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LISTENING SKILLS AUDIO SEMINAR


Conducting Effective Meetings

Gregorio Billikopf

"I can still remember arriving early to staff meetings at one ranch I worked for. I wanted to make sure to sit where I could look out the window and ‘escape’ from the meeting. I can also recall a job where the meetings were effectively planned and carried out. Unfortunately, most of the meetings I have attended have fallen into the unbearably unproductive category."


A group of friends carries on a conversation for a couple of hours. No one remembers how they ended up talking about the lives of penguins in the Antarctic when they had started out discussing home computers. Unless the friends were trying to accomplish something more than interesting conversation, they did no harm. When business meetings resemble this gathering of friends, however, few decisions are made and much time is wasted. It takes skill and follow-through to conduct effective meetings.

Meetings can be useful. Workers can learn directly rather than through the grapevine about new personnel policies or participate in decisions affecting them. Subordinates can keep supervisors and co-workers informed of new developments or conditions encountered on the job. Often workers come in contact with potential problems first, and early detection can save time and expense. Meetings, then, are held to inform people about policies or operations, gather information, conduct training, resolve problems, or make decisions.

What makes for an effective meeting? Having a purpose, preparing ahead of time, setting goals during the meeting, and making provisions for follow-through and assessment afterwards are critical. A successful meeting is like a team who carefully cuts, trims and prepares a portion of meat to be hung by a hook. A hook is added, the meat is lifted and placed on a rail, and sent on its way. Oftentimes much work takes place in meetings. The participants may have cut, cleaned and even lifted the heavy carcass, but they have failed to put it on the rail. Next time, they will have to clean and lift it again.

Planning

All too often meetings take place without an express purpose, are too long, and little is accomplished in them. A clear understanding of objectives to be accomplished is essential to an effective meeting. Once the purpose is apparent, questions as to who will attend, and where (and when) the meeting will take place can be dealt with.

Agendas may include time for (1) review of notes from past business; (2) discussion of new issues; and (3) evaluation of progress toward goal achievement. Supervisors are cautioned not to be overly optimistic about what can be accomplished in a single meeting.

Several short meetings may work best for some objectives. Participants are more likely to absorb training material, for instance, when they can apply it between sessions. This flexibility may not exist when a decision has to be made before adjourning. Also, a single yet longer meeting may be preferable when participants have to travel distances to attend or need to make arrangements to have their normal duties covered during their absence.

Most employees do not mind attending a meeting if it is productive. Meeting length can be shortened by assigning reading or information gathering activities ahead of time.1 meetings close to quitting time or outside on a cold or windy day are more conducive to brevity but discourage worker participation. Other factors influencing group interaction include seating, refreshments, temperature, lighting, and ventilation (increasingly, employees expect a non-smoking policy). Regardless of apparent formality, to be effective, meetings need to be well planned.

Conducting the meeting

The role of the individual conducting the meeting is to (1) keep the discussion on target (task function) while at the same time (2) making sure everyone gets heard and people’s needs are met (maintenance function). Most often the supervisor takes on the task of conducting a meeting, but this role may be delegated. A meeting with an ineffective leader will often resemble our friends talking about penguins. Starting on time is a good practice; so is ending on time. Punctuality, or lack of it, can become a tradition.

Meeting agenda. If the agenda has not been given out in advance, it can be distributed at the start of the meeting. Employees may be encouraged to contribute topics for discussion before the meeting starts. The individual conducting the meeting can also ask for further suggested agenda additions at the commencement of the meeting. This is critical. If people know that a subject that is important to them will be raised, they are less likely to interrupt and make attempts to introduce this topic at inopportune times. This is perhaps the most important contribution of the agenda. Agreements on how the meeting time will be spent can be set up from the start.

Discussion guidelines can help keep meetings running in an orderly manner. Examples of rules you may want to use include the following:

· Only one person speaks at a time. If the meeting gets out of order, anyone who wishes to speak must be acknowledged before doing so.

· Attempt to understand needs behind positions.

· Attempt to understand both the positive and negative aspects of suggestions. Getting to the best solution is more important than who made the suggestion.

· Comments will be asked for, at times, beginning with the least and ending with the most senior person (explain that new people often can see issues with more clarity, and also explain that when a more senior person makes a comment, that this comment may sometimes sound so final others do not feel they can contradict it).

· If someone shows a lot of emotion in a comment, this is because there is an important need or fear they have relating to this issue. This should be looked upon as an opportunity to better understand each other.

· Remind participants that this is the time to say something, if they have something to say. It will do little good for them to express their dissatisfaction with what was said or agreed upon after the meeting is over.

· Private conversations are not to be conducted during the meeting.

· People need to speak on the subject being discussed.

· Comments and discussions need to address issues, not personalities.

· The group leader’s role—when promoting participation—is that of a facilitator. Rather than take sides or show favoritism, she can help participants clarify their views without judging the merit of their ideas. A supervisor who wants to be very involved in a discussion may ask someone else to conduct the meeting.

Other than keeping the meeting on target, facilitating decision making is one of the group leader’s major responsibilities. Meeting participants need to know how much decision-making power is being delegated to them (Chapter 10). To develop understanding of a problem and move towards a solution, group leaders can:

· Pick one challenge at a time.

· Rather than begin with solutions, first focus on a detailed analysis of where things can or do go wrong.

· The emphasis of all discussion should be on understanding the problem, not on assigning blame.

