Monday, 19 May 2014

How to organise and facilitate meetings effectively

(Notes Condensed from Libcom articles)
·         Make sure everyone knows the time and place
·         Develop an agenda- An agenda gives people time to plan, to think over things that will be discussed, to do assignments and bring necessary information and materials. It doesn't have to be set in stone - you can always add and adjust as needed, even during the meeting.
·         An agenda should include all of the following items that apply to your group:
1. Additions and approval of the agenda,
2. Reading, corrections, and approval of the previous meeting's minutes,
3. Announcements and correspondence to be dealt with,
4. Treasurer's report,
5. Committee reports,
6. Unfinished business (issues left over from previous meetings),
7. New business.
If there is any disagreement over the order of the agenda then this should be quickly discussed and voted on at the start of the meeting. If the chair thinks there is a lot to get through it may make sense to set a maximum amount of time that can be spent discussing particular topics right at the start of the meeting.
·         Make sure the room is open and set up properly-Try and arrange the room so that everyone sits in a circle and make sure you are seated where you can see everyone.
·         Make sure you start on time.
·         First thing to do is make sure everyone knows who everyone else is. As clichéd as it may be - have a 'go-round' and get people to say their names and maybe a bit of other info about themselves.
·         Next up make sure someone has volunteered to facilitate the meeting (who will have the agenda, and make sure the meeting flows smoothly) and someone else is taking decent notes of the meeting. Its important that the same people don't end up doing these tasks every meeting, perhaps the best way to tackle this is to have a list of everyone willing to chair and each week take the next person on the list.
·         Minute taking-  Someone should be responsible every week for keeping minutes of the meeting and preparing these to be read at or distributed before the next meeting. Minutes need not be very detailed (you don't need to write down what everyone says).
·         The minutes of a meeting should include the following (if they apply to your particular group and your meetings):
Date, time and place of meeting.
List of people attending, and any members who were absent.
Time the meeting was called to order.
Approval of the previous meeting's minutes, and any amendments.
Summary of reports, announcements, and other information shared.
Proposals, resolutions, motions, amendments, a summary of the discussion, and final disposition (if you are using formal parliamentary procedure, record who made the motion and who seconded it).
Time of adjournment.
Next meeting date, time and location.
Name of person taking the minutes.
Motions and resolutions should be recorded verbatim and should be read back during the meeting to make sure they have been accurately transcribed
·         Summarise the discussion, capturing key points and decisions reached. When someone takes on an assignment, a deadline is set, or other important agreements are reached, make sure to record them. This will serve as a reminder when the minutes are read later on.
·         Encourage group discussion to get all points of view- Turn questions back to the group for their input. Ask people to comment on something just said. Compliment people on their ideas and thank them for their input. Ask open-ended questions. You may need to ask the more quiet people for their thoughts, and tactfully interrupt the longwinded ones to move the discussion along. Encourage people who just want to agree with a previous speaker to say "ditto" rather than taking the time to repeat her/his point.
·         Progressive Stack- preference given to marginalized voices. Problem: It is not always obvious who that is.
·         Delegating tasks:- Be specific, Agree on deadlines, Check back with the person you've delegated to, to find out how it's going, Encourage people to take a realistic look at their workload and abilities, and to take on the jobs they can reasonably handle, Find out what people are good at, and what they like to do, and make the most of it, Praise effort and good work, but also let them know where they might have done better, Encourage risk-taking and growth by treating mistakes and less-than-successful efforts as a chance to learn and do better next time.
·         Stay on top of things- It's part of your job as facilitator to manage the traffic and help the discussion move along. If several people are trying to talk at once, ask them to take turns. It helps to have a pen and paper to hand for when things get busy- jot down people's names in the order they raised their hands. It can be a good idea to let people who have not spoken yet to skip the queue and put them at the top of your list. Make sure everyone gets their turn and things keep moving - you might have to start asking some people to keep it short! Often a discussion can become dominated by a couple of speakers, try and avoid this situation by inviting the rest of the people to contribute (going round in a circle and asking for people's views can help).
·         If the discussion is getting off-topic (i.e. it strays from the agenda), point this out and redirect it back on course. If someone is getting hostile, argumentative, or needlessly negative, tactfully intervene and try to turn the discussion in a more constructive direction. If necessary, ask the group to agree to a time limit on a discussion that might take too long. You might want to agree to limit each speaker's time, or say that no one can speak a second time until everyone has spoken once.
