Guila Muir

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3 Tips to Tame Unruly Meetings, Part Two

by Guila Muir

The Prickly Role of Meeting Guidelines

Last month, we took a stab at the question, “Rules? Who Needs Rules?” in regards to meeting management. In that article, I explored the wisdom of developing behavioral guidelines to support ongoing meetings. (Read Part One.)

Something that I suggested in Part One was that facilitators wait to introduce the idea of developing ground rules until the group reaches its second, or “Storming” stage of development. (Again, I invite you to read Part One for this discussion, because the arguments may feel counter-intuitive.)

3 Tips to Tame Unruly Meetings

OK, so your group has reached the Storming stage. Group members have begun jockeying for position. Personal agendas pop up. You, as the facilitator, struggle with the feeling that you’re a helpless little boat, tossed about in a great big sea. So what do you do now?

1. Ask the Magic Question

Explain that the time has come to take a look, from a process perspective, at where the group is.

Encourage members to relax and reflect on what dynamics have been successful to this point. First, acknowledge the fact that dynamics have in fact gotten choppy. (You may want to quickly introduce Tuckman’s four stages of group development.) Then, say something like:

“I’d like you to look back to our first few meetings. Please recall what behaviors people were modeling at that time. Try to actually “see” those early meetings in your mind.

“Now I’d like you to silently answer this question: What behaviors ‘worked’ for you? What behaviors did you see, or practiced yourself, that helped to make these meetings both productive and pleasant?”

Repeat the question a couple of times. Allow some time for reflection. Then ask for members to report, and list the behaviors they come up with on the flipchart. When you have noted five to seven, stop.

Go down the list, reading each suggested behavior aloud, asking group members to raise their hands if they agree to practice this behavior themselves. Elicit editing and tweaking, especially from those who resist. If someone doesn’t raise their hand, make it clear that he/she must revise the suggestion until it “works” for them. Make it clear that the group’s productivity depends on everyone’s sharing a set of agreements for behavior.

Explanation: When a group visualizes functional behaviors that it once demonstrated, these behaviors make a lot of sense. They also don’t seem out of members’ reach, since the group acknowledges that it actually modeled these functional behaviors at one time.

2. Deconstruct Vague Responses

In suggesting behaviors to be included on the list, members inevitably offer words like “respect” and civility.”

Write the word, but also ask: “What does ‘respect’ look like? What behaviors would I see that express respect?” Then, write those more descriptive words, which illustrate the concept from a behavioral viewpoint.

Here’s an example:

Sally offers “Civility.” You write it on the chart, but also ask the group, “What does ‘civility’ look like? Give me some behaviors that would make it clear to any observer that ‘civility’ is being practiced.” The group will reflect, and then offer suggestions including “Refrain from eye-rolling,” or “Let the person finish their statement before commenting.”

By deconstructing vague responses, you are developing a list of supportive, visible behaviors. You also offer an opportunity to discuss how respect or civility might manifest quite differently depending on culture.

3. Post the Agreements

Keep the agreements posted throughout each meeting. Create a handout for the next session, but also always post them visibly and review them at each meeting.

A Last Word

Along with an outcome-based agenda, meeting guidelines are a facilitator’s best friend. Use them to support a productive, safe environment for any ongoing group process.

OK—so now it’s your turn! What experience have you had using Behavioral Guidelines (Agreements, Code of Cooperation, etc) in your meetings? What challenges have you had? What has worked well?

Send your ideas to me at I would like to publish your insights in the next issue of Train! Facilitate! Present!

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Guila Muir is the premiere trainer of trainers, facilitators, and presenters on the West Coast of the United States. Since 1994, she has helped thousands of professionals improve their training, facilitation, and presentation skills. Find out how she can help transform you into a great presenter:
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