Sydney Morning Herald Article

Meeting of Minds

Author: Judy Barnsley
Date: 22/02/2003

Getting people together in a room is one thing; getting a result is another, writes Judy Barnsley.

Have you heard the one about meetings? The best meetings are held standing up.

It’s a throwaway line that hides a deeper truth; that for most managers and staff there are too many meetings.

David Price, of Walk Tall International, is in the business of training people to run successful meetings and says most people feel this way.

“If you walk into virtually any meeting anywhere in the world and ask what’s the purpose of this meeting, most people will answer, `It’s Wednesday. We always meet on Wednesday,”‘ he says. “But they can’t tell you the purpose [of the meeting].”

And having a purpose is one of the keys to a successful meeting, even if it’s just to review and to plan, says Price. But it must produce ideas, suggestions or recommendations.

To keep the meeting relevant and focused, he recommends setting up an agenda. “If there’s no agenda, it’s a waste of time,” says Price. “The phenomenon that people don’t generally understand is that the shorter the agenda the longer the meeting, the longer the agenda the shorter the meeting.”

In the end the agenda should guide discussion to a conclusion with outcomes, all of which should be taken down as minutes and compiled into a report.

And the glue to make all this stick together is a group of happy campers. Allan Pease, the author of Body Language, says: “Meetings are about people liking each other and getting on well. If they get on well, they’re likely to reach a conclusion. If they don’t like each other, they’ll fight, even if it’s a good idea.”

Modifying behaviour and being aware of sensitivities, particularly regarding women, can also facilitate meetings.

Pease says one mannerism that irritates women enormously is a male throwing his hands behind his head, leans back in the chair and spreads his legs.

He says this is a position adopted by monkeys and chimpanzees to display dominance. It annoys women because they can’t do it and they don’t have an equivalent position to counter it. Instead they react by raising their voices and talking in demanding tones. This can be counterproductive as men will often interpret their behaviour as aggressive rather than powerful.

Egos can also get in the way. Price says the smart person, especially the successful influencer, picks up on other people’s language and gestures, and moulds them to their ideas.

“The rule of thumb is that the successful persuader seeks clarification and meaning from other people rather than imposing their view,” he says.

“The trick of persuading is to listen, to ask the questions and to recognise that there is a general need for compromise so that you aim for the maximum good for the maximum number. You’ve got to get over the ego.”

Paul Hanna, a motivational speaker and author of five books, says flexibility is the biggest asset you can bring to a meeting.

He has identified four personality types commonly encountered the thinker who’s into detail, the socialiser who craves acceptance, the director who is a decision-maker and the relater who doesn’t want to rock the boat.

While he admits there’s a bit of each personality type in all of us, many of us tend towards one type or another. If you attempt to relate to a thinker as though he/she is a socialiser you won’t get far because you’ll be on different wavelengths.

Another type often encountered is the difficult person, the resentful naysayer. Price says the best way to handle them is to find common ground and “force” them to be positive without them realising.

The other “derailer” of meetings is the slack staff member. “It’s always the same people who are late; it’s always the same people who forget their agendas; it’s always the same people who say they didn’t get their minutes and don’t have a written report,” says Price.

Meetings should always start on time (regardless of who’s not there) and finish on time, he says. And the meeting never goes back over anything..

Arriving on time is just one of the aspects of business etiquette that should be observed, according to Elizabeth Heusler, of Heusler Public Relations. There is a strict code in operation at meetings and people ignore it at their peril.

She says the pecking order is one such code. The most important person sits in the middle of a table with the second most important person to their right and the third most important person diagonally opposite, forming a circle of power. The further away from the power circle you are, the less important you are. Heusler says you must respect this order and work with it.

She adds that it is bad form to raise your voice in a meeting; if you do want to make a point, make it quietly and politely.

“You might not get as much air time in the meetings at first but when you do say something it will be more effective and it will carry the weight of credibility and responsibility,” Heusler says.

Other niceties should also be observed. Smile when you arrive and be happy to see people even if the meeting is going to be difficult. Women and men should both shake hands and look people in the eye. And if you are introducing a person into the meeting, you should introduce the most important person first.

While there are no absolute rights and wrongs, certain breaches of the code are more serious than others. David Price knows of one client who charges $500 if a mobile phone goes off during a meeting.

“At the first meeting of the year they agree on the charity they are going to support for that year and if their phone goes off they have to write out a cheque to that charity,” he says.

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