to be discussed. You may need to solicit information from members to formulate an agenda, and this pre-meeting contact can serve to encourage active participation. The agenda will have a time, date, place, and method of interaction noted, as well as a list of participants. It will also have a statement of purpose, a list of points to be considered, and a brief summary of relevant information that relates to each point. Somewhere on the agenda, the start and end times need to be clearly indicated, and it is always a good idea to leave time at the end for questions and additional points that individual members may want to share. If the meeting has an emotional point or theme, or the news is negative, plan for additional time for discussion, clarification, and recycling of conversations as the participants process the information.
INVITING MEETING PARTICIPANTS
If you are planning an intense work session, you need to consider the number of possible interactions among the participants and limit them. Smaller groups are generally more productive. If you are gathering to present information or to motivate the sales staff, a large audience, where little interaction is expected, is appropriate. Each member has a role, and attention to how and why they are interacting will produce the best results. Review the stages of group formation in view of the idea that a meeting is a short-term group. You can anticipate a “forming” stage, and if roles are not clear, there may be a bit of “storming” before the group establishes norms and becomes productive. Adding additional participants for no clear reason will only make the process more complex and may produce negative results.
Inviting the participants via e-mail has become increasingly common across business and industry. Software programs like Microsoft Outlook allow you to initiate a meeting request and receive an “accept” or “decline” response that makes the invitation process organized and straightforward. Reliance on a software program, however, may not be enough to encourage and ensure participation. A reminder on the individual’s computer may go off fifteen minutes prior to the meeting, but if they are away from their computer or if Outlook is not running, the reminder will go unseen and unheard. A reminder e-mail on the day of the meeting, often early in the morning, can serve as a personal effort to highlight the activities of the day.
IDENTIFYING AN APPROPRIATE Meeting Space
There has been quite a discussion on the role of seating arrangements in meetings. Generally, a table that is square, rectangular, or U-shaped has a fixed point at which the attention is directed, often referred to as the head of the table. This space is often associated with power, status, and hierarchy and may play an important role in the flow of interactions across the meeting. If information is to be distributed and presented from administration to managers, for example, a table with a clear focal point for the head or CEO may be indicated. Tables that are round, or tables arranged in a circular pattern, allow for a more egalitarian model of interaction, reducing the hierarchical aspects while reinforcing the clear line of sight among all participants. If a meeting requires intense interaction and collaboration, generally a round table or a circular pattern is indicated.
Some meetings do not call for a table, but rather rows of seats all facing toward the speaker; you probably recognize this arrangement from many class lectures you have attended. For relatively formal meetings in which information is being delivered to a large number of listeners and little interaction is desired, seating in rows is an efficient use of space.
If you are the person responsible for the room reservation, confirm the reservation a week before the meeting and again the day before the meeting. Redundancy in the confirmation process can help eliminate double-booking a room, where two meetings are scheduled at the same time. If technology is required at the meeting, such as a microphone, conference telephone, or laptop and projector, make sure you confirm their reservation at the same time as you confirm the meeting room reservation. Always personally inspect the room and test these systems prior to the meeting. There is nothing more embarrassing than introducing a high-profile speaker, such as the company president, and then finding that the PowerPoint projector is not working properly.
FACILITATING AN EFFECTIVE MEETING
Facilitating a meeting requires care, vigilance, flexibility, resilience, humility, and humor. In a way, to run a meeting effectively calls someone to act the way a skilled athletic coach does, watching the action, calling plays, and encouraging good performance. Furthermore, you need to monitor the interaction of everyone around you and “call the plays” based on a game plan that you and your fellow group members have presumably agreed upon in advance. Finally, like a coach, you sometimes need to call timeouts—breaks—when people are wary of the action is starting to get raggedy or undisciplined.
