Book Thoughts – How to Manage Meetings by Alan Barker

Why review a book covering meetings on a blog about coaching? Two reasons really.

Cover of How to manage meetingsFirstly, if you’re coaching in an organisational context, much of your coachees’ precious time will be spent in meetings. When run badly, meetings can seem to be a waste of that irreplaceable resource, and cause a great deal of disillusionment.

Secondly, the book in question is so much more than a simple rehash of meeting tips and tricks. In How to Manage Meetings, Alan Barker packs within a surprisingly few pages insights into significant features of meetings we don’t normally think enough about.

Barker is an experienced trainer and coach specialising in communication and cognitive skills, as well as creativity. It says much for his work that it’s still available through its 2011 revised edition, having first been published back in 2002. Meetings can be the bane of many people’s lives, leaving them feeling powerless to effect any change. It doesn’t need to be that way, and Barker shows us as coaches ways in which to ensure that coachees are equipped to deal with the kinds of situations in which they may find themselves during a variety of kinds of meetings.

Topics covered include:

  • What is a meeting
  • How groups work
  • Conversation: the heart of the meeting
  • Preparing for the meeting
  • Chairing the meeting
  • Improving the group’s thinking
  • Participating well
  • Problem solving in meetings
  • After the meeting
  • Different meetings and how to run them

To me, the book has three key strengths:

1. Covering how groups develop and function     Yes, it’s groups that have meetings, and Barker takes time to explore the fact that groups (and therefore the individuals within them) have social as well as task objectives. Task objectives are related to the work the group has been formed to undertake. However, parallel to these runs the group’s need to develop a sense of identity, well-being and cohesion. Understanding the distinction between these two kinds of objective can help team leaders and coaches to be alert to how they play out when the individuals that make up the group engage each other in meetings. Complementing these insights with knowledge of Tuckman’s four-stage model of group development (‘Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing’) can equip team leaders and coaches to understand and contextualise the kinds of behaviours being displayed in meetings at any given time, as well as how to handle them.

Team meeting2. Highlighting the art and science of conversation     If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I believe one of the five core skills a coach needs to cultivate is deep active listening. Barker describes this as key for participants in meetings as well. Meetings are, after all, groups of people “thinking purposefully together,” and at the heart of purposeful thinking are listening and exchanging views via conversation. Barker encourages each individual to “participate well” by moving beyond adversarial thinking towards the understanding that each person is present, not just to advocate his or her own point of view, but to help others find their voices to express their points of view as well. The skills we as coaches strive to cultivate in ourselves are the same skills that can build effective teams, teams which are capable of the level of cooperation and performance necessary to achieving the task objectives required to reach their goals.

a meeting with an arrow above it3. Importance of communicating clear vision for meeting purpose and objectives     To many people, a meeting is a meeting is a meeting. However, that isn’t really the case. Barker emphasises the meeting leader should have a clear vision for the purpose of every meeting, as well as the objectives it’s intended to achieve. From these key ingredients flow decisions on the kind of meeting that will be called, who will participate, and what will be discussed on the day. Communicating purpose and objectives clearly and effectively to those who will be attending is a necessary step in increasing the chances of engaged participation, as without it no-one will understand why their presence is necessary or what their contribution is intended to be. Whilst this might seem obvious, as any coach knows, in reality this step is too often neglected.

In the ‘safe space’ provided by a coaching session, a surprising number of coachees describe meetings as among the worst, most draining aspects of their jobs. One of the most useful aspects of Barker’s book, therefore, is its message that how we as individuals participate in meetings is important, and how we in turn choose to run them ourselves can effect change. Facilitating this realisation in coachees may go some way to relieving levels of work-related stress, since awareness and agency breed the kind of sense of empowerment that helps individuals move beyond impotent ‘complaint mode’ to a place of ‘choice’ in what action to take next.

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