·         If the group is spinning its wheels and people are only repeating themselves, restate and summarise the issues and ask if people are near ready to make a decision on the subject. If it just doesn't seem that the group can make a good decision right now, suggest tabling the matter until another time. You may want to ask someone to bring back more information, or form a committee to work on the issue.
·         Don't use your position as facilitator to impose your personal ideas and opinions on the group-If you have strong feelings on a particular issue, you may want to step aside and let someone else facilitate that discussion. At the very least, keep your own comments to a minimum, try to let others speak first, and identify them as your personal beliefs, outside of your role as facilitator. Avoid criticising the ideas of others - your position gives your comments undue extra weight.
·         Non-verbals are important, too  -Be attentive to people who are speaking - look at them, lean forward, smile, nod. Make eye contact with people who may need encouragement to speak. Pay attention - people who are less confident about speaking will often indicate that they want to speak in minor way (e.g. briefly half put up their hand). A good chair will spot this and encourage them to speak
·         some things you could do to get quiet people talking are: arousing interest by asking directly for his/her opinion, asking for his/her view after indicating respect for his/her experience (but don't overdo this!) or compliment or encourage him/her the first time he/she talks. But most importantly work to foster a non-intimidatory atmosphere in meetings where everyone feels equal and valued.
·         Don't be afraid of silence--It's a very useful tool. It gives people a chance to consider and collect their thoughts. It may encourage someone to voice a comment they've been thinking about but hesitant to say.
·         Guide the discussion toward closure----Restate people's comments to make sure everyone understands their point. Ask for clarification. Summarise what has been accomplished or agreed and what is left to resolve. Suggest when it's time to wrap up and make decisions or take action.
·         Take time at the end of the meeting to process-Reflect on what went well and what people appreciate about others' input and actions. Check out assumptions. Encourage people to share any lingering concerns or things that just don't sit right.
·         End on time-Nothing makes people dread and avoid meetings more than knowing they're likely to go on and on and consume far more of their time than they want to give. Set a time to end the meeting at the very beginning and stick to it!
·         Minutes-Make sure the minutes will be written up, organised and then distributed among those who attended within a reasonable time scale.
·         Follow up with people-Thank them for their input. Make sure they understand assignments and have what they need to do them.
·         Informality does not eliminate hierarchy in organisations; it merely masks it. To the insiders, everything appears friendly and egalitarian. But newcomers do not have the same longstanding ties to the group. And having no clear definition of responsibilities, and no elections of individuals who carry out important tasks, makes it more difficult for the membership to control what goes on. Being "formal" merely means that the organisation has a written set of rules about how decisions are made, and duties of officers and conditions of membership are clearly defined. An organisation does not have to be top-down in order to be "formal" in this sense.
·         t is possible to elect people to perform delegated tasks without creating a top-down organisation. Here are a few guidelines:
1.       The scope of authority of an elected position, such as correspondence secretary or treasurer, should be explicitly defined and delimited, so that everyone knows what this person should be doing, and with the requirement of regular reports to keep the membership informed.
2.       The person should be elected for a limited term, such as one year, and should be subject to recall at any time by majority vote of the membership (but with a requirement of adequate notice to ensure that this is not "sprung" all of a sudden by those members least favourable to the person currently doing the job).
3.       If at all feasible, there should be a requirement of mandatory rotation from office. This is especially important for any position of acting as spokesperson or representative of an organisation or body of people. If an organisation is very small, however, it is sometimes difficult to rotate responsibilities. Even so, the person carrying out responsibilities can report regularly to membership meetings and can be thus directed by decisions of the membership.
4.       Nobody is to be elected to set policy for the organisation, but only to carry out those responsibilities that have been assigned by the membership. The general membership meeting of the organisation must remain the supreme decision-making body and can over-rule any decisions of elected officers.
5.       The idea is that the main decision-making responsibility of the organisation is not to be delegated to some "steering committee" or executive but is conducted directly by the membership through their own discussions and votes; this is the heart of the libertarian concept of organisation.
·         The real question should be, "What is the relationship between those vested with responsibilities and the rest of the membership?" If the centre of decision-making lies in the general meetings, and those with responsibilities must report to these meetings, and are instructed by them, and (where possible) jobs are rotated, then we do not have a top-down structure, but an organisation where decision-making is from the bottom u
