A few tips for running meetings

If I say meetings are eternal, your mind probably leaps to a (worst) memory of sitting around a table as someone drones through an agenda and the hours drag on… and on… But what I mean is, however much we may complain sometimes, we’ll always have meetings. Whenever people attempt to work together or collaborate in any way, there’ll be a need to share and discuss information in order to make decisions. These days, teams can be scattered across the globe but they’ll still meet, just not physically. In the future, who knows, interplanetary holograms, perhaps. But until the machines take over, the world will run on meetings.

Whether a meeting is good, bad or excruciating, productive or a colossal waste of time, can often depend on the person running it. And by “running”, I mean the role of chair (if you still call it that) or facilitator. The following is a quick look at that role: what it is, what it isn’t, and a few options for keeping things collaborative without resorting to your authority.

Running a meeting – your role

It may vary from a light hand on the tiller to a firm grip on the throat (please don’t!) but the secret to a successful meeting, one that achieves its purpose, is control. As the person running the meeting, you need to steer, intervene, correct, interject, clarify, summarise, and redirect the participants, when necessary. In other words, you do what’s required to keep to the agenda while ensuring everyone gets the most from the process.

Meeting do’s and don’ts

Naturally, every meeting, every agenda item, every discussion is different and you should trust your own judgement. But… while strict rules can’t be drawn up, general guidelines can. Here are 20 such guidelines that will help you keep things on track and achieve the point of your meeting.

Do Don’t
1. Do limit your input; allow others to speak. 1. Don’t dominate participants’ thinking.
2. Do encourage participation. 2. Don’t let the loudest mouth have the most airtime.
3. Do summarise accurately and briefly. 3.  Don’t impose your own interpretation on what’s been said.
4. Do allow disagreements; different points of view can enrich the process. 4. Don’t let the discussion become an argument.
5.  Do keep proceedings focussed – one issue at a time. 5. Don’t oversimplify complex issues.
6. Do ask questions as a catalyst to deeper thinking. 6. Don’t discuss an issue to death; when it’s done, move on.
7. Do offer your opinion only when others have already had their say. 7.  Don’t set yourself up as an expert (unless you genuinely are and your expertise is both relevant and needed).
8. Do be patient, understanding and friendly. 8. Don’t ever allow yourself to become angry.
9. Do stick to the agenda as far as you can; after all, somebody put a lot of time and trouble into preparing it. 9. Don’t be afraid to add extra breaks if needed or swap agenda items around if that seems best.
10. Do start promptly at the ‘advertised’ time. 10. Don’t finish late; overrunning is the most effective way to kill your participants’ remaining enthusiasm.

When to step in and guide the process

There are a number of reasons why you might intervene, including:

  • to start things off
  • to move things on
  • to bring the group back on track
  • to manage the time
  • to encourage participation
  • to help the group address an issue (especially an unpopular/difficult one)
  • to help the group make a decision

As to how to step in when a discussion is in full flow,  John Heron described six types of group intervention in his book, ‘Helping the Client’ (originally published in 1975 under the far less snappy title, ‘Six Category Intervention Analysis’):

  1. Prescriptive Intervention – Used to direct the group’s behaviour, e.g. “I think it would be useful to follow up on…”. This is the intervention most likely to be resisted and/or resented, so use with care (or use after you’ve tried something else). Effective use of this more directive approach rests on two things: a) having built sufficient rapport with the group and b) avoiding language that sounds too directive, e.g. such words as “must”, “should” and “ought”
  2. Informative Intervention – This is where you help the group along by offering a relevant piece of information. This is less directive than the Prescriptive approach, but take care to keep it brief and neutral; don’t lecture the meeting. Hopefully this isn’t information that you should have mentioned earlier…
  3. Confronting Intervention – This is when you make a direct challenge; either to a participant or participants or to the process. The aim is to resolve or highlight a conflict within the meeting which is preventing progress. As ever, phrasing is important; you’re not telling them off, you’re providing insight into something that is preventing progress. This authoritative intervention is best made when you have some rapport with the group and the participants are comfortable with each other. For more on this, see the chapter on Dealing with Conflict.
  4. Cathartic Intervention – Okay, now we’re getting deeper. This is when you encourage the group to identify and discuss the emotions that result from the issue or agenda item. This is helpful with topics that provoke strong reactions. After all, you can pretend that emotions have no place at work but the reality is that emotional responses that remain bottled up will inhibit future action. That said, you must be confident that you can handle what emerges – show empathy, listen without judgement, avoid getting drawn in – and help the participants see what options are available. Use with care and be wary of taking people apart if you don’t know how to put them together again!
  5. Catalytic Intervention – This tends to be far less traumatic than the Cathartic Here, your aim is to enable or prompt a new and different understanding of known facts or situations. In other words, you offer a viewpoint up for consideration that no-one’s expressed so far. It’s important to do this neutrally; if the participants think it’s your own personal viewpoint then they will be influenced by the power of you position, remember? “What if…” questions are good examples of a Cathartic intervention; such as, “What would happen if we went ahead with this initiative?” or “What if we only have these meetings once a month?”
  6. Supportive Intervention – This is where you approve, confirm or validate what the participants are doing; a form of positive encouragement to keep them going on the track they’re on. However, beware of appearing insincere or patronising, that’ll have the opposite effect to the one you’re aiming for.


If you’d like to know more about running a great meeting we are running a free webinar on this topic on 7 February 2020 – book your place here, or give us a call on 01582 463460 – we’re here to help!

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