30 January 2013 ~ 7 Comments

Better Activist Meetings

Do you spend a lot of your life in meetings?

Or does it just feel like it?!

Meetings are a big part of working collectively but too often… they suck. One of the things that motivated me to become an activist educator and facilitator was frustration with boring and unproductive meetings. Life’s too short and the stakes are too high to spend time like that.

Ever been to a meeting where everyone seemed like aliens in a bad clipart nightmare? Yeah, I know what you mean… but it doesn’t have to be that way!

Here are some simple tips for getting the most out of meetings, relevant to collectives, committees and action groups.

1.  Have a clear purpose. Why are you holding the meeting? Why is it needed and what do you intend to get out of it? Make sure the purpose is clear to participants. If you can’t figure out the purpose don’t have a meeting!

2.  Set an agenda. Have a clear process for setting the agenda whether in advance or on the day. The purpose of each item should be clear, such as discussion, decision, or a notice for information. Proposal led decision-making could involve people putting something on the agenda with a pre-prepared motion for the group to discuss and decide upon. This means people have notice of what’s expected prior to the meeting and can think about it and ask questions.

3.  Include an agenda review. Talk through the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Ensure items are in a logical order, allocate times to each item, trim the agenda and defer less pressing discussions if needed. Less is more – avoid overloading your meetings to allow more space for quality discussion.

4.  Make the agenda visible to everyone. The agenda could be written on the whiteboard during the agenda review, or paper copies handed out. Making the agenda visible, especially with approximate times attached, means everyone has a sense of how long to spend discussing items, and the implications if they go too long. This means the chair carries less of the burden of time management and it is shared more in the group.

5.  Summarise actions. At the end of each agenda item check for actions and what needs to be recorded. This is helpful for the minutes-taker, means things don’t get missed, and underlines actions for those who are going to carry them out. At the end of the meeting I suggest an actions check-list where each person says what their actions are coming out of the meeting and the minutes-taker can remind people of any that were missed. Saying tasks out loud can deepen commitment to the group to follow through.

6.  Record actions. Keep an ongoing action list for the group. Individuals should also record their own actions in diaries, phone calendars, to do lists etc. This can make it more likely that people will carry out their actions, rather than relying on people to read the minutes (which some people only do right before the meeting if ever!)

7.  Roles. Most meetings have a meeting chair or facilitator and someone to take minutes. Some groups also have the role of timekeeper and ‘vibes-watcher’. The vibes-watcher keeps an eye on energy and mood on the group, can share observations and suggest different approaches eg ‘People look tired, perhaps we need an energiser or a quick break?’

8.  Evaluate. At the end of the meeting do a quick check of what worked and what to change about the meeting. This allows people to name difficulties and for you to learn as a group how to make the meetings go better.

9.  Build the group. Meetings aren’t just about ticking off tasks; they’re about the relationships between the people in the group. Some ways you can foster the sense of the group and focus people include:

  • Start with an opening round where participants can share what’s new in their lives (not just in relation to the organisation) or a check-in (how they are feeling, any issues impacting on participation). One fun and cheesy way to check-in is to use a metaphor for how you are eg ‘If I was a plate of food I’d be…’ (or a piece of music, landscape, etc)
  • Personalise the space, making a home for your group. This is especially important if you meet somewhere that’s not your own space. It could be as simple as a table-cloth or a poster on the wall.
  • Put up your vision, mission, values, campaign goals or group agreements in the space. Remind people of why they work together, what they share in terms of commitment to the group and its vision.
  • Share food. It’s a universal human way of relating! Plus a few snacks maintain energy.

Here’s some more handy resources:

Happy meeting!

Need help with your meetings? This article came about because a group asked me to give feedback on their meetings and areas for improvement. Let me know if you’d like me to be a ‘critical friend’ at an upcoming meeting.

Of course, one of the best ways a group can get help with group dynamics and decision-making is by using an external facilitator. Get in touch if you’d like to discuss options.

7 Responses to “Better Activist Meetings”

  1. alison sexton-green 30 January 2013 at 12:10 pm Permalink

    A timely reminder for me after 6months off work and I love the ‘cheesey’bit. Can be a great way for people to reveal without going into the detail.

  2. Joel 31 January 2013 at 5:52 pm Permalink

    A great guide! I really like point 8: evaluation is so important as, even if you don’t know much about how to make meetings work, you can learn as long as you continually reflect and thus improve. Also, the Berit Lakey meeting facilitation guide (in resources) is fantastic!

  3. Holly Hammond 1 February 2013 at 2:23 pm Permalink

    Thanks for the comments Alison and Joel!

    This article is about the nuts and bolts of a meeting and less about the important role a facilitator can play holding the space. Check out Joel’s great reflections on facilitation and emotional intelligence and my (kinda epic) article from the early days of Occupy Melbourne for insights in that area.


  4. James 3 February 2013 at 4:13 pm Permalink

    Love this!! Particularly love the evaluations and “vibes watchers”. So crucial to keeping your organisation together while you are doing things!!

  5. Kristy 10 February 2013 at 4:53 pm Permalink

    A great summary holly, I’m working on point 4 at the moment. We always have agendas visible, but in some groups it’s a struggle getting others to be responsible for meetings going well and to time..

    • Holly Hammond 11 February 2013 at 8:52 am Permalink

      I hear you!

      In terms of managing time – as a facilitator I tend to take the stated end time for the meeting as the actual end time and work to that, but in some activist circles folks are a bit more fluid and up for going 30 minutes to an hour longer. That’s not necessarily great for people who can’t stay the extra time, people with parenting commitments etc, nor potentially the group’s energy and quality of discussion or decision-making.

      A few things I do around time:
      * Check at the beginning of the meeting what time the meeting will be ending, and what time people need to leave by. If it’s clear that lots of people need to leave by a certain time that needs to be factored in.
      * Do some reality-checking about how much can be covered in the time available – do we think we can get through all this? How long do you need on this agenda item? etc.
      * I let them know that if that is what they’ve agreed I will be firm with them and move them on where necessary to keep them to time – and get their agreement to that.
      * Where discussion goes long – sometimes I will let that happen for a while if it looks like the group is just about to get there. I might remind them about time but say ‘it looks like we’re close to resolving this’ or ‘this issue seems to be important to tackle now’ and propose an amount of time to spend on it.
      * If discussion is going long and it doesn’t seem productive or is stopping progress through an agreed agenda I will assert the need to move on and check if there is a next step or a way for the discussion to continue at another time if necessary.
      * If people want to keep going I will let them know that they are making a choice between this agenda item or others, or going late. I’ll check with the group if that is the choice they want to make. This gives others in the group who have others interests or needs the chance to speak up.

      This makes me think about facilitation and authority. Keeping a group on track tends to involve projecting some authority – but it’s authority that comes from the group’s agreements. That makes the meeting purpose and agenda clarification important; it’s the ‘contracting’ with the group early in the meeting which allows a facilitator to get tough later in the meeting, if needed.

  6. Steve 4 March 2014 at 8:50 am Permalink

    another great resource is the UK based seeds for change collective.

    They published an excellent little book A Consensus Handbook, download for free in .PDF format see here:


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