MEETING CHECKLIST FOR PARTICIPANTS
Mary Ellen Guffey (2007) provides a useful participant checklist that is adapted here for our use:
- Arrive on time and stay until the meeting adjourns (unless there are prior arrangements)
- Leave the meeting only for established breaks or emergencies
- Be prepared and have everything you need on hand
- Turn off cell phones and personal digital assistants
- Follow the established protocol for turn-taking
- Respect time limits
- Demonstrate professionalism in your verbal and nonverbal interactions
- Communicate interest and stay engaged in the discussion
- Avoid tangents and side discussions
- Respect space and don’t place your notebook or papers all around you
- Clean up after yourself
- Engage in polite conversation after the conclusion
Perils of Poor Facilitation
Unfortunately, many people lack the skills to effectively facilitate a meeting. As a result, a variety of negative results can take place as they fail to act capably as meeting facilitators. Here are some signs to watch for:
- An argument starts about an established fact.
- Opinions are introduced as if they were truths.
- People intimidate others with real or imaginary “knowledge.”
- People overwhelm each other with too many proposals for the time available to consider them.
- People become angry for no good reason.
- People promote their own visions at the expense of everyone else’s.
- People demand or offer much more information than is needed.
- Discussion becomes circular; people repeat themselves without making any progress toward conclusions.
Guidelines for Facilitating a Meeting
Many authorities have recommended actions and attitudes which can help you facilitate a meeting well (Barge, 1991; Lumsden & Lumsden 2004; Parker & Hoffman, 2006). Here are several such suggestions, taken partly from these writers’ works and partly from the authors’ experiences as facilitators and participants in meetings over the years:
Start promptly: Calculate the cost to your group—even at minimum-wage rates—for the minutes its members sit around waiting for meetings to begin. You may occasionally be delayed for good reasons, but if you’re chronically late you’ll eventually aggravate folks who’ve arrived on time—the very ones whose professionalism you’d particularly like to reinforce and praise. Consistently starting on time may even boost morale: “Early in, early out” will probably appeal to most of a group’s members, since they are likely to have other things they need to do as soon as a meeting ends.
Begin with something positive: Face it: no matter what you do, many people in your group would probably rather be somewhere else than in a meeting. If you’d like them to overcome this familiar aversion and get pumped up about what you’ll be doing in a meeting, therefore, you might emulate the practice of City Year, a Boston-based nonprofit international service organization. City Year begins its meetings by inviting members to describe from their own recent life experiences an example of what Robert F. Kennedy referred to as a “ripple of hope” (Grossman, 1998). This could be a good deed they’ve seen someone do for someone else, a news item about a decline in the crime rate, or perhaps even a loving note they’ve received from a child or other family member. Sharing with their fellow group members such examples of altruism, love, or community improvement focuses and motivates City Year members by reminding them in specific, personal terms of why their meetings can be truly worthwhile.
Tend to housekeeping details: People’s productivity depends in part on their biological state. Once you convene your meeting, announce or remind the group members of where they can find restrooms, water fountains, vending machines, and any other amenities that may contribute to their physical comfort.
Make sure people understand their roles. At the start of the meeting, review what you understand is going to happen and ask for confirmation of what you think people are expected to do in the time you’re going to be spending together. Calling on someone to make a report if he or she isn’t aware it’s required can be embarrassing for both you and that person.
Keep to your agenda. Social time makes people happy and relieves stress. Most group meetings, however, should not consist primarily of social time. You may want to designate someone in the group to watch for departures from the agenda and courteously direct people back on task. Either you or that person might want to periodically provide “signposts” indicating where you are in your process, too, such as “It looks like we’ve got 25 minutes left in our meeting, and we haven’t discussed yet who’s going to be working on the report to give to Mary.” If your meetings habitually exceed the time you allot for them, consider either budgeting more time or, if you want to stick to your guns, setting a kitchen timer to ring when you’ve reached the point when you’ve said you’ll quit. The co-founder of one technology firm, Jeff Atwood, put together a list of rules for his company’s meetings which included this one: “No meeting should ever be more than an hour, under penalty of death (Milian, 2012). Similarly, the library staff at one college in the Midwest conducts all their meetings standing up in a circle, which encourages brevity and efficiency.
