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How to have a good meeting
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Meeting participantsPlan, listen, listen: how to have a good meeting

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

You sit at a table surrounded by familiar faces. Someone is speaking animatedly while the rest listen with rapt attention. When it is your turn to speak, you bask in the attention and respect emanating from your coworkers. At the end, you leave the room feeling a great deal has been accomplished, in terms of planning and completing tasks and goals, as well as improving relationships.

Does this describe a typical meeting in your department? If so, wonderful. If not, read on. Inside UVA spoke with a few experts on organizational behavior to collect some pointers on how to have a successful meeting, especially when there's a potential conflict.

While everyone present should take some responsibility for how things go, the person calling the meeting needs to do some advance planning, said John W. Lord, director of Organizational Development and Training. Before deciding to have a meeting, the person calling it should decide whether the issue is appropriate for a group discussion, as well as whether a third party should be brought in.

If a meeting is to be held, the manager or leader should then consider several strategic questions, Lord said. Before the meeting, should he gather information or speak to certain individuals? How anxious is he about the issue? What process will engage people and get them to express themselves? How confident, mature and open are the groupıs members? How will he handle resistance or silence or someone trying to dominate, and make sure the quieter people have time to reflect before they speak? What would a successful meeting look like?

At the beginning of the meeting, the facilitator may need to allow time to clear the air, so people's "emotional agendas" don't prevent them from thinking clearly, Lord said.

And the group might want to determine some ground rules, such as those listed above.

Once the meeting is under way, it's important to take time to clarify the issue at hand, said University Ombudsman Brad Holland. "People often want to jump straight into problem-solving, without listening to and considering everyoneıs concerns."

"You could spend the whole first meeting defining the issue," Lord said. For instance, "in an academic department, deciding what kind of person to hire can lead to defining the departmentıs mission, determining what roles are filled by current members and what needs arenıt being served."

He suggested having people write about the issue at hand, describing it from different angles.

During the discussion, it's important that the group listen to everyone present because until people are satisfied that their perspective has been understood, they're only going to focus on voicing it, Holland said.

He emphasized the need to encourage people to listen carefully to one another, adding that the facilitator or anyone at the meeting can use active listening techniques like repeating what the last speaker said.

"Sometimes you have to listen deeper and ask probing questions to help an employee clarify what he's really concerned about," Holland said.

He recommends trying to get everyone to speak, even if it means calling on people directly.

"Sometimes people won't participate as a means of holding their ground," said Darden professor Martin Davidson, whose teaching, research and consulting focus on intercultural diversity within organizations.

'It's important to help these people move from seeing an issue as a matter of principle to seeing it as something that can be discussed -- not, 'Is affirmative action correct or incorrect?' but, 'Can we make a good hiring decision about this person based on what the department needs?'"

But what can be done when the discussion isn't moving forward and everyone seems stuck?

"Say what you see happening," Davidson advises. "If people just keep restating their positions, say that. If you can get people to drop down a level, they'll move closer to resolving the issue."

Not everyone will leave happy. "You can talk about consensus, but choices may have to be made that donıt please everyone," Lord said. "At the least, you want people to leave feeling that they were respected and encouraged to have their say."

Managers shouldn't hesitate to call in a mediator if they think that would be helpful, Davidson said. "A mediator will speak separately with advocates of each side to get a sense of their issues, concerns, stakes and dreams, seeking to diagnose, not just the people or the issue, but also the culture of the place and the structure for decision-making," he said.

Lord and Davidson both recommended following up with people within a few days of a meeting to see if there were issues that hadn't been addressed and ensure that everyone is feeling comfortable with the outcome.

Ground rules for meetings

  • One person speaks at a time;
  • Everyone participates;
  • Don't dwell on the past;
  • Use "I" statements and avoid blaming others;
  • Keep the focus on interests rather than positions.

For help with meeting facilitation, call:

  • Organizational Development and Training, 924-4398
  • Center for Organizational Development in the Medical Center, 924-2502


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