UK: ON THE WAY UP - How to keep cool in the hot seat - Having to chair a meeting can be daunting, but it ...

UK: ON THE WAY UP - How to keep cool in the hot seat - Having to chair a meeting can be daunting, but it ... - ON THE WAY UP - How to keep cool in the hot seat - Having to chair a meeting can be daunting, but it needn't end in tears. Here is some advice

by WINSTON FLETCHER, a lecturer, businessman and author.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

ON THE WAY UP - How to keep cool in the hot seat - Having to chair a meeting can be daunting, but it needn't end in tears. Here is some advice on how to control the troublesome lot in the back row.

The first time you found yourself running a meeting it probably came as a bit of a shock. First, you were unlikely to have received any training in how to go about it. Second, the chances are that nobody formally asked you to run the meeting: it just somehow happened. A group assembled to discuss something - and you suddenly realised you were in charge. It was swim or sink time.

Nowadays, in the vast majority of relatively casual meetings that often seem to spring up out of the blue, nobody is formally designated 'chairman'.

(The OED, incidentally, says a chairman can be a person of either gender).

But every meeting needs a leader or, like a rudderless boat, it will lurch haphazardly from side to side and end up swirling round in circles.

Textbooks list the duties of the chairman or leader as being to make clear the terms of reference, to keep order, to follow the agenda and so on. Those duties certainly apply in formal meetings and committees. In informal gatherings, however, whoever is in charge simply has three sometimes contradictory responsibilities:

To state the objective of the meeting; to ensure fair play; and to force the meeting along and, usually, reach decisions.

To achieve these ends whoever is responsible must be, and must be seen to be, positively in charge - without being bullying or over-assertive.

It is a tricky tightrope to tread.

Studies have shown that the most common pitfalls are caused by inadequate leadership, especially by chairmen who (a) talk too much themselves, or (b) inhibit free discussion by leading questions and offering suggestions, or (c) rush through the meeting and fail to provide time for the group to develop its own solutions, or worst of all (d) allow the group to wander from the point and fail to finish in time.

Consider, in contrast, this statement by John de Butts, an ex-chairman of the American telecoms giant AT&T: 'In meetings I try to be sure that everybody has an opportunity to speak.

I'll ask questions so that people who haven't spoken will have the opportunity to say something. When it gets to the point where we seem to have reached a consensus I might say: 'Well let me try and sum up and see if this is where we are'. Sometimes somebody doesn't agree, and then we have to talk a bit longer. Then I'll try to sum up again. But a successful meeting depends on how much everybody participates, not on how long it goes on.'

That is a fine statement of the principles involved in running successful meetings. However, it neatly sidesteps many of the problems. And the problems, as almost always in management, are people. When you are running a meeting the most exasperating people are:

The whisperers, who chatter and giggle with their neighbours and who - likeable though they may be - must be firmly but politely silenced before they irritate everyone else.

The loudmouths, who shout and try to bully, and must be muzzled - but not too quickly, or they may become obstreperous and/or win the sympathy of the meeting for having been cheated of their democratic right to speak.

(Let them go on too long, however, and the meeting will get fed up with both them and you.)

The interrupters, often senior managers who happen not to be running the meeting in question, and have to be restrained from butting in on everyone else and 'putting them right'.

The broken records, who keep repeating the same point over and over even when the subject has moved on, and must be gently but resolutely reminded that their views have already been noted and that further repetition will drive everyone else stark raving crazy.

A deft meeting leader will fetter the above quartet of meeting stranglers by not letting them speak too often. They must be allowed to chirp sometimes, or they will eventually sing out with a legitimate grouse; but if they receive marginally fewer than their fair share of speaking opportunities nobody - except maybe them - will notice.

Another nimble way to control speakers, particularly in large groups, is to nominate four or five people at a time, selecting the speakers who need to be restrained first: 'First you Bill, then Belinda, then Buster, Barbara after that and then ...'

This neatly forces the earlier speakers to be somewhat succinct, under pressure from the others itching for their turn; and if one of them does maunder on, you can interrupt and remind them of the queue still waiting.

Lastly, when running a meeting your body language is all important. Researches have shown that those present consistently keep their eyes on the group leader. You must therefore be hyper-aware of your posture (erect, positive, dominant) and of your facial expressions (lively, interested, encouraging). If you look bored, the group will get bored; if your eyelids droop the meeting will grind to a halt.

Chairing meetings is hard graft. That's why those who can do it successfully soon get a seat at the managers' top table.

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