Meetings, oh, meetings! When they don't work, aside from how much time they can waste, how insufferable they can be.
People talk too much or not at all. Agendas are too full, poorly organized, don’t get to the key point, or are non-existent. Discussions meander, priorities are unclear. The decision-making process swings between despotism and anarchy. We all have our stories of bad meetings, where nothing gets done, which, on the surface is why we meet.
Yet, a key part of a meeting is that we've gathered to be together — whatever the purpose.
As a possible way to avoid having a fruitless or painful meeting again, consider reframing your meeting as a ritual.
However we define ritual — either as a repeatable cultural performance, a specific act performed on a specific occasion, or a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order — we all have a sense of what ritual is, when it's good and when it falls flat. By taking the best of what we know of rituals and applying that knowledge to meetings, we might get a new perspective that boosts their productivity and enjoyment.
What if the participants had ultimate respect for each other's time and concentration?
Rituals help show us who we are in our communities. They also give us the opportunity to see how we tend to behave with others, and — when tedium or weirdness prevails — what really matters.
We sometimes allude to the notion that ‘time is sacred’. What if the time we spend in our meetings, and the meeting itself, was thought of sacred by everyone attending — at least in the sense of the participants having ultimate respect for each other's time and concentration? And if so, can we view meetings as opportunities not only to get things done, but to educate and nourish? And, in special cases, to heal wounds or resolve resentments between people on opposite sides of an issue.
Here’s a short list applying the criteria for good rituals to meetings.
1 BE CLEAR ABOUT THE PURPOSE. Do we know the true purpose of the Monday morning sales meeting? If we did (and had a choice), would we bother to attend?
2 KNOW YOUR ROLE. What is the role of those who attend a condominium meeting? To complain about the neighbors? To listen to committee reports? To advise the board of directors? If their role were clearer, would they behave differently?
An inheritance of formal gathering approaches from the Iroquois confederacy permeates the US constitution. [o]
3 PLAN AHEAD. Good rituals require careful preparation. A meeting in which the room is clean and the chairs in place, an agenda has been drafted, the right people are present, the needed materials are at hand. All this sets the stage for an effective session.
4 MAKE IT SPECIAL. Rituals transform the ordinary into something special. When we take the trouble to put flowers on the table, bake cookies for the coffee break, or the simple act of greeting people with a smile as they arrive, we send a message that beauty, caring and human connection are among the values that guide our work.
5 TAKE TIME TO GET CENTERED. Our lives are full of difficulties and distractions that need to be set aside to enter ritual space. A moment of silence — or playing or singing a brief piece of music or reciting a passage of text — can help get everyone mentally 'in the room' and focus on their intention for being there.
6 VARY THE MEETING’S TIMING & TEXTURE. Rituals can be short or long, formal or impromptu, complex or simple. Meeting formats should vary according to their purpose and participants.
We need meetings that invite dialogue, promote understanding, encourage collaboration, stir creativity, and meet our fundamental need for meaning and belonging.
If we settle for less, we’re wasting each other’s time.
BEATRICE BRIGGS is the founder and Director of the International Institute for Facilitation and Change (IIFAC), a consulting firm based in Mexico. She works in both English and Spanish with clients that include civil society organizations, government agencies, international non-governmental organizations, and private-sector companies. Her publications include Introduction to Consensus, The Bonfire Collection: A Complete Resource Guide to Facilitation and Change, No More Boring Meetings! and Coffee Break, a monthly blog. Born in the US, Beatrice lives in the mountains of central Mexico outside the town of Tepoztlan. www.iifac.org