Meetings are inevitable when we organise collectively. But if we set up healthy inclusive and effective meeting cultures we can ensure that everyone is involved and comes back the next time.
Setting up a meeting space
- Too often we arrange a meeting space in rows with a table at the front for speakers. This immediately sets up power relations between different people in a meeting depending on where they sit. It creates a dynamic where there are speakers and listeners rather than contributors.
- Circles are the most open and democratic form of meeting. Here, even though there may be facilitators and invited speakers, everybody sits as an equal and is able to listen and contribute. Circles also help everybody to see everybody else and better read their emotions and body language. It keeps everybody in the conversation. If the group is large it’s better to have a few different circles or to put chairs into rows around the first circle.
- Most meetings will need spaces to break away into smaller groups for discussions. Think where these will be and help to indicate them beforehand with posters or signs.
Roles for meetings
- One facilitator cannot manage a large group without support and cannot see all the dynamics. It helps to have defined roles in any meeting and spread the responsibility for making sure a meeting is a success.
- Vibe checker – Someone who is responsible for taking the emotional temperature in a meeting. Noting who is engaging and who is shrinking back. Keeping an eye on body language. This person can bring issues to the attention of the whole group; suggest breaks or other interventions; help particular people who need support; or resolve conflicts or disagreements outside the main plenary.
- Time keeper – an effective meeting starts and ends on time. When meetings end on time people are more likely to come another time. A dedicated time keeper can help and it’s an easy job to do.
- Stacker – in large groups or plenary sessions there can be more than one person who wants to speak. A stacker can take names and hold them “on stack” ready for the facilitator to invite them to speak. It’s helpful if the stacker collects and calls out people’s actual names rather than pointing or saying “the lady at the back”. That way everybody gets to know who the speaker is.
- Scribe – a scribe is a public writer who helps to make sense of the conversation as it happens. Scribing is useful for jotting down ideas, keeping track of discussion points, or writing up instructions. Many people get lost in a conversation or have to take a short break. The scribe can help provide a visual reference that people can use and can help to give a conversation a logic for visual thinkers
- Co-facilitators – it’s always helpful to have co-facilitators. You can share the burden and take turns or split up and manage different aspects of a meeting.
- Minute takers – sometimes formal minutes need to be kept and circulated.
- Welcomers – Someone to welcome new people and help orientate them, hand out materials or update them quickly on the purpose of the meeting. If that person knows other people it’s useful to make introductions, especially in smaller groups. Sometimes people have time to help and the welcomer can have a list of tasks. Immediately helping to put out chairs or chop onions is a sure way to make someone feel included and welcome.
Warming up a meeting
- In many public meetings we don’t know each other. It’s too easy to attend a public meeting without ever having to actually engage with other people on a personal basis or build relationships. We will struggle to understand different points of view if we don’t know each other or have a sense for who is in the room.
- At the same time many people feel uncomfortable with activities that force them to go beyond their personal boundaries with people they don’t know. It is healthy to reach out across races, genders and languages if done carefully.
- Too often new people join in meetings and they are not acknowledged or welcomed. Try to have a formal welcoming culture or ceremony that brings new people into the space and sets the tone.
- Many meetings take place in situations of crisis or bring together people who are stressed or tired. It can help to acknowledge this through a practice or ceremony. Introductions, moments of silence, prayer or reflection, stretches, or inviting intentions into the room are all useful ways to start a meeting together.
- Singing together is the most important way South Africans come together. In a public meeting with different races, classes and languages, not everybody will know the same songs. It helps to teach everybody the song first before singing it and have a choir or good singers lead the way. Different languages and traditions should be encouraged.
- There are any number of ice breaker activities that can be used effectively. Bearing in mind you may be bringing together people from different cultures and ages, try to choose activities that allow people to interact and have fun but retains their sense of dignity and doesn’t force them to do something beyond what they are comfortable with.
Thinking about agendas
- Agenda are useful roadmaps for a meeting. It helps people understand where we are in the discussion and set their expectations.
- Keep it tight. It is tempting to try to put everything that needs to be discussed on the agenda. But this means a meeting loses focus and can drag on. It’s better to have a smaller group sort through items and decide what is most urgent.
- Announcements. Meetings are time for discussion, deliberation, action and decision making. Often too much time is taken up with admin and announcements. This should be reserved till the end when people are tired rather than the beginning. Often announcements are better communicated in writing on noticeboards, on pamphlets, in whatsapp groups or via email.
- Closed agenda. It can be helpful to crowdsource an agenda before the meeting so that the agenda is democratic and clearly communicated.
- Open agenda. Some meetings require an open or blank agenda. If the group is small enough you can solicit items in plenary. If the meeting is too big you can ask people to write possible items on sheets of paper. Sort similar ideas and ask people to vote for the most urgent item.
Using Hand Signals
- Hand signals are essentially for keeping a group working well together without the need for interruption.
- Get to the point – It’s a big job for a facilitator to keep everybody on track and on point. It helps if the group takes the responsibility with humour and goodwill – bring your fingers together in a point if you want the speaker to “get to the point”.
- I’m confused / please explain – Often people assume other people know what they are talking about or they use language or acronyms that other people don’t understand. It helps if this is pointed out straight away so everyone keeps on track – in large groups lift your arms up with palms upturned to ask the speaker to explain themselves.
- We can’t hear – you can’t engage if you can’t hear – raise your hand cupped up and down above your ear to let the speaker know to speak louder.
- I support that – clapping is useful in crowds but can down our speakers in meetings. It’s helpful to know if an idea or comment has broad support – twinkle your fingers.
- Be prepared. Anybody can chair a meeting with an agenda but only the most experienced community organisers can facilitate without preparing. Every different meeting may require a different approach depending on what it is about and what needs to be decided and who will be in the meeting. Good facilitating requires preparation and resources. It’s better to have a team to think through how to make the meeting a success.
- Don’t jump into an activity without being clear what we all need to achieve together. If this has already been decided then it helps to restate it for everybody in the room. If it has not been established then it helps to spend some time working this out.
- Too often a large part of a meeting is dedicated to giving and explaining instructions for tasks and activities. Write these down on large sheets of paper or on handouts. It’s easier to explain instructions in small groups than in a plenary. Circulate and make sure everybody understands what to do before its too late.
- Keep it simple. Not everybody thinks at the same pace. It’s better to do less in an assembly and do it well. The larger the group the simpler the activity.
- Sometimes it’s not possible to reach an objective for a meeting. Maybe we don’t know enough to decide; or not everybody is at the same stage of understanding. Maybe the issues are more complicated and require more discussion. It’s better to come together again or delegate to a group than try to rush to conclusion if we are not ready
- Maybe the activity is not working. Don’t be afraid to be flexible and adapt if something is not working. Maybe we need to stop and translate.
- Model. Many people don’t understand or are not confident enough to take part in an activity if they haven’t done it before, they haven’t totally understood what needs to be done, or they don’t know what is expected of them at the end. It always helps to model and activity. If you want everybody to share a personal experience then share your own first. If you want people to work in a pair then choose two people to demonstrate.