A. meetings

Maybe you know from own experience, that meetings can be really frustrating, if they are not done in the “right” way. Single people start to dominate the discussions. Though the meetings take hours and hours, people keep discussing about the same things over and over again, and they never get anything done…
etc etc …

My own experience is that meetings with up to about 6 people can work quite well without using a lot of tools, but more than that is usually getting too much, and you should think about getting more structured.

Here is a tool list for meetings, that can help to improve the communication flow and mood in meetings. I collected from my own and other people’s experience what seemed to be the most important points to me.

Those tools can be used in any kind of meeting, may it be regular meetings of a fix group, or meetings that only take place irregularly and with different people. Though some methods are better in the first case, some more in the second.

preparation of methods and tools

Get aware that, at least in the beginning, those methods need preparation and don’t just work by themselves. Once you got used to them it will be easy to do it, but in the beginning you’ll have to put more effort into making them work.
People got to learn how to use the methods right first.

Preparation includes understanding the methods, chosing methods that might be suitable, preparing materials for visualisation and thinking about how to get the group involved.

It is important that the group is open for using those tools. Whenever you want to use some tools, explain to the group what this tool or method is supposed to do, and why you want to use it. Try to raise consciousness among the people, and try to deal with criticism towards the methods. Not every tool might be the right for your group! Try to convince people to experiment with different tools and methods, until you find out which ones are suiting best your group.

If you are having regular meetings, try to keep the same structure and same methods over a while, so people can get a feeling for them. Many methods work better if people use them naturally without having to think about them all the time.

meeting checklist

meeting checklist

Your agenda could look like this:

  • (introduction round)
  • (emo – flashlight)
  • “technical points” (see handsign-list)
  • important announcements
  • goals, expectations, priorities for this
  • (reports back – what happened with
    agreements of last meeting(s)?)
  • collecting agenda topics
  • talking about agenda – topics
  • to dos and next steps
    – does everyone know what to do next?
  • taking care of documentation
  • (feedback – how was the meeting?)

A.1. clear structure: dates, agenda and clear goals

why structure meetings and use methods? – basic thoughts

There are many critical points about unstructered points. The most simple reason is, that people are geting confused and are losing the topics they came for out of sight.

Then a well prepared and structured meeting can create more time and space for important things which are often forgotten: You should get aware that usually there is different types of things to do in a meeting: One thing is to discuss about different opinions and about possible solutions and strategies. Another thing is to plan concrete steps and to dos and to make agreements on who is doing what. Another thing is to check, what worked well in the past, and what didn’t. And another thing is to talk about emotions and about what people like or dislike about the group and the process within the group.

Especially the last point often does not get enough time and space in meetings. Often it is regarded as not having high priority. So what often happens is, that emotions start to get mixed into the parts which should be objective and constructive (like discussions and making agreements) and to subliminally dominate them. It can help to create space and time for feelings in the meetings, or in extra meetings. (see “dealing with emotions”)

Another point why meetings often fail to work in an objective and constructive way is different talking behaviours of different people, which lead to misunderstandings, emotional confusion and negative emotions in the group.

This is not an unsolveable problem, but you can meet this with different kinds of structures, tools and methods. Not everything might work for your group, but some will, definetely. And you can also come up with own methods, after experimenting a bit and getting inspired by tools that exist already.

I think that it is really important to have a clear structure within your meetings. In best case everyone always knows that NOW it is about making agreements, NOW it is about discussing and NOW someone just wants to complain, because (s)he feels bad about – but that this has nothing to do with the topics itself!

To use the help of methods and tools can be enriching: people stop circelling around the same topics all the time, or jumping from one topic to the next, and you can prevent discussions that are never getting anywhere.
They can enable you to deal with emotional conflicts, which leads to your common prjects running better, which is a success for the group and makes you deal with emotional conflicts better, which makes your projects go better, and so on…

A.1.1. group rythm and dates

It is really important, that there is a clear way how to find a date for meetings. The most simple solution for groups who meet more than one time, is to set regular, fixed dates (like once a month on Saturdays, once a week at Wednesday evening).

This makes it possible to prepare yourself for the meeting, to think about what you want to do IN the meetings. If you use all your time and energy for finding a date, you will lose time that you can use for preparing contents.

Nicolas in Clos du Doubs said, that having meetings is like the rythm of a drum: it is not satisfying to dance to music if you cannot feel the vibe: bam bam bam bam … tata taa tata taa tata taa… Whatever is your groups rythm, if you don’t try to find a common rythm that people can trust in, they won’t dance, and there will be some people who have to run after others to get them together, which will probably lead to conflicts.

If you don’t meet as often, only once or irregularly, you can use (for example) a “doodle” to find a date that fits for everyone. That is a software for finding common dates, that can save you many calls and discussions. Also you can easily make an own nonvirtual “doodle” on a piece of paper, with a box to tick off for each possible date. We use this tool for finding dates in my flatshare.

A.1.2. goals

The most important thing is, that you find out your goals for the meeting in the beginning of the meeting. You should set goals like “want to have an agreement how we solve this problem”, or “I want to have heard opinions about this and that”, or “I want to have told you about my feelings about this and that”. Set clearly defined goals, which are REACHABLE within the meeting, otherwise you cannot have any control if your meeting was successful.

