Meetings are one of the most important decision-making and problem-solving avenues used by businesses today. It is important to use communication strategies that are effective given the participants involved and the goals they wish to reach. We have done in-depth studies of meetings in different types of organisations to try to identify how meetings can be used most effectively.
Our analysis shows that problem-solving oriented meetings tend to have three major phases:
- An opening section, where participants agree on the agenda or define the problem;
- An exploratory phase, where the issue is more fully developed in an open-ended way;
- A resolution section, where participants agree on a course of action. This often involves summing up or restating decisions and action points.
We have found that there are two major approaches to this problem-solving process, especially the exploratory phase. Each has advantages and disadvantages, with one or other approach or a mixture of both suiting different participants or different types of problems:
- The traditional approach is the linear approach, where people work systematically through a number of points, and proceed logically from one to another. The major advantage of this approach is that it enables the length of the discussion to be more easily controlled and makes it easier to ensure all topics are covered.
- A different approach that can be equally effective is the spiral or cyclical approach. Speakers first examine the main issue very briefly from a number of different angles and then pick out one or other of these key points and discuss it in more detail; as the discussion progresses, the same point may recur several times, hopefully moving further toward resolution. This approach gives more freedom to the participants, they can give their point of view as the thought comes to them and may feel more in control of the discussion.
Regardless of the approach taken, the role of chair is vital in carrying out an effective meeting:
- It is the chair's role to open the meeting, it is crucial that they establish control at this stage to ensure that participants orient to the chair's authority throughout the meeting.
- The chair keeps track of the progress of the meeting, marking the stage that is reached and ensuring that all relevant issues are covered e.g., Meeting between manager and policy analystRuth: so where are we at in terms of, I mean you're inclined to want to pull back a little bit
Ruth: but to find out a bit more from um Rene about just our one expressing our concerns about the way in which the questions are framed
Ruth: and secondly about what control we'll have over the way in which the information might be used
Ruth: those are the two main things eh
- Effective management often involves negotiating consensus. It is the chair's job to make sure everyone at a meeting knows the purpose of the meeting, what the issues being discussed are and that everyone knows what has been agreed. Much discontent in the meeting context comes about because of a lack of such consensus e.g., A participant in a meeting is unhappy when they feel the chair is just 'pushing through the agenda'Bill: just as a point of clarification is there a specific presenting issue here or is this a general concern
- Related to this, it is the chair's role to make sure everyone feels involved in the decision-making process. This can include an appropriate amount of small talk and humour in the meeting.
Please see our list of publications on Meetings in the Bibliographies section.