Working in the voluntary sector
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Working in the voluntary sector

4 Chairing meetings

A meeting with a woman standing and talking to the group
Figure 4 Taking the lead

Any meeting with more than a few people usually requires someone to take the lead in organising what it does. In small, informal meetings this may simply involve asking a few questions, such as: ‘Shall we start?’, ‘What have we got to talk about?’, ‘When shall we finish?’, ‘Who is going to take notes?’

At the other end of the spectrum is the traditional chair of formal meetings whose job is to run the meeting in accordance with given rules and procedures. He or she makes sure the necessary business is done and that any decisions are properly recorded. Chairing meetings is not just the responsibility of managers: asking someone to chair a meeting who has not done it before can be a good way to involve or empower others.

Whatever the style of chairing, it is important that it is:

  • appropriate to the type of meeting
  • a good fit with the culture or style of the organisation or group
  • supported by the majority of the meeting’s members.

Table 1 contrasts the different functions carried out by two types of chair. The traditional chair is typical of formal meetings, while the facilitative chair is typical of a more informal, consensual style of meeting. However, in practice the distinction between these two styles of chairing is often not so clear-cut. Many traditional chairs will adopt some of the practices of facilitative chairs and vice versa.

Table 1 Contrasting styles of chairing

Traditional chairFacilitative chair
Main role and responsibilitiesMain role and responsibilities

t1: make sure the business gets done

t2: stay in charge

t3: remain neutral

f1: help the group decide what it wants to accomplish

f2: help the group carry this out

f3: avoid getting too emotionally involved

Agenda and timekeepingAgenda and timekeeping

t4: open meeting and state purpose

t5: arrange who will introduce agenda items

t6: get through agenda on time

t7: close meeting

f4: seek and get agreement on agenda items

f5: keep meeting on agreed agenda

f6: keep track of time

DiscussionDiscussion

t8: select speakers

t9: ask questions to clarify points or seek further explanations

t10: ensure people stick to the point

t11: control interruptions or side conversations

t12: handle disagreements

t13: close discussions

f7: encourage everyone to participate

f8: help people stick to the point

f9: make it safe to share views and feelings

f10: suggest ways to handle disagreements and conflict

f11: help clarify and summarise discussion

Decision makingDecision making

t14: ensure decisions are taken

t15: decide when a vote is needed

t16: conduct vote

t17: decide who will carry out actions

f12: look for areas of agreement

f13: test to see if there is agreement

f14: if consensus can’t be reached agree procedure for taking decision or moving forward

f15: decide who will carry out actions

Formal rulesFormal rules

t18: have a good knowledge of relevant rules

t19: make sure meeting is called in agreement with rules

t20: rule on points of order or procedure

Outside meetingOutside meeting

t21: act on issues delegated to the chair

t22: make sure decisions are acted on

t23: represent the group

help group to decide:

f16: who will act on its behalf

f17: who will pursue decisions

f18: who will represent the group

Activity 4 Chairing compared

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Think of a meeting you have been involved in, then answer the following questions:

  1. Write down the numbers of the activities in Table 1 that you think are currently carried out by the chair of this meeting (for example, t1, t3 … f4, etc.).
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  1. Write down the numbers of any other activities you think ought to be carried out by the chair but are not currently.
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  1. Do you think your chair adopts a mainly traditional or a mainly facilitative style? Or do they have a fairly even mixture of the two styles?
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Discussion

The activities the chair performs will probably depend in part on the type of meeting it is and the preferred style of the chair. If it is a formal business meeting, then it is more likely that the chair will adopt many aspects of the style of a traditional chair. The smaller and more informal the meeting, then the more likely it is that aspects of the style of a facilitative chair will be adopted. However, there are no hard-and-fast rules, and many chairs combine elements of both styles.

It is also important to remember that responsibility for the success of a meeting does not lie just with the chair, but also with the ordinary members, which we will look at next. No matter how good the chair, if members are ill-prepared or do not contribute appropriately, the outcome can be an ineffective meeting.

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