Also talk about wishes and expectations people connect with the meeting in general. Could be in in form of a flashlight circle (see “tools”).
Set a clear maximum time limit, how long each one should be allowed to speak about goals, expectation, wishes.

A.1.3. agenda

Set up an agenda in the beginning of the meeting, that is: collect topics and goals and order them in a clear chronology.
Visualize it so everyone can see it and everyone knows where you are on that agenda. (see visualization). Find priorities for creating that chronology of the agenda. Most urgent or important things go first!

If you realize that it will be taking longer than you thought to talk about everything on your agenda, you can make sure that you talked about the most important things, and move less important things to anoher time and place. Make sure that you agreed on where, when and by whom these topics will be talked about again!! Could be in your next regular meeting, or in a meeting of a smaller, interested group of people.

A.1.4. setting time limits

As your agenda might get pretty long, be consequent, set time limits. It doesn’t help to have overlong meetings and all of you are getting burned out. Set a clear time when you want to be ready, and really do stop then!

Make sure that you found clear next steps for all topics on your agenda. A clear next step can also be: “we will talk about it at this place in this time.”

A.1.5. breaks

If you are having long meetings, don’t forget about breaks!
Most people cannot concentrate any longer than 1 1/2 hours, some even less.
Better do many short breaks than one long one, to keep the concentration level and not get the people carried too far off into other talks.

A.1.6. use documentation of last meeting(s)

It can help a lot to use the documentation of the last meeting(s): check which agreements you made and which of them (not) worked out, and why they (not) worked out. Then go on with finding out how to go on.

A.1.7. find clear next steps

In the end of the meeting everyone should know what (s)he has to do, and it is going on. So make sure everyone knows his/her to dos.
It is important that you document those next steps in a well-arranged, clear form. For instance: make a checklist simply of names and todos, instead of having the todos spread over all the meeting notes hidden within discussions etc.
You could also use a textmarker to hilight the important next steps in the text.

A.2. split up into small groups

If there is many things to talk about, it does make sence to split up into smaller groups, who prepare different topics and report about their results in the big group.

This is the much more efficient way of working on something, especially when there is a big group of people meeting. (But big is relative, 6 people can already be a good reason to split up! 20 people DEFINETELY are a reason to split up in almost any case!).

Small groups should be groups of around 3-5 people. So you guarantee intimacy and good working atmosphere. This also helps to get all peoples’ opinions, also of those people, who don’t like talking in front of big groups.

You can also use the “Law of two Feet” from “open space technology”, which is: people can leave their small group and change over to another group any time they feel like it. (see “open space technology”)
Make sure the groups are documenting well, what they are doing, especially when you are using the “Law of two Feet”.

A.3. how to do a real brainstorming

The goal of a brainstorming is to collect as many ideas as possible. NOT TO DISCUSS ABOUT THEM. Don’t interrupt each other, and don’t criticise. The idea is to build on ideas of other people, and it is not the right time to prove if something works or not. Write everything down, minmapping might be he best tool.

You can also take some big piecs of paper and markers for each participant, and do the whole brainstorming in written form.

A.4. tools for dealing with different talking behaviours

A.4.1. hand signs

They are a really good and important tool to use, for showing agreement or disgreement, showing language/understanding problems, technical points, feelings, etc , without having to interrupt people. They can really speed up your meetings, if everyone uses them. I included a list of internationally used hand signs and also some that we came up with ourselves into this chapter.

I find the signs for “I want to contribute”(I have a new point) and “Direct response”(I got something to say on this current point) especially useful tools, because they facilitate the decisions about who is speaking next.

A.4.2. flashlight rounds

A good way of getting everyone to say something are flashlight rounds. Everyone says something about one topic. This takes a while, but in the end you can be sure to have heard all opinions.

We even came up with an own hand sign for “I want to hear a flashlight round for this topic”.

Some people don’t like the method though, because they cannot deal with the pressure of having to say something now.

A.4.3. moderation

Moderation means that one person takes care about the process of discussions, for instance tries to really find out about all opinions of all people, or to push the agenda points, so all goals of the meeting are reached.

Some people dislike moderation, because it can lead to one person getting too dominant. It makes sence to choose someone for the moderation, who is not a loud or dominant speaker in general, someone who usually does not act like the queen bee. Also it’s good to rotate the moderation role in the meetings.

A.4.4. speakers list

Someone can note who wanted to say something and keep an overview about who was next. This of course only makes sence, when people are not letting each other speak.

Should be used in combination with the handsigns for “I want to contribute” and “Direct response”.

A.4.5. talking stick

This shall raise awareness about not interrupting people or deranging by having parallel talks with single people. Only the person who has the stick is allowed to talk, and all the others are silent. Whover wants to say anything, needs to wait until (s)he gets the stick.

A.4.6 matches method

A good method for making dominant people speak less, is the matches method.
Everyone gets 10 (/ 5 / 15 / ..) matches, and gives away one match each time (s)he sais something. When one’s matches are finished, (s)he may not say anything any more until the matches of the other people are gone.