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The right way to run a meeting
By Orson Scott Card January 28, 2010

Every Latter-day Saint knows how to conduct a meeting.

Not that we ever get lessons in doing it. We merely watch other Church members lead meetings, knowing that anybody might have such a calling someday, and it seeps into our bones.

That's one of the reasons Mormons tend to do well in management positions in our worldly employment. Most of us know how to take charge of a group of people, without being bossy, and get things done.

Sacrament meeting, priesthood meeting, Young Women, and Relief Society follow their own predictable template. We just plug in the names.

Greeting

Announcements

Opening song

Invocation

Introduce visitors

Business

Teaching

Benediction

Sacrament meeting, being more formal, skips the introduction of visitors, and adds the sacrament hymn and administering the sacrament. It also has a closing hymn.

Priesthood, Young Women, and Primary have the closing prayer in the individual quorums or classes.

And except for the specialized needs of Primary -- mostly arising from the fact that children tend to be a skeptical, easily distracted audience -- that pretty well covers our regular meetings.

But there are other meetings that we often handle more clumsily: Stake leadership meetings. Presidency and bishopric meetings. Ward and high council meetings.

Because the purpose of these meetings isn't solely to teach, they don't have the same template every time. You can't just show up, plug in the names, and go. For each meeting to work well, it has to be planned, then vigorously and attentively conducted.

When that doesn't happen, many people who ought to attend these meetings start finding excuses not to go. And they're not really wrong: Since the meeting isn't accomplishing much, it begins to seem less important than family activities, work, or nice long naps.

1. What is this meeting for? Pick one or more from this list:

a. training

b. teaching

c. making decisions

d. implementing decisions already made

e. coming up with ideas (brainstorming)

f. sharing information from the group

g. coordinating activities

Those of you who watch the TV show The Office know just how dreadful a meeting can be when the leader has not determined the purpose -- or pretends to have one purpose while really pursuing another.

While it's good for a meeting to be entertaining, it should never be at the expense of real content. People quickly come to resent "fluff" -- they didn't come to watch a performance, they came to either learn or accomplish something.

If the key decision is already made, don't pretend that the group has a choice. Just announce the decision and then either train the group or lead them in planning how to implement it.

If the purpose of the meeting is for every participant to share information, then do the advance preparation. Call every one of them (email won't do) and make sure that they are ready with information to talk about. If it's clear they aren't going to be ready, then use the meeting to train them in what kind of information to gather, how to gather it, and how to report it.

If there is a decision to be made by the group, there are usually two steps -- and two meetings. The first meeting is to lay out the parameters of the decision (usually an activity, but sometimes a problem to be solved), and then brainstorm to come up with ideas.

Between the first and second meeting, individuals do research to determine the pros and cons of all the proposed ideas. Then, at the second meeting, this information is presented and the group either votes or achieves consensus to make a decision.

2. What must I do to make this meeting effective?

a. Prioritize the tasks

b. Write out the agenda in order of priority

c. Conduct with cheerfulness and energy

d. Have a scribe taking down everything

e. Be alert to every member's attitude during the meeting

f. Begin and end on time

g. Spend the last three minutes clarifying what has been accomplished

h. Provide a written follow-up detailing decisions and assignments

Most people make the mistake of organizing the agenda with all the "quick" items first, to "get them out of the way." But you don't know for sure what's going to be quick. Begin the meeting with the most important activity, so that if you run out of time, you have accomplished what matters most.

Section 121 of the Doctrine & Covenants is, as in so many other situations, the best guide to being an attentive leader of a meeting.

Authority in the Church is never, never dictatorial. Even if you are the sole person responsible for making a decision, it is foolish and ineffective to try to force your decision on others.

Rather, you need to persuade them. And to do that you have to understand what they want and need -- which suggests you need to ask them questions and listen carefully to what they say.

Long-suffering means patience -- if they aren't doing what you ask, chances are you either didn't explain it clearly or are asking them to do what cannot or should not be done, at least in their view.

Gentleness suggests that you be sensitive to their feelings -- which is one of the reasons why it's important that you are not the one taking notes. You need your eyes on them all the time, so you can measure the effects of the words said by you and others.

Meekness means that you are never too proud to realize that your own ideas and decisions might be mistaken or incomplete or likely to be ineffective. Let them help you be better than you would be if you were completely on your own. Why do you think the Lord gives even his prophets the benefit of counselors?

Love unfeigned requires that the people at that meeting are more important than the agenda. It is usually better to leave a decision unmade than to make it under circumstances that damage one or more members of the group. Genuine emergencies are rare -- and when they happen, they usually produce consensus.

Kindness implies that you are thinking of how this meeting affects their lives. If you overburden them with assignments, the assignments won't get done -- or, if they are, it's at the expense of other important aspects of their lives. If you start late or run overtime, you are stealing time from their families, or depriving them of rest.

Pure knowledge is the requirement that you know what you're doing. When you presume to conduct a meeting without having done your own homework, you are not giving them knowledge, you're just "being in charge," and their trust in you will soon evaporate.

And when Section 121 forbids us to use hypocrisy or guile, please remember that there are no exceptions. One of the ways to destroy your own authority is to be deceptive -- pretending that a higher authority requires something that was really your own decision -- or hypocritical -- pretending that you want their input when in fact your mind is already made up.

The list of leadership advice ends with "reproving betimes with sharpness." Remember that the "sharpness" refers to clarity. This is the tool you use to keep a meeting running on time -- or to encourage the sharing of ideas.

You announce at the beginning of the meeting what the agenda is, and say, "It's fun to digress sometimes, but I'm going to be watching the clock so we can end on time. When a point has been made, it's made, so I'm going to cut off repetitions. And if you catch me wasting time with digressions or repetitions, call me on it, too."

You have to make sure you are absolutely even-handed. If you only cut off speakers who disagree with you or who promote an idea you don't like, they'll catch on to your bias -- it will be chalked up in their minds as hypocrisy.

Brainstorming has the opposite requirement -- you not only can't cut off or reject ideas, but also you must protect each speaker from having other participants from censoring or rejecting.

Some people will speak up no matter what -- but many of the best minds are wrapped in fragile egos, and if they get slapped down, or see someone else get slapped down with an instant dismissal of a suggestion, they will not attempt to speak again.

Pretty soon your "brainstorming" becomes limited to the same handful of people, and you not only miss out on possible good ideas, you also create a feeling in the rest of the group that they might as well not be there. You lose any hope of real support and consensus for the eventual decision.

To control the meeting, complete clarity is a necessity -- explain the rules and then stick to them. Almost everyone is grateful when the leader of the meeting keeps things moving in the right direction, as long as the discipline is done with -- you know the list -- love, kindness, gentleness, and unfaked love.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

 
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