How to make meetings work

Spending more and more time in meetings that often go nowhere? From a meeting between an NQT and their mentor, to staff meetings, year group meetings or even a parents’ evening, we examine essential skills and techniques that can boost productivity and save your time.

Meetings can be a great way to communicate and make decisions. They can even be empowering. But any type of meeting can slip into a kind of meaningless blur if appropriate boundaries aren’t set. They can end in confusion – even acrimony. Or they can conclude with all having a sense of having participated in making key decisions, and knowing what they need to go away and do to put them into effect.

“Our staff meetings used to drag on without much focus, or a clear end time, every Monday after school,” reports one, now ex-, teacher. “We couldn’t go and tidy our classrooms until it had finished.”

So what went wrong?

“The people who ran it needed to keep their points short, focused, and not let issues be hijacked by every person giving their anecdote about what happened at their last school. Each meeting needs a definite finish time to allow participants to give their full attention, knowing that afterwards they’ll have time to complete their other duties.

“Whoever is chairing needs to let everyone have a chance to speak, to give ideas – and to then move it along, especially if it’s in the lunch hour and people need to get back. Letting people go off the point and ramble on and on is a big time waster.”

Why have meetings at all?
It all begs the question: what are meetings for in the first place? Is a meeting really necessary at all? Generally meetings are considered the place to communicate information and make decisions. And it’s true: they can be a great place to do that if effectively run. But it is worth stepping back and considering who needs to be invited to make the decisions, and whether some information would best be communicated in another way – on a noticeboard or via an intranet or email, for example.

Chairing skills are critical
Chairing the meeting effectively is clearly critical to keep things on track. Part of the art of chairing, like teaching, is effective preparation. Creating and circulating an agenda that identifies each decision that needs to be made is essential. Ideally a time budget should be allocated for each item, which allows for some discussion or even brainstorming where it’s useful, but which can be used to steer the meeting back on course when things look like overrunning. Many swear by limiting Any Other Business to 15 minutes or less, to end on time – and in reasonable spirits! To keep things short and sweet some even champion meetings where everyone has to stand up throughout the entire proceedings!

While it’s important to have an assertive chairperson who always has an eye on the clock, it’s also important that they encourage everyone to have a say, value each contribution, know how to intervene and can move on to the next item while not putting people down by ending a discussion abruptly. The chair also needs to be able to defer decisions that can’t actually be made for some reason – perhaps due to a lack of information. This prevents the meeting getting bogged down in discussing issues that can’t be decided anyway.

It’s also important to be aware of ‘hidden agendas’ and ‘game playing’ that can go on between personalities in meetings at a covert level, and which, if not nipped in the bud, can hijack the real agenda and waste hours of everyone’s time through point-scoring and nit-picking.

If you’re new to chairing, it can all seem rather daunting. But the good news is that many of the skills required can be learned through practice.

Parents’ evenings
If you’re a teacher at a parents’ evening, you’ll need to chair your own small meeting. You’ll probably only have about ten minutes with each parent, so being assertive and keeping things on track is essential. Strategies might be: to note a big issue and defer it to another meeting or another member of staff; to ensure the parent only discusses the child in question; and, when the time’s run out, to stand up, smile and thank the attendees for coming and to explain that you now have to move on to your next meeting.

As a meeting participant
Meeting participants should prepare beforehand, by reading through background papers and considering how they can add to the discussion. Arrive at the meeting on time, and remember to focus on issues and not personalities. You are at the meeting to listen, so it’s good to demonstrate you’ve done this and acknowledge others’ contributions even if you disagree with them, before putting forward your own views.

Keep a record
It’s important that some kind of record is kept of virtually all kinds of meeting. More formal meetings need a minute taker – a skilled job in itself. Minutes don’t need to record every nuance of debate, but in general just key decisions. And, critically, actions must be recorded, with one or more individuals assigned to each.

Minutes should be circulated swiftly following the meeting, and reviewed at the beginning of the next one to check that actions have been carried out. At more informal meetings, perhaps between just two or three people, it may well be enough for each participant to take their own notes about what’s been decided and what they’ve agreed to do.

And when it’s all over
When the meeting ends, it’s time for the decisions to be put into effect through actions. And if actions are consistently not being completed by the next meeting, you may well be holding too many meetings!

For extra marks, when your meeting’s over you might want to find out from some of the participants how they think it went – and how your next meeting can be improved.

Share your tips with us – do you know of any tips that have made your meetings more effective? Have you tried and tested any methods that really work? Add a comment now!

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