A successful meeting should be a positive experience, a joining of minds, an opportunity for group discussions and ultimately a helpful and productive time together. The last thing you want is for participants to leave wondering what the point was – whether it was too long and unfocused, or if it should have just been an email.
A poor meeting isn’t just a waste of time but a waste of potential. If it’s a regularly held meeting, then you want to make sure the time invested is well spent, and if it’s a one-off meeting with people that don’t often get in the same room or video call together, you want to use the moment to its fullest.
The typical reason for a poor meeting is a lack of clear purpose, conversations go off track and it ends without any agreed next steps. The solution to all of these is a good chairperson – someone who sets the agenda and facilitates conversation to ensure everyone has their say, while also keeping discussions moving forward. It’s a delicate balance, and it takes more skill to get right than many people realise.
We’ve got some tips to help you understand the role of a chair and practical methods for successfully facilitating a meeting.
1. Set expectations
Your role as chairperson is, at its core, to be in charge and keep control, which starts even before the meeting begins by properly setting expectations. Let everyone know the time, place and format. Is it in person or online? Are there any documents which need downloading in advance? When those attending know the main topics, who else is coming and how long it will be, they can understand what it’s going to be like and what they need to prepare.
At the start of the meeting, you should outline the structure and any rules. Who’s going to be presenting? Are people allowed to talk at any time or should they wait to be called on? Are you insisting everyone has cameras switched on? Should people mute when they aren’t speaking? By outlining these from the very start, you eliminate any confusion and can begin with authority.
2. Keep order
When you get several people joining together to talk, one person may take over while others take a step back. As the chairperson, it’s your job to recognise these issues and avoid them occurring.
Keep track of who’s been talking and who hasn’t; listen to their points and their tone. Is one person taking over the discussion and pushing their own ideas, without giving others the opportunity to disagree or share other points of view? If this happens – whether it’s deliberate or not – it’s your job to ask them to let others talk. Most of the time, they’ll comply and other times you may need to be more assertive.
In a laid-back and relaxed meeting, participants may be fine to speak up whenever they have something to say, and the chairperson just needs to gently stop people from speaking over each other. In more high-tempered situations, they may need a more formal way of calling on people to speak. When meeting online, it can be easy to miss when someone’s being spoken over, so keep an eye out.
3. Keep it focused and moving forward
It’s the responsibility of the chairperson to write and distribute an agenda. This ordered list of topics the meeting will cover is another way to keep the meeting focused and on-task (and indicate what isn’t going to be discussed). Typically, agenda items are listed in priority order, with the most important issues are raised first and smaller topics afterwards.
Tangents and asides can be interesting and often quite useful, but if the conversation veers too far away from what needs to be discussed, gently steer it back on course. Remind those present what they’re here to discuss – perhaps offering time at the end of the meeting, or in a separate meeting, to discuss the other issues raised.
When facilitating the meeting, other presenters may need nudging to wrap up, reminding to start or stop sharing their screens, mute their background or may not be as tech savvy to spot when someone has a question. Even when you aren’t the one actively leading, you should remain in charge and in control.
4. Time keeping
People set specific time aside for meetings, and don’t appreciate it if it overruns. As the chairperson, you should always keep one eye on the clock – you know how long the entire meeting is and how many items are on the agenda.
Before the meeting, you should try to have at least a rough idea of which topics are most important, which you’d expect to inspire the most conversation, and if any are particularly controversial. These are the ones that are likely to take the most about of time and it’s a key part of your role as chairperson to push the conversation on smaller topics forward, ensuring the bigger and more essential areas have the time they deserve. Equally, you don’t want to take so long on these larger points that the last few topics have to be rushed through at the end.
5. Settle disputes and keep track of next steps
One way to keep meetings focused and avoid circular and repetitive discussions is for the chairperson to break deadlocks and provide the occasional summary. If two or three opposing points keep bouncing back and forth without any conclusion being reached, you should adopt a neutral stand to summarise the main arguments, recognising any points of consensus and aiming to find areas of agreement and potential cooperation. An agreement may not always be reached, but there should always be some outcome – even if it’s just an agreement to reassess at a later date.
At the end of each discussion, you should review the main decisions and action points. This ensures that there’s no room for confusion, even at the end of a long debate, and helps clarify for the person taking minutes.
6. Follow up after the meeting
Just as the role of the chairperson starts before the meeting, it continues afterwards. Sometimes the chairperson writes the minutes themselves and sometimes this is delegated to someone else at the meeting, but either way it’s your responsibility to check they go out in a timely manner. These act as a reminder of action points and who needs to do what, as well as an official record of what was agreed. You can use these action points to follow up after the meeting to check they get completed.
Facilitating a meeting takes assertiveness, patience and an ability to find a good balance. A meeting should be lively enough to keep everyone’s interest, without becoming unruly, and controlled enough for everyone to speak up but without it sounding like a flock of bleating sheep. By following these steps, you’ll begin finding that balance and become a much more effective chairperson.
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