How to be effective in meetings

Social work is inundated with more than its fair share of meetings,
writes Nathalie Towner. But they do serve
an important purpose as they will often be the only time different
interest groups communicate face to face. These forums are used to
make key decisions and to tell people about changes and
developments so it is vital to make the most of them.

Every meeting needs some preparation. Angela Baron,
organisation and resourcing adviser at the Chartered Institute of
Personnel and Development, says: “It is important to write a clear
agenda and circulate it in advance of the meeting so that people
attending have time to make agenda suggestions, know what to expect
in the meeting and prepare for it.” To make the most of the time
allocated, read in advance any material that is circulated and, if
you are chairing, seek input from colleagues who are not

You need to communicate your points clearly so that other people
understand them. Do not interrupt other people or shout to get your
point across as this rarely works. Paul Startup, district care
manager for Cornwall social services, says: “Always take notes so
if you need to go back to a key point you can do so without
stifling the discussion.” Pay attention to other people in the
meeting. “Listen carefully to what they say and watch body language
as people might have something to add and be shifting in their seat
or making eye contact,” adds Startup.

How to chair
“If you are chairing, start by outlining the purpose of the
meeting,” advises Startup. Introduce people where necessary, start
on time and follow the agenda. Everyone is different and some
people might be more reserved in meetings while others are more
forthcoming. Baron says: “The chair can help get the most from the
meeting by asking opening questions to encourage responses from
more reserved people and interrupt others where necessary.”

Creating a sense of trust
Peter Hanlon, senior practitioner in social work for
Oldham social services, runs lots of meetings. He says: “Summarise
all the points as it is important to appear balanced, particularly
when there are lots of different groups, such as teachers and
police. If people trust you as the chair it is easier to move the
discussion forward.” He also recommends sometimes giving away power
and letting someone else chair.

Meetings with clients
In all meetings from first referral to case conference to
court, it is important that service users feel you are working with
them. Hanlon says: “If it does go to case conference it can be very
daunting for service users. The police will be present, teachers
and other social workers, so you need to let them know exactly what
is happening, explain the process and advocate for them. It is
important they feel informed, empowered and included.”

Wrapping up
The chair should manage the time and structure of the meeting to
avoid overrunning. Startup says: “You don’t want a meeting to be
overly long as people have limited attention spans and start losing
Any action points should also be agreed and allocated in the
meeting. At the end it is important to ensure everyone knows who is
doing what. “It can happen that everyone has a different
understanding of what has been agreed,” says Startup. “It is worth
going round the table outlining what each person is doing and, if
necessary, arrange a follow-up.”

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