·         chairless meetings- where people interrupt each other, voices get louder as people try to express themselves, discussions get side-tracked into numerous tangents, and important decisions are put off or hurriedly decided at the last minute. This experience has made me rather frustrated with the prejudice against having a chair of meetings.
·         If a meeting only consists of a few people, then obviously it does not need to have a chair. But once meetings achieve a certain size, a chair becomes necessary in order to ensure that the meeting stays on track and moves through the agenda in a reasonable amount of time, while making sure that people have an opportunity to speak.
·         The rationale behind having a chair is that we delegate to one person the responsibility to concentrate on such things as the agenda and the order of speakers while the rest of us are free to concentrate on what is being said. Of course, it can happen that a chair is manipulative, favouring one particular "side" in a matter under dispute. But in such a situation, a motion to replace the chair would be in order.
·         If an individual makes public statements that claim to speak for the organisation, but state only the viewpoint of the individual, not a viewpoint actually discussed and agreed to by the majority, then that individual is acting irresponsibly and anti-democratically. here is, however, no reason why an individual should be required to stay mum publicly about disagreements within the organisation. As long as the individual makes clear that the stated viewpoint is his or her own, public disagreement with the position of the organisation is not irresponsible.
·         A libertarian concept of organisation must allow for diversity of opinions. This means that members must try to maintain a climate of respecting the opinions of others in the organisation. But what happens when members do not respect the rights of others? What happens when members are threatening to others, or conduct themselves in ways that are very disruptive to the life of an organisation? In such a case the majority may have to consider disassociating themselves from that individual. In other words, the rights of the majority include the right to expel individual members.
·         is a very basic libertarian principle that the membership of an organisation have the right to directly control it. And this means that no individual has the "right" to act in ways that prevent the majority from accomplishing the purposes for which they got together. If the majority in an organisation did not have the right to expel disruptive individuals, this would mean that they couldn't control the conditions of membership and direction of that organisation. Freedom of association implies the freedom to disassociate.
·         On the other hand, the power to expel members should never be delegated to officials. For, if elected officers can expel members on their own, they can expel critics of how they are conducting their responsibilities. Expulsion certainly is used by officials in hierarchical organisations as a means of maintaining their top-down control. What is illegitimate in such cases is not the act of expulsion in itself, but the top-down way it is carried out.
·         The point here is that individuals have obligations to the other members of an organisation. And the majority have the right to ensure that the responsibilities of membership are observed. But expulsion is a last resort, and should not be used lightly. Expulsion is something that the membership should decide on directly, in a general membership meeting or convention. And it should always be required that accused individuals be given advance notice and have the right to defend themselves before the general membership prior to a vote to expel.
·         The partisans of informality also tend to be averse to voting as a way of making decisions. They prefer the process of talking until agreement is reached (or not reached). In my experience, this process tends to encourage informal hierarchy. That's because this process tends to heighten the influence of the more articulate and self-confident individuals, and tends to disenfranchise the shy newcomer, and the less articulate. Voting has the advantage that it is an equaliser. The shy and the aggressive, the articulate and the not-so-articulate, all can raise their hands, and each has only one vote.
·         Advocates of consensus sometimes say that hierarchical organisation is the only alternative to consensus. But there is also the alternative of direct democracy where decisions are made by majority vote. Direct voting by the members puts the majority of members in control, and control by the majority of members is the opposite of hierarchy. In a hierarchical organisation, it is not the majority of members who are in charge but a few leaders at the top -- that is what "hierarchy" means.
·         Consensus Decision making- The requirement of unanimity means that disagreements have to be talked out until verbal consensus emerges. This means that even a formal consensus system tends to heighten the influence of the more talkative, self-confident participants. Also, the requirement of consensus often leads to prolonged, marathon sessions, or meetings where nothing is decided.
·         This aspect of consensus tends to make the movement less conducive to participation by working people, and tends to reduce participation to the hard-core activists. When people have other demands on their time (job, children, spouse), they will tend to be frustrated by meetings that are unnecessarily long, indecisive, or chaotic. Most people will want to have some sense that something will be accomplished, a clear decision made, and in a reasonable amount of time.
