Defusing the fear factor in meetings

The role of emotion in the business world is slowly being acknowledged in our culture, but it is still a challenge to address feelings and emotions appropriately in meetings. We need to take them into account without getting overly personal, intrusive, or condescending. A leader who understands how emotions affect people’s mental processes will be much more successful at running good meetings and helping participants come to good decisions.


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Fear may be the oldest human emotion. It originates in a primitive part of the human brain, and has some interesting characteristics. For one thing, fear spreads in a flash. For another, human beings are very good at alerting each other to the presence of something dangerous that makes us fearful, but we have no easy way to indicate the magnitude of the threat. An experienced leader can tell when he feels inner fear, but can throttle it back so that the contagion doesn’t spread.

For instance, if the big fundraising event takes place in a month, and there are 20 participants registered to attend when we need 100 to break even, it’s not helpful to say, “Gee, we could lose our shirt here, and the results would be a financial disaster.” A better approach is to acknowledge that the situation is challenging and to encourage the organizing committee to find extra, special  ways to reach out and solicit attendance, while maintaining the appearance of calm, no matter one’s inner concerns.

Members at meetings also often feel fear. It is alleged that people in our country are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. Because of our basic social nature, speaking out in a group often seems more risky to members than it actually is. A good presider makes it her business to create an atmosphere in which anybody can say what they really think. By acknowledging all the members as equal participants, using the “round robin” method, and thanking everyone for their comments, a presider can help the best ideas to emerge, while keeping things on an even keel.

This is critical, because when people are nervous about how their comments will be received, they will censor what they have to say. Tailoring our remarks to be acceptable deprives the group of our true thinking and is a straight path to “groupthink.” From our perspective, the single most important indicator of the health of a group is how free the members feel to express a differing opinion, and still be welcome.

But participants who engage in personal attacks, threats, innuendo, discussion of motives or other insulting behaviors must be stopped. This is a primary duty of any presider. When people are afraid, they can’t think straight. Having the moral courage to stand up to bullies is critical if your group is to do its best work. To do this we believe that presidents, chairs, mayors and presiders must tune in to their own emotions and maintain calm in the face of difficult members, in order to defuse the fear factor and ensure productive meetings.

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Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.