5 Taking part
The success of any meeting will depend not just on how the chair and the secretary perform, but also on all its members. This section looks at what ordinary members can do to help meetings be successful.
Be prepared for the meeting
- Arrange for any items you want discussed to be put on the agenda.
- Put time aside in your diary when you can prepare for the meeting.
- Read the agenda and any papers in advance.
- Decide which items you may want to speak about and consider what you want to say. It can be helpful to make notes, particularly if you are not confident about speaking in meetings.
- If you feel items are likely to be controversial or complex you may want to sound out others or lobby potential allies in advance of the meeting.
- Plan your day so you arrive in plenty of time and can stay for the whole of the meeting.
- You may need to raise your hand or catch the chair’s eye in order to speak. How will you do this if you are joining the meeting by phone?
- In very formal meetings you may need to address your remarks through the chair; for example, ‘Chair, I think it would better if …’
- Try to speak clearly and distinctly, so everyone can hear you.
- Keep to the point and be as brief as you can, otherwise people may stop listening.
- If the point you want to make is complex, it is often useful to summarise your main point or argument at the end.
- When responding to others, or asking questions, be succinct and keep to the point. Try to raise one question or respond to one query at a time, rather than combining multiple questions or responses. This is easier for other people to understand and respond to.
- Try not to worry about asking what you may feel is a naive or obvious question or saying you do not understand. If you are feeling this way, it is likely others are, too.
Listening and thinking
- Listening is as important as speaking. If everyone spoke and no one listened, then meetings would get nowhere.
- Anxiety about speaking, or thinking through at the meeting what you want to say, can make listening difficult. Prepare what you want to say in advance if you can and then you will be better able to concentrate on listening to others.
- Listen empathetically; put yourself into other people’s shoes and consider why they hold the views they do. This is particularly important if you are trying to reach a consensus.
- Try not to interrupt.
- Concentrate on the logic of the argument and the values being expressed. What are the strengths of the argument and what are the weaknesses or flaws?
- Keep in mind the mission and values of your group or organisation. Do the discussion and resulting decisions reflect these?
- Look for ways to summarise usefully or to clarify the discussion.
Help other group members
- Encourage others by being accepting and responsive to them.
- Make an effort to draw out and listen to members who may be shyer or less articulate.
- Express what you feel and respect other people’s feelings.
- Look for ways to handle disagreements and conflicts positively; be willing to negotiate and compromise.
- Try to be aware of your own behaviour and how it might be affecting the meeting. Are you talking too much or too little, too aggressively or not assertively enough, and so on?
Supporting the chair
- Speak in turn or when requested and avoid interrupting others.
- Respect the chair’s decisions.
- Respect the rules of the meeting.
Now that you understand what actions can lead to a successful meeting, the next activity encourages you to think about your own behaviour at meetings. Can it be improved?
Activity 5 What part do you play in meetings?
When answering the questions below, consider your own strengths and weaknesses as an ordinary member attending a meeting. Also use the list of points above to help you think this through.
- What are your strengths and weaknesses in the following areas?
- Listening and thinking
- Helping other group members
- Supporting the chair
- What do you find most difficult to cope with at meetings?
- What would you like to change about the way you behave at meetings? What would help you make these changes?
If you want to make changes to improve your performance in meetings, it is a good idea not to be too ambitious – start with small changes that you should be able to achieve. Are there some weaknesses from your list you think you could address? Perhaps ask a supportive colleague to help by giving you feedback or encouragement.