Meetings, bloody meetings

blah blahIn advance of a presentation I did in Canada a few months ago, about co-housing, members put together a list of questions. One of them was particularly plaintive, not to mention insightful: “What if you hate meetings?”

My first reaction, of course, was, What!? Impossible. Who could hate meetings?

To illustrate, earlier this week Eve caught up with all of us while we were milling about the kitchen making our breakfasts. “We should have a meeting,” she said, “about the Shedders account, which is running low.” There was a chorus of voices crying, “Yes! Let’s do it right now! I can’t wait!” – Well, okay, not exactly. What actually happened was much mumbling and numerous delaying tactics. We finally settled on a time as late in the day as we could make it.

To the creator of the anonymous question, I say: most of us dislike meetings, or at least the prospect of them. They can be boring or aggravating or disheartening, or quite often all three. It would be nice to dispose of them entirely.  The only problem is, then nothing would ever get done. If one is committed to co-housing, or any other project of any size, it will take dozens and dozens of meetings to make it happen. And then dozens more every year to keep it happening.

From ten or so years of Shedders’ experience, I offer a couple of suggestions to help make meetings more palatable. These are less commonly-heard insights but in my experience even more important than “Take good notes” and “Start on time”.

Get serious?

I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said that life is too serious to be taken seriously. I take this maxim very much to heart, and apply it especially to meetings. The very trap lies in their importance. Because meetings are crucial to the progress of a project, at least in someone’s view, we get all earnest about them. That very earnestness can weigh down, even sink, the whole process.

In my early days of parenting, I was asked to become chairperson of the parent/teacher committee that managed a 5-classroom Montessori school. Before accepting, I sat in on a couple of meetings. They were very serious indeed. Everyone was conscious of the weight of responsibility for a significant budget, a valuable piece of property, and the livelihoods of several teachers – not to mention the growth and well-being of all our children. There were factions fighting over this and that and in everyone’s determination to do the right thing, nobody was having any fun and not a lot was getting done.

With trepidation, I took on the job. My first night, I brought in a big cask of wine and a stack of plastic glasses. I preambled saying something like, “I don’t generally do this kind of thing, but we weren’t having any fun at the last couple of meetings and any port in a storm, so to speak.” I philosophised about how we were going to make mistakes anyway, wine or not, and if the wine at least cheered us up a little, that might not be a bad thing. Everybody tentatively took a glass, and we “here’s cheers”ed and off we started with lighter hearts. It was not a bad meeting. I fondly remember that we did some good work that year, too, including amassing almost ten times the usual amount of money with our fundraising.

So my advice to my anonymous friend who hates meetings is to do whatever you can to keep them light, especially if the agenda is a heavy one. My personal favourite tool is Blue Castello cheese, which will inevitably make me happy, but find whatever works for you.

Purposeful, yes; serious, no.

No voting. Ever.

Imagine what happens in Parliament when there’s a major issue up for a vote; the division bells ring or whatever it is that happens, and aides scurry about rounding up members, desperate to make up the numbers. And then the vote happens, and one side wins by a hair. Do you realise what this means? Almost ONE HALF of the people in the country, maybe as many as 11 million people, have just lost the vote! Imagine 11 million people walking about grumpy that their voice is not being honoured, feeling disenfranchised, feeling “meh”, perhaps even subconsciously sabotaging the result.

Really, it doesn’t bear thinking about.* And anyway, surely it’s not related to six or eight or thirty people getting together for a co-housing meeting. As a member of a strong and effective team, you want every single one of those people to be heard and respected, to be a willing participant in the decision and its aftermath. You don’t say, “Let’s vote and get this over.” Instead, you say, “There’ve been a few people expressing the view that we should paint the kitchen orange; does anyone have a different idea about it?” Or you say, “Helmut, we haven’t heard from you yet; what are you thinking?” Or “It seems to me there’s still a crackle of discord in the air.” Then there’s more talking, and more listening, and eventually everyone nestles into a decision. It takes longer, and takes courage, but can be counted on to produce a long-lasting result.

Voting gets your blood up, somehow. You seek support and first thing, there’s partisanship happening. You stop approaching an issue as if you were all on the same side of the table, wanting a solution to the same problem. You find yourself becoming aggressive or passive or covert, in your will to be heard, to get your way, to get something done. We slide into gotta-win mode and begin strategising. Voting can’t help but make things political.

You might be wondering how the Shedders meeting, mentioned earlier, went. We did indeed step into our scheduled after-dinner meeting. As you might expect in a meeting about money, there were widely divergent views and ideas. Should we all top up the fund with extra payments? Should we tighten our belts for a while? Should we try a new system, perhaps create another account so we could have a maintenance account as well as a day-to-day kitty? Should we get credit cards?

I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that we did eventually nestle into a few decisions. It wasn’t that difficult. From long years of habit, we tread carefully in these meetings. We try not to get positional when we express our views. We paraphrase other’s views to make sure we’ve understood. We keep checking to see if we have reached consensus, and getting back into discussion if we haven’t. Sometimes we’ll offer to go along with something we don’t quite agree with, but don’t feel strongly about. We respect anyone’s veto.

We use props that will make us as un-serious as possible (in this case, ice cream and more wine).

And we never, ever vote.

 * * *

* ….Although, I should perhaps claim some credibility as a political analyst. Blog followers may remember my blog some months ago about Julia Gillard being far better off out of politics, and that she would find a happy place for her skills before long. Did you catch her recent interview? I reckon she’s well on her feet.

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2 thoughts on “Meetings, bloody meetings

  1. In my current profession, there is a trend towards conducting meetings standing up. Tends to move things along, if nothing else. 🙂

    I think your system of “Unanimous Consent” is very wise. At a recent co-housing presentation, they explained a process used by many co-housing communities. These meetings often run from 30 to 50 people so they’ve had to systematize things more. One system has three cards for “voting”: green for yes, yellow for “I don’t like this but I won’t stand in the way,” and red for a veto. One red card and they don’t do it. In practice, more than a couple of yellows has the same effect. (They also use the cards during debate: green means I’ve got something to say, yellow means I have a point of information that is best said ahead of the waiting greens, and blue (not red) is a point of order such as “We’re off the topic”, or “The building is on fire.”)

    Aren’t you glad you don’t need to resort to either of these? 😀

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