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Two kinds of meetings
May 11, 2018
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by Ivan Raconteur

I have given a lot of thought to meetings, probably because I have spent a significant portion of my adult life sitting in meetings of one kind or another.

Many of these have been public meetings in which I have been an observer rather than a participant. This has given me plenty of time to think about the nature of meetings, when I have not been busy playing movies back in my head, trying to name all the state capitals, or listing the British prime ministers since 1900.

It occurs to me there are two basic types of meetings – business meetings and social meetings.

I am confining my observations today to public meetings, although some of these observations would apply to other situations as well.

Business meetings always start on time. This is an important detail, because it helps to set the tone for the meeting.

It is a sign of disrespect for everyone who shows up on time to be kept waiting for those who don’t bother to do so.

Business meetings get right into the agenda, and there is an expectation that participants are prepared for the business at hand.

Social meetings may or may not start on time, and might include some light chatter before actually starting the agenda.

Participants may be looking at their meeting packets for the first time, unlike business meetings in which everyone has done their homework ahead of time.

Business meetings follow the agenda.

The chair or a designee clearly states what the next item of business is, and provides succinct background information for the discussion.

Social meetings meander around a bit. They may or may not follow the agenda, and there are frequent tangents on subjects that might have little to do with the subject being discussed.

During business meetings, all participants are given the opportunity to comment or ask questions, but because there is a focus of attention, comments are likely made only once.

Social meetings may involve multiple conversations going on simultaneously.

They are also prone to deadly loop discussions during which people keep repeating the same things over and over without adding any new information to the discussion.

They may also involve random comments from members of the audience who have not been recognized by the chair.

This can further disrupt the meeting, and others present may not know who is speaking.

It is the job of the chair to control these things.

During business meetings, the chair will restate the motion and who made and seconded it so it’s clear exactly what is being voted on.

In social meetings, it’s not always easy to tell who made or seconded a motion, or what the motion was. Some councils even make a game of this and spend vast amounts of time making jokes about it.

Participants and observers alike may be left wondering what was approved (or not approved).

I have even heard participants ask after a vote was called, “What did we just vote on?”

Proponents of the social meeting format might assert that they like the relaxed approach and want to make sure everyone has a chance to provide input.

On the surface, it might appear that this must be true, since social meetings can easily take twice as long as business meetings.

However, having observed countless public meetings over many years, I have seen no evidence to support this.

Business meetings provide opportunities for input from all participants, but this is accomplished efficiently.

It is clear what has been discussed, and what action has been taken.

Business meetings can actually accomplish more in less time than social meetings.

The reason social meetings take longer is not because there is more pertinent discussion. It’s because the legitimate discussion is interspersed with chit chat and poor attempts at humor that have little to do with the business at hand.

It appears some people look at meetings as a night out, and they mean to get as much entertainment value out of them as they can.

Adding time to meetings does not add value.

I’d much rather sit through an efficient, focused meeting than a chaotic free-for-all.

It is also prudent to consider the cost of a meeting. If a city or other public body is paying staff to sit through a meeting, it would be a service to taxpayers if they were to stick to business.

Life on the meeting circuit makes one appreciate a chair who knows how to run a meeting and does so with tact and decorum. People like that are worth their weight in gold.


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