Chairing a meeting requires two skills that are not easy to combine. The presider has to control the meeting, which requires strength. At the same time, he has to remain emotionally connected to the members, which requires warmth. Put too much strength into your voice, and you come across as cold and uncaring. Put too much warmth into your delivery, and you seem weak. Walking this meeting tightrope takes insight and thought. If you manage it well, your members will enjoy your meetings and your council or board will make better decisions.
Control the Meeting
It’s the first principle of good meetings that the leader must control what goes on. This requires a well-prepared agenda, a physical setting conducive to keeping all the members in view, excellent acoustics and the willingness to speak up when things go wrong. A timid or shy chair may struggle to learn how to interrupt someone who’s breaking the rules, but the end result makes it well worth the effort. Of course this is easier if you actually HAVE rules. We recommend that councils and boards adopt Robert’s Rules of Order to run their meetings, and also prepare council bylaws or guidelines addressing the specific points needed for their circumstances. MRSC has ample material available for your reference.
At the same time, the emotional connection to your members, and to your audience, is critical. Your colleagues must feel that you care about them and have their interests at heart. You can use humor and light touches of personal comment to make sure that this happens. Most of all, you must treat everyone equally. Following the rule that no one may speak a second time until everyone who wishes to do so has spoken once will demonstrate that you are a fair-minded person who plays no favorites. This gives the members confidence and security that they are free to speak their minds. They can then give their best judgment to the deliberations.
Serve the Group
One of the worst things a leader can say is, “This is my meeting.” In public life the meeting belongs to the group, not to the leader. You must do your very best to determine the will of the group—which means the will of the majority—and to obey it. When it seems that a recess might be helpful, ask the group. When you think that remarks aren’t relevant to the topic under discussion, ask the group. When you believe that a member is indirectly insulting another member, ask the group. A leader who understands how to control the meeting, while following the direction of the group as a whole, fulfills the deepest promise of our democracy.
This article was originally published by MRSC, a nonprofit dedicated to local government success in Washington. Visit www.mrsc.org for a wealth of valuable information and resources on local government.