How to Run Better Meetings, Groups, Clubs and Classes

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 15 (July 1997)

Have you ever had the experience of having something important to say but no opportunity to say it? How easy or hard is it for you to really hear and respond to what someone else is saying while you’re sitting there seething with your own thwarted urgent contribution?

–Same for your participants. Every time you’ve done your job as chair ore moderator so well that your people have gotten interested and involved, you inflict that perception-inhibiting frustration on your brighter members and in direct proportion to the degree that each has something important to contribute!!!!!

 –Same for your students! Every time you’ve done your job so well that your lecture starts to get interesting, you inflict that perception-inhibiting frustration on your brighter students and on your class generally!

 In a corporation where time is money, how much time is wasted in board and staff meetings, either in lengthy discourse by the chair or CEO while expensive specialists and executives sit mute, or in pre-orchestrated speech presentations whose “discussion” outcome was determined long since, or in a chaos ended only when the chair or CEO goes out and either does things himself or by dictate, dismissing 99% of all that was said at the meeting? Or where everyone is saying only what the chair or CEO wanted to hear, providing no meaningful feedback or direction?

 –So why the heck HAVE such a meeting? IS there a way to make meetings contribute positively and meaningfully to our affairs?

Here is how to get the best out of your group or staff, instead of settling for the lowest common denominator of performance. Here, then, follow in summary a very few, very simple provisions through which you can build interest, sustain tight topical focus while fostering dynamic expressive interaction, wonderfully integrating and developing your group’s various perceptions and perceivers. You will find that you can maintain a stronger, better topical focus with these interactive group-managing techniques than you can sustain now in solo lecture! This is not loose soft-minded stuff about letting employees or students or members express themselves: this is highly efficient group, boardroom or classroom MANAGEMENT. You’ve been getting your group’s seemingly inevitable idiocy: now, through “Dynamic Format,” discover and focus your people’s (your people’s!!!) very real genius.

 Dynamic Format — Introduction

Dynamic Format fits comfortably with and can benefit most other group methods and procedures. It can turn miraculously productive, all kinds of group meeting from classroom (and even faculty meetings!!!!!) to board room to sales meeting to Town Hall and civic clubs. –Be first in your block to try it out!!

Dynamic Format will enable you to easily get the members of your group actively, richly exploring, debating, investigating, and relating to any topic or issue, yet staying far better focussed than can the most forceful lecture or most rigorous use of Robert’s Rules. Dynamic Format helps your participants to participate without getting in each other’s way or in your way. Dynamic Format is a set of very simple managing techniques to conduct the transaction of information and/or decision with maximum sensitivity and breadth of consideration and perception quickly, crisply, in depth but efficiently. (Doesn’t sound like meetings you’ve been in before, does it? We’ve all heard the old joke about an hippopotamus being an animal designed by committee, meaning that group outcomes normally are a joke or come out close to being the lowest common denominator. Getting genius from such a group?!? Unthinkable! –But within a few paragraphs you’ll be seeing how to easily do so…)

The simple “house rules” of Dynamic Format enable your people to be interactive, thoughtful, perceptive, expressive, comprehensive, and yet to maintain a tight, clear progressing focus on your topic. Dynamic Format allows a group to move deftly, crisply and quickly, without heavy-handed directing and without having to wander through mishmash.

Dynamic Format Instructions

Here is how to bring about these and other desirable effects from a group meeting—

FIRST: Have any group of more than 5-6 participants to subdivide at the start of your session, so each is already in place with his or her partner(s) on a stand-by basis. That will let you move swiftly and smoothly and deftly in and out of the interactive mode when you come to the point in your session where you want to use it. Have your people stay oriented with their partner(s) even while functioning in your larger (plenary) group. This way, when you want to switch modes, neither logistics nor shuffle is required. You are free to move crisply between levels of interaction as well as from step to step, or into interaction and crisply back to formal lecture or other formal process.

Your teams can be pairs, or threes, or you can have “buzz groups” consisting of as many as 5-6 participants, depending upon what you want to do with them. Each participant in a pair has far more “air time” in which to examine and describe what she perceives, in the context of the defined topic or question. The larger your sub-divided groups, the more chance that someone in each will catch on to what you want and model how it is done. The more difficult your question or task, therefore, the larger you want your sub-groups up to a maximum of six, to ensure that someone there in each group will be able to comprehend and get things moving as you want. Most of the time, though, to get the maximum of Socratic benefit,/ the maximum of perception-developing “air time” for each, work your participants in pairs. You can even have your participants, as this writer has often done with his participants in his workshops and classes and demonstrations, orient in pairs within larger sub-groups of 4 to 6 members.

