Meetings – Chair / Group Dynamics

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

In my last blog, I discussed some of the practical considerations facing the Chair. However, even if the meeting goes like clock work on the surface operationally, it is important for the Chair to pay attention to the group dynamics that are just as important and that underpin every discussion, every meeting.

Again, it is once again the responsibility of the Chair to set the tone and take the lead with the group. If, for instance, the Chair behaves in a way that is open, honest, enthusiastic, and committed to positive outcomes, meeting participants are more likely to respond in kind.

The  Chair should be open about what kinds of dissent are acceptable. Let people know that it is okay to disagree (recall the old adage “if two people agree all the time on everything, one of them is unnecessary”) but that respectful and professional behaviour is expected.

Disagreement should focus on topics and should not be personal attacks against people. While people need to be able to express themselves openly, unhealthy aggression should not be tolerated.

It is important for the Chair to try to not take sides when disagreement occurs, but rather, remain impartial, stick to the facts and ask open questions for clarification. The Chair should work to keep their temper even when provoked. It may be necessary and useful to agree to meet with the dissenter(s) at another time outside the meeting. If a decision cannot be made within the meeting due to disagreement, the Chair should advise next steps and move on.

The Chair should also watch participation levels during the meeting and work to draw out comments from those who are less vocal; those who are quiet will often have a great deal to contribute but may not be as quick to speak, allowing others who speak freely to dominate the discussion.

The Chair should manage the tendency for discussion to go off course inadvertently and should work to steer the group back to the agenda if the discussion begins to wander. Asking questions and paraphrasing conclusions to seek common understanding and bringing participants back to the topic at hand can be helpful.

Wide ranging discussion (eg for gathering information or problem solving) can be helpful and genuine consultation is critical in these types of sessions but this should be an explicit part of the meeting (back to purpose and objectives again) rather than something that happens by accident as a meeting with a different purpose goes off track.

In a consultative discussion, it is important not to jump to instant solutions, but rather to consider the pros and cons of alternatives. It can be helpful to record suggestions as they are stated and to build upon these ideas as a group.It may be that this type of discussion will not end in a decision and this is fine. Time may be needed to reflect on the discussion. The Chair should, however, indicate what will be done with the information from the session and what the plans will be to either make a decision in the future and the timeframe for doing so.

Finally, Chairs (or those who hope to be Chairs) can learn much by watching for and emulating good examples. Good Chairs will have done their homework before the meeting, solicited input in advance where appropriate, gained the confidence of others outside the meeting, work to have a variety of participants lead on topics, strike a balance between direction and consultation, involve everyone, maintain a good pace, order, and humour even in difficult circumstances, and will get the job at hand done by moving beyond differences of opinion to agreed action plans.

This blog, along with the previous one on the Challenge of the Chair and the blog on Team Briefings have primarily focused on the Chair’s responsibilities. However, meeting success is not down to only one individual. What if you are not in the Chair? What are your responsibilities as a participant?

More on this next time.

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