·         Consensus Decision making means that one person or a few people, can block democratic decision making of a majority- in essence it means minority rule. Consensus is anti-democratic
·         The requirement of unanimity is anti-democratic. A small minority does not have the right to prevent the majority of members from doing what they want to do. Organisations are not of value in themselves but only as a vehicle for cooperation and collective activity. Insofar as consensus thwarts the majority from doing what it wants, it makes the organisation an ineffective vehicle for them. This can lead to splits and fragmentation -- exactly the result that the advocates of consensus say they want to avoid.
·         The rules of an organisation can -- and must -- protect the rights of individuals and minorities
·         To give a single individual or small minority the right of veto on decisions is to have a system of minority rule.
·         Even when individuals or minorities do not actually threaten or use a block to keep the majority from doing what it wants, everyone is aware that they could, if the organisation is run by consensus. The structural requirement of unanimity puts pressure on the majority to placate small minorities in order to accomplish something. Often this leads to decisions that paper over disagreements and leave everyone dissatisfied.
·         Rudy Perkins has described this problem, based on his experience in the Clamshell Alliance in New England in the late '70s:  “Majority rule is disliked because amongst the two, three or many courses of action proposed, only one is chosen; the rest are "defeated." Consensus theoretically accommodates everyone's ideas. In practice this often led to: 
1.        a watered down, lowest-common-denominator solution, or
2.       the victory of one proposal through intimidation or acquiescence, or
3.       the creation of a vague proposal to placate everyone, while the plan of one side or another was actually implemented through committees or office staff.
----Ideas are in competition and some do win, but under consensus the act of choosing between alternatives is usually disguised. Because the process is often one of mystification and subterfuge, it takes power of conscious decision away from the organisation's membership”.
·         Consensus puts pressure on minorities not to express misgivings or disagreements because their dissent would prevent the organisation from making a decision. Thus it actually becomes harder for minorities to state dissenting opinions because dissent is always a disruptive act. When decisions are made by majority vote, on the other hand, there is not this heavy "cost" to dissent and minorities can freely state their disagreement without thereby disrupting or blocking the organisation from reaching a decision.
·         Simple majority
·         "Simple majority" is the requirement of one vote more than half the votes cast in order to make a decision. A simple majority is the smallest number of votes needed to guarantee that a decision is made.(
·         Advocates of simple majority sometimes hear the retort: "But do we want to have a major decision made with 51% for 49% against?" Decisions that organisations make in the course of conducting their affairs vary a lot in their relative importance to the participants. For some decisions, a narrow majority won't matter because those who voted "no" may not have really strong feelings one way or the other. If it is an important issue, though, it is clearly a problem if an organisation is closely split.
·         Sometimes, in organisations that are based on membership participation and democratic voting, close votes will lead the group to stop and reconsider the issue in order to find a proposal that accommodates objections.
·         More often, this process happens before it reaches a vote. When it becomes clear in the course of the discussion on a proposal that the membership are closely divided and have strong feelings on the issue, there is likely to be an effort to find a proposal that mitigates objections. For one thing, it is to the advantage of the proposal's partisans to have as much support as possible within the organisation. The work of the organisation is bound to suffer if it is badly split -- dissatisfied members may drag their feet or drop out.
·         tipulating a majority larger than 50% plus one means that decisions can be blocked by minorities. Though the minorities required to "block" a majority are larger than under consensus, this still permits minority control. A cohesive minority could exercise undue influence on a group due to its potential for blocking what the majority wants. Thus the arguments against consensus also apply to some extent against a formal requirement of two-thirds or three-fourths majority. The advantage to "simple majority" as a decision-making method is that it is the only way to formally preclude minority rule.
·         There may be circumstances when it would be desirable to have a larger majority than 50% plus one -- as in those cases where the organisation is closely split on important issues. But instead of trying to make a formal rule for this, I think this should be dealt with by the membership using good sense in such situations. Not everything that is desirable for an organisation can be created by formal rules.

·         However, consensus does often work reasonably well in small groups, especially where the participants have a common background and shared assumptions. Some people might maintain that small, independent groups are all that is needed


Activists and "difficult people"

Published in Social Anarchism, Number 30, 2001, pp. 27-47.

Brian Martin -

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