Meetings matter. It’s here we bring people together to make decisions, set directions and find out what’s going on.
Alongside their role as an engine room that drives our organisation or team, meetings are also places where we establish and maintain the culture of the group. If that culture is troubled, inevitably tensions surface when we come together.
Common problems include being unproductive, leaving us feeling like we don’t want to be there because we’re not making headway. Or we don’t have enough time to get through the agenda. Or maybe a few voices dominate and the best ideas don’t get an airing.
Strong facilitation is essential at meetings and can help us through these challenges.
Here are five of the main problems we see in meetings, with tips on how to avoid them.
1. Insufficient time for items on the agenda
This usually pans out in one of two ways — either we don’t get to the item because we’ve run out of time or we haven’t allocated enough time for a particular item. When this happens we are forced to cut discussion short and make a hasty decision — or none at all.
The fix: Preparation and flexibility in working through the agenda are key.
Make time to work with members of the group when you prepare an agenda, encouraging them to be clear about the purpose of their item and the desired outcome, eg, to decide whether to greenlight a big new project.
Forming a lengthy agenda is best done well in advance. If you work on the agenda at the meeting, allow enough time for prioritising items and scheduling the discussion.
Considerations include: does the item require a decision, or is it a report for information?
If the agenda item is a report, this can often be delivered in advance attached to the agenda, with a few minutes allocated for any questions. If it’s a decision, the number of people who will be affected and how likely it is to be complex or contentious are key considerations. For a big or tricky decision, allow plenty of time for everyone’s views to be heard.
Hot tip: There’s no such thing as a five-minute discussion.
2. Circling — lengthy discussion that goes nowhere
Passion fills the room. Lots of people are lining up to have a say, but no one is moving the discussion towards a proposal. We are stuck in custard, immobile and frustrated.
The fix: Strong facilitation skills are needed. Noticing and naming what’s going on is a good place to start. Summarising and clarifying where the discussion is up to comes next. Wondering aloud whether there are ways around the sticking points might be the next option, perhaps suggesting one if it comes to mind.
A possible workaround is to defer the part of a proposal that’s contentious and get a working group to come up with suggestions for agreement in the meantime.
Hot tip: Remember to negotiate any extra time needed.
3. A few people dominating the airspace
Whether it’s a manager who wants to provide solutions on behalf of the group or someone who’s passionate about an idea and won’t let it go, the loud voices need our attention just as much as the rest of the group. Unaddressed, over talking leads to people tuning out.
The fix: Validation is almost always the starting point, so the dominant voices are acknowledged and feel heard. Then it might be a matter of gently noticing and naming that not everyone has had a say, and perhaps suggesting we go around the room, to give everyone a turn.
Hot tip: Deeper problems with the same voices repeatedly dominating may require a lengthier discussion about diversity, rank and power.
4. Racing through an agenda with no chance to catch up
Striking a balance between task and maintenance plays a big part in making a group hum. The task aspect, which is getting through the agenda, is the core part of why we are there. After all, we all want to achieve the goals we’ve set.
We need to take care, though, to allow time for people to settle, to get to know each other and form the camaraderie that helps us get on with the job, and with each other. This is maintenance.
The fix: Build some small activities into the start and end of the meeting that allow us to settle and feel comfortable. A centring where we pause for a few moments of silence followed by a quick check-in from everyone works well at the start.
At the end, a check-out asking people how they found the meeting is a good way to land.
Hot tip: If it’s a long meeting, schedule a snack or drink break — these are great times to mingle and chat.
5. Allowing ghosts to hover
Ghosts are a bit like elephants in the room, unacknowledged dynamics that suck up our attention and make it difficult to concentrate on the discussion. We call them ghosts because there is some fear of what might happen if we do acknowledge them. Do we have time for this? Do we have the skills to deal with it?
An example is when someone makes a harsh, loud judgment about a point someone else has raised. When put-downs like this occur, we invariably notice a change in the energy in the room and/or a feeling of discomfort — if this is how this group operates, I’ll just lie low and keep quiet. Allowing a ghost to hover is a surefire way to stymie participation and engagement.
The fix: We need to slow things down and name what has happened, with compassion and without shaming anyone. We might say, “Can we pause for a moment. There’s some heat in the room and some of us are looking uncomfortable.”
Quite often the group will let you know how they’re feeling. If they don’t, you might need to poke around a little more to get to the nub of it, but only with their permission.
Hot tip: Be gentle. If you catch these moments gracefully, and stand by the group, you’ll have been of great service. You’ve shown them it’s OK to make mistakes and how we can recover. Better than a sudden outburst that passes without comment and puts everyone on the defensive.
For those wanting to know more, we offer a short course, Facilitating Great Meetings. The next one is running online on September 6, 13 & 20, 2021.