SECOND: From the very start of such a session, set up at least some of the following “Core Agreements” or “house rules for this session,” to make it easy for you to swiftly and gently guide and focus or refocus your people into, through, and out of highly involved, highly interactive “buzz-sessions.”

  1. Waterglass Rules. The waterglass, ashtray or chime which can be heard easily when everyone is talking at the same time — so your voice won’t have to compete with all the other voices–
    • Three ‘bings’ = Instant Pause in Talking. Rule: the moment you hear 3 ‘bings,” pause in talking not only in mid-sentence but in mid-word so that you and others can hear the next topical question or step of instruction. The game: to not be the last one caught talking after the third bing. (Keep the whole process light-hearted.)
      • Over the many years since I started demonstrating this process in classes and conferences, I’ve seen many conference presenters adapt this part of the process to use with light switches, drums, pianos, party horns, even in one instance a trumpet! Make the sensory-attention-catching device pleasant and agreeable, however. This works by far the best if you keep your participants in good spirits.
    • One’bing’ = Half-Minute’s Notice, before the 3-binger. Rule: keep on doing what you are presently doing but be ready a half-minute after this one ‘bing’ to pause in talking, to hear the next instruction. Because the chime is so different a sound from human voices, it is heard easily through the buzz-murmur. You don’t have to be strident: even a very light chime will carry through and can be made to sound quite pleasant.
    • Hand-Up = Instant Talk-Pause + Hand-Up, this simple device often used by the Scouts. This is best for very large groups, of one hundred or more members. Rule: the instant you notice either the leader’s hand go up or other people’s hands going up, pause instantly in your talking and get your own hand up! (On-off flicks of the room lighting can serve the same purpose, especially in starting groups that have not yet previously been introduced to these house practices.)
  2. RELEVANCY CHALLENGE. Make a triangle of your thumbs and fore-fingers. Sight at the speaker through that triangle. Rule: on that instant, whoever is speaking must
    • Demonstrate how his/her remarks relate to the topic; or
    • return to the topic; or
    • yield the floor. Instantly.

      How many times have you been reluctant to shut off someone’s story but had to stand there bleeding internally while s/he got further and further off the subject and broke your hard-built context?!?
      You can see how, with just a little simple pre-arrangement, major group dynamics can be set in motion or stopped, directed, focussed. You can orchestrate these effects to produce a maximum in terms of meeting-goal, in terms of learning, in terms of creative production, in terms of arriving at decision and consensus.
      Simple arrangement of easily used signals as standing rules or agreements allows you to orchestrate a wide range of group behaviors virtually without effort or delay. On the same principle, from time to time you may want to set up these special-occasion rules for particular situations–
  3. Support-First Rule. Used to obtain creative production, fresh ideas and perceptions, innovations, and answers to questions or issues whose outcome is not narrowly predetermined. To get more and better ideas contributed, the first response to the contributing of an idea should be a positive reinforcement. However off-the-wall an idea or input may seem at first, the first response to it must be some form of meaningful, content-related support! After that meaningful first support, then it’s o.k. to carve that weird notion into corned beef hash. –So long as the support came first. Every major system of creativity training or creative problem solving now has some form of this rule. To use it effectively, simply put it in this form:
    • Any time you observe an idea not getting supported first, whether yours or someone else’s, clasp your hands together over your head for a second or so while looking wistfully upward, then go on.
    • Don’t use this support-first rule where you don’t want richly expansive creativity, multiple considerations, and enthusiastic participant expression. In much of schooling, for example, information is arranged to have only one right answer and creativity might be in the way of the leader’s or teacher’s immediate objectives. To avoid creativity being obstructive, have your audience know when this rule is in effect and when it is not.
    • Note: the best ideas usually are those which were greeted first with a burst of laughter. You may wish to give those laugh-burst ideas special attention. In any case, make sure that the first response to whatever input positively reinforces that act of creating and contributing ideas and fresh perceptions. Win your way past the usual reflexive self-censorings that stifle creative thought and perceptiveness.
  4. 3-Sentence Limit. (Or 4, or 2, or simply a 1-minute limit per input, depending upon the size of group and the nature of the process you are working.) Once this rule is invoked. any time you notice someone going beyond the set limit, simply lean forward with hands clasped in front of you.
  5. Make Record of the Run-Pasts! This is an additional way to correct the main frustration about any group discussion or process which gets interesting enough to provoke a lot of desire to participate/ Rule: Anything you notice that seems worthy of mention, but which the group process (or lecturer!) has stampeded past: make a written note or record of it, immediately! So reinforce YOUR OWN perceiving of overlooked aspects, not merely just that particular point! (–And clear the traffic jam in your perceptions between what you have to say and giving more attention to what others are saying now! –And if others also follow this Record Run-Pasts Rule, your inputs when you do get to make them will receive attention.