Guide, don’t dictate: If you’re in charge of the meeting, that doesn’t mean you’re responsible for everything people say in it, nor does it mean you have to personally comment on every idea or proposal that comes up. Let the other members of the group carry the content as long as they’re not straying from the process you feel needs to be followed. You may see that some people regularly dominate discussion in your group’s meetings and that others are perhaps slower to talk despite having important contributions to make. One way to deal with these disparities is by providing the group with a “talking stick” and specifying that people must hold it in their hands in order to speak. You could also invoke the “NOSTUESOrule” with respect to the talking stick, which says that “No One Speaks Twice Until Everybody Speaks Once.”
Keep your eyes open for nonverbal communication. As a meeting progresses, people’s physical and emotional states are likely to change. As the facilitator, you should do your best to identify such change and accommodate it within the structures and processes your group has established for itself. When people do something as simple as crossing their arms in front of them, for instance, they might be signaling that they’re closed to what others are saying—or they might just be trying to stay warm in a room that feels too cold to them. When one person in the meeting has the floor and is talking, it’s a good idea to watch how the rest of the group seems to be responding. You may notice clues indicating that people are pleased and receptive, or that they’re uninterested, skeptical, or even itching to respond negatively. You may want to do a perception check to see if you’re interpreting nonverbal cues accurately. For instance, you might say, “Terry, could we pause here a bit? I get the impression that people might have some questions for you.” As an alternative, you might address the whole group and ask “Does anyone have questions for Terry at this point?”
Capture and assign action items. Unless they are held purely to communicate information, or for other special purposes, most meetings result in action items, tasks, and other assignments for one or more participants. Sometimes these items arise unexpectedly because someone comes up with a great new idea and volunteers or is assigned to pursue it after the discussion ends. Be on the alert for these elements of a meeting.
Make things fun and healthy. Appeal to people’s tummies and funnybones. Provide something to eat or drink, even if it’s just coffee or peanuts in a bowl. Glenn Parker and George Hoffman’s book on how to run meetings well includes a chapter titled “Eating Well=Meeting Well,” and it also refers to the fact that the American Cancer Society offers a program to help groups organize meetings and other events with good health in mind.
Avoid sarcasm and cynicism. Encourage humor and merriment. If your agenda includes some challenging items, try to start out with “quick wins” to warm the mood of the group.
Take breaks regularly, even when you think you don’t need them. If you’ve ever gone on a long hike on a beautiful day, you may have decided to continue a mile or two beyond your original intended destination because the scenery was beautiful and you were feeling spunky. If you’re like the authors, though, you probably regretted “going the extra mile” later because it meant you had to go back that mile plus all the rest of the way you’d come. Something similar can arise in a meeting. People sometimes feel full of energy and clamor to keep a lively discussion going past the time scheduled for a break, but they may not realize that they’re tiring and losing focus until someone says or does something ill-advised. Taking even five-minute breathers at set intervals can help group members remain physically refreshed over the long haul.
Show respect for everyone. Seek consensus. Avoid “groupthink” by encouraging a free and full airing of opinions. Observe the Golden Rule. Listen sincerely to everyone, but avoid giving a small minority so much clout that in disputed matters “99-to-1 is a tie.” Keep disagreements agreeable. If you must criticize, criticize positions, not people. If someone’s behavior shows a pattern of consistently irritating others or disrupting the flow of your group’s meetings, talk to the person privately and express your concern in a polite but clear fashion. Be specific in stating what you expect the person to do or stop doing, and keep an open mind to whatever response you receive.
Expect the unexpected. Do your best to anticipate and prepare for confrontations and conflicts. If you didn’t already make time to do so earlier, take a minute just before the start of the meeting to mark items on your agenda which you think might turn out to be especially contentious or time-consuming.
Conduct multiple assessments of the meeting. Formative assessment takes place during an activity and allows people to modify their behavior in response to its results. Why not perform a brief interim evaluation during every meeting in which you ask, for instance, “If we were to end this meeting right now, where would it be, and if we need to make changes now in what’s happening in our meeting, what should they be?” Summative assessment is implemented at the end of an activity. When you finish a meeting, for example, you might check to see how well people feel that the gathering met its intended goals. If you want something in writing, you might distribute a half sheet of paper to each person asking “What was best about our meeting?” and “What might have made this meeting better?” Or you could write two columns on a whiteboard, one with a plus and the other with a minus, and ask people orally to identify items they think belong in each category. If you feel a less formal check-up is sufficient, you might just go around the table or room and ask every person for one word that captures how she or he feels.