· Once the challenge seems clear, brainstorm potential proposals and solutions (these should not be evaluated at this point)

· Encourage participants to be tentative in their comments, so creativity is not stifled.

· Discuss pros and cons of the different approaches.

· Ask for new approaches that may include the best contributions of the various suggestions.

· Seek consensus. Avoid premature use of voting to arrive at decisions. Nevertheless, voting can be used to focus on the top possible solutions.

· During the process, barometric voting can take place. This is not one to make a decision, but to see how people are feeling after new light has been shed on the challenges being discussed.

· Participants should not feel they have to yield their opinions in order to promote consensus. In effective decision making, a good team player is not the person who yields in the face of opposition, but rather, the person who is willing to make the important, yet sometimes unpopular, points.

· Sometimes the greatest danger to a premature resolution exists when a solution seems imminent.

· Rather than coming to quick solutions, ask participants to help think where the tentative solution may not work out. Make the necessary adjustments to account for potential difficulties ahead.

· Resolve issues whenever possible before moving on. If an impasse is reached:

a) Help others find out where they agree and disagree (see negotiation and conflict resolution skills in Chapter 13).

b) Assign further study if appropriate.

c) If disagreements persist and accommodations or compromises cannot be made, then announce how and when decisions will be made.

· Ask participants: How will we really know, say a year from now, if this problem has really been solved?

· Document decisions reached and who was present. If there were disagreements, document minority opinions, if this is desired.

Listening skills are essential to a supervisor conducting a meeting. Often, much of what is said in a meeting is not heard because participants are more eager to express their own points rather than in listening. Workers may be encouraged to jot down ideas while the other person is talking rather than interrupting.

A participant can be assigned to "spot" ideas or suggestions. It can be an effective practice to record ideas coming out of a meeting. Clearly, the supervisor does not have to agree with all the ideas, but if they are documented he can follow through and decide whether the ideas will be implemented now, delayed, or tabled indefinitely. Workers are more likely to participate if they feel their ideas are given serious consideration.

Individuals in a power position are more likely to be successful in introducing a topic of conversation. An idea may be well-received when brought up by a highly respected group member, although it was ignored a few minutes earlier when brought up by someone in a less dominant position. In one study, for instance, women only succeed in 36 percent of their attempts to establish a topic of conversation while men did so 96 percent of the time.2

Often, meetings degenerate into a point and counterpoint argument between participants. Often nothing gets resolved. This difficulty is due, in part, to people feeling their ideas are not properly understood or acknowledged (Chapter 12).

Acknowledging alternatives and minority opinions is a way of encouraging creative thinking. Group participants can quickly discern when their own alternatives are not wanted and often learn to keep their feelings to themselves. The extreme of this behavior can lead to "group-think," where supervisors or more influential workers have their ideas rubber-stamped in the absence of discussion or consideration of creative alternatives.

In the farm workers’ culture, it is common that when one gives a public opinion, no one will contradict it. That is why it is important to promote, from the beginning, a culture where workers will have the confidence to not only give opinions that can challenge those of their colleagues’, but also that of their supervisors as well. Once a decision is made, of course, all should work to help make its realization a success.

Additional challenges you may encounter when conducting meetings, include:

· Meeting extenders (those who want to prolong meetings to avoid work);

· Showoffs as well as participants who have their favorite subject or personal agenda;

· Signs showing participants have lost interest, do not understand what is being said, or may disagree though they do not express it.

· Shooting down someone's idea, since this can extinguish creativity.

· Stating that one has the solution, as this can also shut down creativity.

All too often, then, people take ownership of a suggestion and allow their self-esteem to be affected by the results. They take acceptance or rejection of their solution personally. When team members take joy in coming up with a solution that works, then meetings are beginning to work.

You know you are on the way to success when individual team members are able to see both the pros and the cons of a proposed solution. That is, when a participant can point out the good in a solution that is not his preferred; and the shortcomings of one that is. This, in fact, shows individuals are growing and beginning to think like effective managers.

Setting goals & following through

Solving problems, setting goals, and making concrete plans to follow through are the purposes of decision-making and problem-solving meetings. A decision is worthless if no plans are made to assure its implementation. Responsibility for follow-through can be delegated to accountable individuals.

Throughout the meeting participants need to be vigilant in recognizing action items. That is, those matters that call for specific steps towards a solution. These action items generally are the most important reasons for the meetings. Otherwise, it is just too easy to always hope for better days, complain about challenges, but do nothing to solve difficulties. In such cases, it would be better not to have had a meeting at all.

Any business that is not fully dealt with, will tend to appear again and again until a concrete decision is made. The key, then, is to manage meetings so that specific issues are discussed and solved. These should be quality solutions that have a positive effect on the future.

Finally, asking participants what worked well and what could be improved next time--in terms of how the meeting was conducted--can help the meetings become more productive and useful in the future.

Summary

Meetings can be a useful communication tool. Planning will help a meeting accomplish more in less time. Everyone will not always agree on the best way difficulties should be solved, but friendly disagreements about solutions can be beneficial. The meeting will be a waste of time, however, unless concrete action plans are made to solve problems. Specific dates for goal accomplishments can be set and followed up later.

Chapter 11 References

1. Cranes, W. T. Effective Meetings for Busy People: Let's Decide It and Go Home. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc. 1980, p. 26.
2. Elgin, S. More on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall Inc. 1983.


 

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Labor Management in Ag
Table of Contents

11 August 2006