Sometimes: there is a chance before the end to pick some of these points back up and consider them. But the main purpose of this rule is to reinforce your own perceptiveness and integrity of view. Any time you notice someone else seething with an overrun point, point to his or her notepad and waggle pen or pencil at it.

Boardroom, Clubhouse, City Hall

Note that Robert’s Rules of Order were designed to shut down communications within a group so that business can be transacted. The too-typical result leads to all those tired old outcomes about which we all make all those tired old jokes. Dynamic Format, instead, elicits focussed communications in a way that causes the business transacted to reflect the highest considerations and actual genius of the group!

–Yes, your group! Working this format, you have some very pleasant surprises coming to you.

Board meetings, annual business meetings of societies, faculty or staff meetings, planning groups, task forces, town meetings, political meetings, etc., all are appropriate for this set of focussing strategies. This form of participant involvement, fostering expression from each participant’s own perceptions while sustaining a tight topical focus, yields results far superior to those of the methods historically or currently in general use. Any corporation, society, committee, task force or staff can immediately, easily and sharply improve its performance and product, and greatly reduce the time, attention and cost required to arrive at objectives.

Aside: A Lecture to Teachers

The lecture method was invented for the situation, back in the Dark Ages before printing, when only one copy of some book would be at the university. There the most qualified person would both read aloud from that book to the class, and comment or lecture based upon it, for the benefit of all the students who otherwise had no access to that book and its contents. A few of the relevant circumstances have changed since then! Some churches and most schools have continued the practice, though. All most classrooms need to become a religious service is a hymn or so! (The prayers can be said secretly! –if many of our children have a prayer of making it through intact!)

Even if you are wedded to the lecture method and have never “buzzed a group” in your life, you can experiment just a little. Identify the key point you’ve just been trying to make in your lecture, and instruct your students to “turn to your partner(s) (or “the person next to you” if you’ve not pre-set the class) and, between you, let’s see which pair of you can come up with the best statement of this issue” (or the best answer…) Or, turn your main point into a question and ask that question. (Indeed, any question you would ordinarily ask rhetorically can be usefully handled in this manner.)

  • Get them started. (By look or persuasion, make sure all are participating.)
  • Allow 3-4 minutes.
  • ‘Bing’ and state the half-minute’s notice, or hold up with the ‘bing’ a sign that says, “KEEP GOING – BUT IN A HALF MINUTE BE READY FOR THE NEXT STEP”
  • Gently or moderately THREE-bing your waterglass, cup or ashtray to end or pause the “buzz.”
  • Sound out (and give at least a little somewhat positive reinforcement to) each of a few pairs’ wording of the issue (or answer). If possible, hear what they actually are saying instead of what you expect to hear, but keep orienting toward your intended insight. Reinforce from there the point you were making, and move on.

Now, that wasn’t too hard, was it? –And easier to do next time. Courage, there, for lo you can soon be effortlessly moving your students in and out of interactive process, and through different levels of process, with amazingly well-focussed discussions, like a pro. –Like a master conductor directing his well-trained orchestra! Yes, you!

You can manage easily your students, even your students, into ever more excellent topical focus and intensity and in-depth understanding.

Consider: of what value even the most eloquent lecture, or cleverest workbook, if little is learned from it? What matters is what is learned, not what is taught. Dynamic Format lets you have it both ways.

Whether board room, club room, Sunday school, task force, public committee, or classroom: your only possible drawback to doing this is that you might actually achieve some of your stated objectives, and then where’d you be???

If you are shy about it, test out these rules one step at a time until you feel them working for you, and you see and are pleased with the results.