Think (and talk) ahead. If you didn’t write it on your agenda—which would have been a good idea, most likely—remind group members, before the meeting breaks up, of where and when their next gathering is to take place.
Once the meeting has accomplished its goals in the established time frame, it is time to facilitate the transition to a conclusion. You may conclude by summarizing what has been discussed or decided, and what actions the group members are to take as a result of the meeting. If there is a clear purpose for holding a subsequent meeting, discuss the time and date, and specifically note assignments for next time.
Feedback is an important part of any communication interaction. Minutes are a written document that serves to record the interaction and can provide an opportunity for clarification. Minutes often appear as the agenda with notes in relation to actions taken during the meeting or specific indications of who is responsible for what before the next meeting. In many organizations, minutes of the meeting are tentative, like a rough draft, until they are approved by the members of the group or committee. Normally minutes are sent within a week of the meeting if it is a monthly event, and more quickly if they need to meet more frequently has been determined. If your group or organization does not call for minutes, you can still benefit by reviewing your notes after a meeting and comparing them with those of others to make sure you understood what was discussed and did not miss—or misinterpret—any key information.
Using Technology to Facilitate Meetings
Given the widespread availability and increasingly low cost of electronic communication, technologies that once served to bring people together across continents and time zones are now also serving people in the same geographic area. Rather than traveling (by plane, car, or even elevator within the same building) to a central point for face-to-face interaction, busy and cost-conscious professionals often choose to see and hear each other via one of many different electronic interface technologies. It is important to be aware of the dimensions of nonverbal communication that are lost in a virtual meeting compared to an in-person meeting. Nevertheless, these technologies are a boon to today’s business organizations, and knowing how to use them is a key skill for all job seekers. We will discuss the technologies by category, beginning with audio-only, then audio-visual, and finally social media.
The simplest form of audio-only interaction is, of course, a telephone call. Chances are that you have been using the phone all your life, yet did you know that some executives hire professional voice coaches to help them increase their effectiveness in phone communication? When you stop to think about it, we use a great many audio-only modes of communication, ranging from phone calls and voice-activated telephone menus to radio interviews, public address systems, dictation recording systems, and computer voice recognition technology. The importance of audio communication in the business world has increased with the availability of conference calls, Web conferences, and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) communications.
Your voice has qualities that cannot be communicated in written form, and you can use these qualities to your advantage as you interact with colleagues. If you are sending a general informative message to all employees, an e-mail may serve you well, but if you are congratulating one employee on receiving an industry award, your voice as the channel carries your enthusiasm.
Take care to pay attention to your pronunciation of words, stating them correctly in normal ways, and avoiding words that you are not comfortable with as you may mispronounce them. Mispronunciation can have a negative impact on your reputation or perceived credibility. Instead of using complicated words that may cause you to stumble, choose a simple phrase if you can, or learn to pronounce the word correctly before you use it in a formal interactive setting.
Your voice quality, volume, and pitch also influence how your spoken words are interpreted. Quality often refers to the emotional tone of your voice, from happy and enthusiastic to serious or even sad. In most business situations, it is appropriate to speak with some level of formality, yet avoid sounding stilted or arrogant. Your volume (the loudness of your voice) should be normal, but do make sure your listeners can hear you. In some situations, you may be using a directional microphone that only amplifies your voice signal if you speak directly into it.
If your audience includes English learners, remember that speaking louder (i.e., shouting) does not help them to understand you any better than speaking in a normal tone. Your word choices will make a much more significant impact when communicating across cultures; strive to use direct sentences and avoid figures of speech that do not translate literally.
Pitch refers to the frequency, high or low, of your voice. A pleasant, natural voice will have some variation in pitch. A speaker with a flat pitch, or a monotone (one-tone) voice, is often interpreted as being bored and often bores his or her listeners.
