Chairing: Not all contributions welcome

During a meeting, there are some moments that can be seen as awkward and therefore difficult to handle. Chairing a meeting can be a bit like keeping a set of plates spinning. One minute they’ll all be fine, spinning away. And then, out of nowhere, there will be a contribution that creates a wobble.

Let’s have a look at the contributions and the wobbles. Along with some suggestions as to how to respond to a wobbling plate and set it spinning again.

Silence: This could be silent individuals or silence from the group as a whole. Silence is often, interpreted negatively, taken as a sign of disinterest or disengagement. But silence is often also a sign that thinking is taking place.

For the Silence wobble: Stay open. Allow the silence. Hold the space. Be curious about what else could be happening? And then ask? “What do you think? Who would like to share something?”

Interruption: This could be when someone else is midway through speaking. Or it could be when they are about to start, and someone else comes in earlier, quicker, sometimes at greater volume. This can often be inadvertent and a sign of someone who needs to speak in order to think.

For the Interruption wobble: Stay aware. Listen for an intake of breath or a twitch from someone else in the group, before the speaker speaks. Let the speaker speak and listen to them. And then ask the person who breathed or twitched “Dale, what did you want to say?”

Digression: The speaker wanders. Someone else picks up on their wandering. And before you know it, the group is discussing something that is not on the agenda at all. People are interested in all sorts of different things. It’s your job to keep the group on track though.

For the Digression wobble: Follow the digression. You’re looking for a pause. And then you intervene.  “John, thank you for your comments, I’ve noted down X and Y to come back to. Picking things up on the subject of X….”

Domination: Someone starts speaking and then continues to speak. This can be combined with interruption and discussion. Again, assuming positive intent is helpful. This could well be someone who needs to speak to hear their thoughts.

For the Domination wobble, stepping in is key. There may be less of a space to work with so find the tiniest crack, and then start with their name “Sam, can I interrupt you?” They’ll likely say yes, because they won’t realise how long they’ve been talking. Thank them for their contribution, make a comment and note if they have raised a deeper issue worth coming back to. And then “would anyone like to pick up on Sam’s thoughts?” brings others back in.

Absence: Failure to follow up: someone promises something and then fails to deliver. And then they re-promise and fail again. Non-attendance: someone fails to make the meeting repeatedly.

For the Absence wobbles: These are both best addressed outside of the meeting. If adjustments need to be agreed they can be. And then these can be shared if appropriate at the next meeting.

A big fear as a chair is saying the wrong thing and offending someone. And this often leads to saying nothing because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Responding to wobbles by ‘avoiding’, ‘allowing’, or ‘confronting’ risks the meeting’s productivity and momentum. You risk losing your group. And you also risk getting a reputation as an ineffectual chair and putting your reputation and career at a disadvantage. And those are major wobbles you want to avoid. Fostering an approach that is appreciative, kind and firm, is a good foundation for keeping your plates spinning.

Do you want to learn how to manage wobbles in your meetings? If so, why not come along to my Changing Conversations: Changing Outcomes Masterclass: Effective Chairing: Making Meetings More Productive

Happy Chairing!

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