How to improve the dynamics in your meetings


Good meetings help get things done. They harness the skills and experience of those around the table to solve problems, ask intelligent questions and improve strategy to get things done.

Bad meetings do not get things done. They waste people's time, exacerbate tension, entrench partisan behaviours and frequently cover the same ground repeatedly without making any real progress.

If you've been involved in governance or meetings of any sort in schools, then at some point you will probably have experienced both. Understanding how individual behaviours contribute to the overall dynamic of a governing board, or any group of people who come together to get things done, can help diagnose the bad and define what's good.

In boardroom situations, it is easy to rate ourselves as better than we are, or to assume that we are not part of the problem. The next time you are in a meeting, and no one is misbehaving or taking things off at a tangent, ask yourself "what if I'm the person who does those things in this group?"

Having someone act as an observer (whether they are a member of the group who takes on that role for a specific meeting or an external observer brought in to help the team understand their behaviours) can bring real benefits. It helps participants understand how their behaviours helped (or hindered!) the progress of the meeting.

To do this, observers need to give feedback specific enough to help colleagues improve. However, keeping track of a busy meeting is hard work. Tracking who said what, to whom and in what tone can be like trying to commentate on multiple tennis matches at once. Just as you are getting a handle on the action in one area, a private conversation breaks out and two participants have suddenly reopened a discussion about the previous agenda item.

Wouldn't it be useful if there were a shorthand way for an observer to record what behaviours were exhibited by participants and when?

Well, now there is. The set of simple icons in this guide can be used, along with the grid provided, to capture helpful and hindering behaviours in meetings – without having to record the specifics of who said what to whom – giving you plenty of time to listen and observe the discussions without constantly having to write notes. 

 Reading the paperwork in advance

Reading the paperwork before the meeting means that everyone is up to speed with the information that will be discussed at the meeting. Reading ahead will allow trustees and governors time to study the information, ruminate on it and come to the meeting properly able to fulfil their obligations to scrutinise the school.

 Being prepared to listen to others

When any group of people come together, there will always be differences of opinion. This can be exacerbated when emotions run high, especially when people are passionate about education. There are many different opinions on the correct way to improve schools and trusts, but it's vital to prioritise the outcomes for the pupils, rather than the egos of those around the table.

TIP: There are ways to encourage this behaviour from others - if you find yourself struggling to be heard in a meeting, be confident and speak early in a meeting to establish yourself. If you are interrupted, wait until they have finished and begin again, but always remain calm and polite. State the behaviour you want from others "I need you to listen to what I have to say and then to respond with questions once I have spoken"

 Asking questions and seeking clarification

Asking intelligent questions and asking the speaker to clarify can help you to understand the subject better and can gain you respect amongst your peers.

Reading the agenda will allow you to think of any relevant questions that you may want to ask. Keep your questions short, concise and to the point. Avoiding starting your questions with, "I'm sorry" or "This might be a silly question" will make you seem more authoritative.

TIP: If you are the lone voice asking for clarification in a meeting and others are getting impatient, introduce your question by saying "I am almost ready to join the consensus of opinion; in order for me to do so, I just need to understand X, Y & Z". This signals that you are a team player but that there are things that are important to you.

Staying focused on the issue at hand

Filibustering might help you prevent a law from being passed in Congress, but it won't be any use when trying to come to a consensus. Solving the issues at hand is much quicker when the whole team stays focused.

Brevity is also important to stay focused. Lengthy recitations of anecdotal evidence can delay decision making. If a colleague makes a point you agree with and illustrates it with an example or anecdotal evidence, avoid the need to add weight to their argument by adding your own anecdote. Simply say "I agree with X, as that example chimes with my experience/ understanding".

TIP: Keep things on track by ending each agenda item by asking, "Are there any more issues arising from this item?" Once any lingering issues have been aired, the chair can be confident in shutting down any attempts to move back to an item later in the agenda. Hopefully, as adults, we have moved past using the 'speaking spoon' to determine who is talking but it may also be helpful for the chair to have a timer and restrict speaking times to prevent the meetings from going over time.

 Building consensus

School board or trustee meetings should be focused on coming to a consensus, focusing on the outcomes for the pupils.

True consensus can only be reached when all of the members of the meeting agree on an action. Most school boards work on a majority basis, however, having a wider agreement not only helps with implementation but contributes to a harmonious environment.

It's much easier to get agreements when everyone puts the key stakeholder (in this case, the children) at the centre of each of their decisions. It's important that each of the members of the board is honest with each other about what needs to happen, rather than personal preference. 

Fostering good relationships with others

The adage 'it's easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar' still rings true. In his classic 'How to Win Friends and Influence People', Dale Carnegie said, "success in dealing with people depends on a sympathetic grasp of the other person's viewpoint". Finding common ground with those on the board will allow you to build a good, personable relationship with them. Including everyone in discussions, standing up for those who are being talked over and becoming the calm voice of reason will help you to be seen as a positive light on the board. 

 Keeping quiet when you have nothing to say

When others are speaking, sit quietly and actively listen. Actively listening means paying attention to the speaker and focusing on the message that is being communicated to you.

TIP: Sometimes it can be difficult to stay focused and not form counterarguments in your head while the other person is speaking, so try repeating each word mentally as they say them. 

 Avoiding being distracted by phones, or other things outside the meeting

As governor and trustee roles are unpaid, there can be a temptation to treat them as lesser than our other work. Although they may not pay the bills, these positions are still incredibly important.

Whether you have in-person or video meetings, scheduling coffee breaks allows people to feel more comfortable putting their phones on Do Not Disturb. They know that there will only be a limited period where they will be uncontactable, and they can easily catch up on important emails. 

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Keystone can help with external reviews of governance and we can tailor our service to specifically review/comment on how your governing board lives out its values: Governance Reviews - Keystone Knowledge - Support for Schools, Academies, Trusts and Local Authorities

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