Meetings are necessary for planning, and decision making. How well they work influences whether people remain in a group. All meetings should be as lively and as much fun as possible.
The basics of meeting
Fix a convenient time, date and place to meet. You can find free meeting places in libraries, community centres, some churches, neighbourhood houses, and schools. Some groups meet in a favorite restaurant or cafe. To keep a group together, decide on a regular monthly meeting time, or think of another way of staying in touch.
Display everyone's contribution
Consider using a flip chart, overhead projector or a blackboard.
Follow a set of discussion guidelines
Regular meetings work better if everyone agrees on a set of discussion guidelines. The chairperson or facilitator should be an example of the guidelines, and remind participants of the guidelines when necessary. Some groups post their guidelines as a large sign:
Develop a friendly culture
Encourage humour. Provide food and drink, or meet in a restaurant. Allow for social time.
Your group should discuss, agree on, then post guidelines for reaching decisions. Of course, some groups do not make decisions. They are just a vehicle for bringing people together.
Straw polling entails asking for a show of hands to see how the group feels about a particular issue. It is a quick check that can save a great deal of time. To make straw polling continuous, agree on a set of hand signals everyone will use throughout the meeting. These silent signals enable people to gage how others are reacting moment by moment. They can also provide invaluable feedback for a speaker who is trying to work with a large group.
Voting is a decision making method that seems best suited to large groups. To avoid alienating large minorities, you might decide a motion will only succeed with a two-thirds majority. Alternatively, you might decide to combine voting with consensus. Small groups usually follow informal consensus procedures. Large groups, on the other hand, often try to follow Robert's Rules of Order without anyone really understanding how to Amend a Motion, or the number of people needed to Move the Question. If rules are used, they should be simple and understood by everyone.
Some community groups limit the privilege of voting to people who have come to three or more consecutive meetings to prevent stacked meetings, and to encourage familiarity with the issues being decided. Voting usually means deciding between X or Y. But not always. Some issues will admit a proportional solution, part X and part Y. In such a cases the ratio of X to Y in the solution usually reflects the ratio of people voting for each alternative.
A consensus process aims at bringing the group to mutual agreement by addressing all concerns. It does not require unanimity. Consensus can take longer than other processes, but fosters creativity, cooperation and commitment to final decisions. Here is a sample outline:
At the end, the facilitator states the outcome clearly. For consensus to work properly everyone must understand the meaning of "legitimate concerns". They are possible consequences of the proposal that might adversely affect the organization or the common good, or that are in conflict with the purpose or values of the group. Consensus will not work properly if concerns come from ego or vested interests, or derive from unstated tensions around authority, rights, personality conflicts, competition or lack of trust. Trust is a prerequisite for consensus.
If your group adopts consensus as a decision making method you do not have to use consensus of the whole group to decide everything. You can (and should) empower individuals, committees, or task forces to make certain decisions.
Live with disagreements
Get agreement on the big picture, then turn to action. Don't exhaust yourself trying to achieve consensus on details. On a contentious issue, embracing a variety of positions will make you more difficult to attack.
See also The Tyranny of Stucturelessness
And Non-Violent Communication
And Consensus in Large Groups (pdf)
And Working Collectively (pdf)
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The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson / citizenshandbook.org
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