ADD MEANING TO MEETINGS

Leaders and members of staff in our schools are required to attend many different forums. These range from unit or section meetings, staff meetings involving all school staff members, to conferences, workshops and other professional forums.

Although they may not openly speak about their concerns, participants often feel a certain sense of resignation about having to participate in seemingly endless rounds of meetings. There is often a sense of resignation to this inevitability along with feelings of compulsion because attendance is required. If people do not attend, their absence is noted and they may be talked about in less than positive terms. They may be counselled for non-participation, with absences being held against them when their organisational futures are being considered.

All this adds up to an internalised reluctance on the part of people to engage in these forums. The thought of “meeting after bloody meeting” comes to mind and creates negative mental pictures about the worth of these gatherings. Of course, participants don’t speak this way, but thought processes may belie outward appearances.

This adds up to meetings and gatherings of all types being unlooked forward to events. There may be resentment and even bitterness on the part of some because they desperately want to be elsewhere. Some believe they should be at work, not again absent from their prime places of employment. Nevertheless, they are obliged to attend these meetings, forums or conferences. When attendance requirements end, there is often a feeling of immense relief that “finally” they can be elsewhere.

It would be a real plus for these attitudes to be overcome and replaced by positive reactions.

My propositions for modifying the end points of meetings may help to overcome these negatives. In the case of local or school based forums, school principals and meeting leaders could invite input by participants. In the wider context and when dealing with major conferences, those changes might be adopted by conference presenters and organisers. If that was to happen, those attending would be much more positive in their attitudes and feelings about engaging.

Anything to enhance feelings and belief about the benefit and use of forums, would be a positive outcome.

Engagement should not be overlooked

In many forums, meetings and conferences, the idea of “engagement” by audience and participants is minimised or downplayed. This happens even in workshop contexts, with the word “workshop” being misapplied. It often happens is that the group invited to workshop engage only their listening skills, with there being no active opportunity to participate in any exchange or sharing of ideas. The activity is merely about listening to the ideas espoused by the presenter or group facilitators .

The singular requirement for listening is even more pronounced in other, more high level forums. Lengthy expositions, often supported by PowerPoint slides seem to have no end.

The sufferance attendees feel could be changed if they had the opportunity to participate meaningfully in planned activities.

In all contexts where people are gathered together for professional engagement, two way exchange is more enhancing than the prevailing practice of one way communication. When one does all the talking and everyone else all the listening, meetings lead to audience disaffection

What can be done

The following ideas are only suggestions. There could be more ways of enhancing engagement by participants in attendance at professional gatherings.

• In unit and staff meetings, consider asking everyone who is participating, to join in building a shared conclusion. This could be done by way of a round robin where people are asked to offer a commendation about the meeting, through verbally sharing something they have gained. Rotation could be clockwise or anticlockwise if the group is sitting in a circular arrangement. Comment could be invited from right to left or left to right if people are seated more traditionally. If they are so inclined, participants should feel free to “pass” to the next person without comment. To go around the group a second time asking for a recommendation (how something might be done differently or better next time), would offer valuable feedback to presenters. Seeking a second commendation or recommendation might enhance the exercise.

Having somebody record or summarise comments made, would offer valuable feedback to presenters. This participation would help those attending to feel they are part of the meeting.

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Professional forums and workshops could be planned so the same opportunity could be offered to participants. This would be an “enabling strategy”, providing presenters with feedback and clues as to what’s really appreciated by audience members.

This isa significant approach because the quality of feedback will indicate to presenters both perceived strengths and areas of need within the presentation. Those seeking to expand the knowledge of others through their presentations will gain insights into what audience members and listeners clearly understand, along with anything they do not understand. This information can be invaluable in re-shaping presentations or modifying what is being offered for subsequent forums.

Conference organisers and presenters could organise for group participation to support any or all aspects of the program. Presenters could build feedback opportunities into their workshops or lecture based presentations. A period at the end of each presentation could be set aside for “question-and-answer” responses. Audience members might offer feedback aligning with the “commendation, recommendation, commendation” (CRC) feedback loop. This approach could be varied by pausing at the end of each section of the paper, inviting audience members to comment. Varying methodologies to sample responses could be employed, but the structure should be one enhancing two-way engagement and interaction. If they knew they were going to have an opportunity to join in, more people might be inclined to opt into conference programs. Two way exchange is a more appealing dynamic than ‘one way’ listening.

• I believe that this feedback approach could have a place at the end of conference formalities or during conference dinners.

• Feedback and discussion opportunities could be inserted at the end of each conference session, day or at the conclusion of the conference. This would vary the approach of having designated rapporteurs who summarise proceedings for a passive, listening audience. Enabling more people to participate in the conclusion of sectional or overall activities would be appealing for many participants. The benefit of this is a requirement that people would have to listen and understand in order to be able to make meaningful comment. That would help overcome the universal problem of people being in attendance but mentally shutting of from the program.

• This approach could take the place of guest speakers at conference dinners. Having a roving microphone which ‘visits’ from table to table asking people to comment on conference highlights and personal learnings, would be a way of sharing conference highlights in a semi social situation. Commendations and recommendations could be included. In order to introduce some variation, people sitting at each table could be asked to respond to a particular question in relation to the conference. This would broaden the scope of responses and keep people thinking.

Concluding Thoughts

The variations suggested are intended to be constructive. If adopted, they should guarantee a greater level of participation within meeting, workshop and conference forums than has traditionally been the case.

If people attending conferences are guaranteed an opportunity or option to participate, their level of enthusiasm and desire to engage will rise proportionately. In far too many cases people are summonsed or required to attend. They do so reluctantly and somewhat resentfully.. There is really no “heart engagement” or wanting to be there. It’s an obligation, a drudge and a chore. Attendance in part may be coerced because professional futures may depend on involvement. Of course, resentment would not be expressed out loud because it might reach the wrong ears, so people put on a bold front and attend. This is not an ideal situation but it is the way many people feel about having to attend a whole plethora of meetings.

Overcoming these feelings and taking away disconsolate attitudes may help boost enthusiasm about professional gatherings organised for professional pursuit. If mundane meetings can be made more meaningful, organisers, participants and everybody connected with these activities will emerge as winners.

Henry Gray

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