If you are leaving a voice mail, state all the relevant information in concise, clear terms, making sure to speak slowly; don’t forget to include your contact information, even if you think the person already knows your phone number. Imagine you were writing down your phone number as you recite it and you will be better able to record it at a “listener-friendly” speed. Don’t leave a long, rambling voice mail message. You may later wish you had said less, and the more content you provide the more you increase the possibility for misunderstandings without your being present for clarification.
Rather than call each other, we often call and interact in both audio and visual ways via the Internet. There are several ways to interface via audio and video, and new technologies in this area are being invented all the time. For example, platforms like Zoom or WebX allow participants to see and hear each other across time and distance with one-on-one calls and video conferencing. This form of audio-visual communication is quickly becoming a low- or no-cost business tool for interaction.
If you are going to interact via audio and visual signals, make sure you are prepared. Appropriate dress, setting, and attitude are all required. Pay close attention to your surroundings and what will be visible to others. The integration of a visual signal to the traditional phone call means that nonverbal gestures can now be observed in real time and can both aid and detract from the message.
If you are unfamiliar with the technology, practice with it before your actual business interaction. Try out the features with a friend and know where to find and access the information. If the call doesn’t go as planned, or the signal isn’t what you expected or experienced in the past, keep a good attitude and try again.
TIPS FOR VIRTUAL MEETINGS
Here are some further tips and suggestions for leading or participating in virtual meetings, each based on the unique features of such gatherings:
- Get all the participants in an audio meeting to say something brief at the start of the meeting so that everyone becomes familiar with everyone else’s voice.
- Remind people of the purpose of the meeting and of the key outcome(s) you hope to achieve together.
- Listen/watch for people who aren’t participating and ask them periodically if they have thoughts or suggestions to add to the discussion.
- Summarize the status of the meeting from time to time.
- If you’re holding an audio conference, discourage people from calling in on a cell phone because of potential problems with sound quality.
- Because you may not have nonverbal cues to refer to, ask other members to clarify their meanings and intentions if you’re not sure their words alone convey all you need to know.
- If you know you’re going to have to leave a meeting before it ends, inform the organizer in advance. Sign off publicly, but quickly, when you leave rather than just hanging up on the meeting connection.
- Imagine you are about to meet with your group for the first time. What are key steps you want to consider in preparing for a meeting? What items might you want to include on your first agenda?
- Reflect on meetings you have attended in the past. What strategies have you observed facilitators use? What did you find to be effective and ineffective?
- How might you use technology to conduct a group meeting? What might be the advantages and disadvantages?
- Barge, J.K. (1991, November). Task skills and competence in group leadership. Paper presented at the meeting of the Speech Communication Association, Atlanta, GA.
- Grossman, J. (1998, April). We’ve got to start meeting like this. Inc., 70–74.
- Guffey, M. (2007). Essentials of business communication (7th ed.). Thomson/Wadsworth.
- Lumsden, G., & Lumsden, D. (2004). Communicating in groups and teams: Sharing leadeship( 4th ed.). Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.
- Milian, M. (2012, June 11-June 17). It’s not you, it’s meetings. Bloomberg Businessweek, 51–52.
- Parker, G., & Hoffman, R. (2006). Meeting excellence: 33 tools to lead meetings that get results. Jossey-Bass.
- Tucker, M., Meyer, G., & Westman, J. (1986). Thinking through communication: An introduction to the study of human communication. Allyn & Bacon.
Author & Attribution
The sections “Preparation,” “Post-Meeting Communication” and “Using Technology to Facilitate Meetings” are adapted from “Business and Professional Meetings” in Business Communication for Success from the University of Minnesota. The book was adapted from a work produced and distributed under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA) by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. This work is made available under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.
The section “Facilitating an Effective Meeting” is adapted and remixed from “Groups and Meetings” from An Introduction To Group Communication. This content is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.
a list of topics to be discussed at a meeting
checking in with meeting participants to see if you’re interpreting nonverbal cues accurately
evaluating the meeting or activity prior to or as it takes place, allowing people to modify their behavior in response to its results
evaluating the meeting or activity after it is completed
a written document that serves as a record of what happened in the meeting and can provide an opportunity for clarification
the emotional tone of your voice
the loudness of your voice
the frequency (high or low) of your voice