That time I had a chair thrown at me (or: 10 Rules for an effective decision-making meeting)

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles

It went something like this.

It went something like this.


(About 9 minutes to read)

It was a beautiful evening at someone’s house that had a view of the ocean.  Buoys and boats were peacefully bobbing around in the water.  The colors of the sunset were distractingly beautiful through the floor-to-ceiling windows.  And then someone picked up a chair and threw it clear across the room toward me.

Planning a great meeting is hard work.  It requires a lot more work put into it than we tend to give, no matter what our profession.  As a result, it leads to a culture of meeting-haters, which squashes wonderful opportunities to learn from each other.  Furthermore, I’ve seen so many effective organizers run kick-ass meetings with their membership and then bumble their way through a staff meeting.  Different setting, and so it’s assumed there are different rules. 

I decided to shift gears a bit with this post, because I believe that a big part of stress and burnout for me is feeling like I’m failing or I don’t know what I’m doing.  Also, everyone has their own style of organizing, and I think one can always benefit from hearing others’ perspectives.  At least that way, you can say “wow, that’s definitely not how I would have done it”, or “interesting…maybe I’ll try that next time”, and this post would have served its purpose.  What I’d like to share with you today is about the art of planning out the decision-making part of your meeting.  Because as they say in Sharknado, “Always be prepared.” 

That chair-throwing meeting was a great meeting.  A very hard, challenging meeting which I will never forget, but one that was productive and decisive.  And I was prepared for that chair.  I knew that chair was going to be thrown my direction a week before it was thrown.  I made it my job to know all about that chair throw.  I practiced that chair throw with my boss.  I prepared all attendees in that meeting for that chair, including the thrower.  The chair was inevitable.

The organization I was working for was taking a different position than a chapter of members agreed with.  Their participation waxed and waned for months as this transition happened.  But when they chose to participate they were either great, active members, or they would stick their heels in the ground and make things a bit challenging. 

I agreed with how they felt.  They were fighting a battle that was worthwhile, but one that I knew they wouldn’t win.  And in the process of them fighting this battle, they were requiring more time from me than my organization would have allowed me to spend on them at that point (because they were not contributing to our organizational goals).  And so this was the meeting.  The one were we’d settle the differences, and they’d have to either quit or agree to work with us.  The big decision.

My supervisor is a brilliant organizer, who really impressed on me the importance of agenda planning and being prepared.  Co-workers gave the analogy of football players preparing for a game.  Football players spend far more time at practice, working on their plays and preparing for all possibilities that could happen in a game than they do at an actual game.  We should be doing the same in our preparations for a meeting.  Prepping the meeting and the decision will ensure that you remain in control in the face of chaos (which, depending on the kind of decision, will probably happen).  My supervisor trained me the way a coach would, having me try again and again until I felt ready.  She taught me everything I know about prepping for and facilitating a meeting.

While you’re planning the meeting, you should actually walk through the meeting in your head.  What materials will be helpful?  What flip charts can you prepare now so you don’t spend time with your back toward the crowd?  How long will that part really take?  How are the chairs set up?  Will you be sitting or standing?  Where will you position yourself?

All these questions are important, but the most important thing I learned is how to prepare for the decision-making. 

10 Rules for Decision-Making Meetings

  1. Know word-for-word what the question will be.  I’ve been in plenty of decision-making meetings where I messed up the question, and we wound up having a discussion about something not as urgent as the question I meant to ask.  And if you cut off the off-topic conversation, you run the risk of your membership feeling unheard.  Choose your words carefully and intentionally.
  2. Facilitate a discussion about the topic.  Have a good sense of where people are coming from ahead of time.  Meet with individuals, discuss an upcoming decision, and find out where they stand.  Surprises and changes can happen, but it helps you have a good sense of the tone of the meeting.  It also allows you to build up leadership, by discovering what may hold back more shy members and asking leaders to address these issues (without naming the person).  For instance, Barbara was a new and showed an interest in being more active but hated speaking out because she always felt like by the time someone called on her, all the good ideas were taken.  So before the next meeting, the President of the Board and I discussed how we could help newer members feel more welcome, and brainstormed a list of people who are newer but have good ideas.  Sure enough, Barbara was one of the first people we listed and at the meeting, the Board leader called on her first.  After the meeting, Barbara asked how she could get more involved.
  3. Know what outcome you hope to achieve.  This does not mean “manipulate the meeting to go your way” but instead have an idea of what you would like to see happen with options of how else it could go.  If you do this well, members or attendees will still feel comfortable disagreeing with you (occasionally despite your best efforts to encourage them otherwise!).  But you’ll have thought through pros and cons for options and be able to help your membership/attendees think through what their decisions mean.
  4. Have a sense of other possible outcomes.  New ideas will come up during the meeting, but thinking through creative outcomes beforehand will leave your mind open to other ideas that could come up.
  5. Give them something to react to.  Sometimes it will be a terrible idea that you know attendees will hate.  The actual feasibility of the idea is not so important.  When you propose a result, people will react, and you can dive into why it’s a good idea or not so you can better help them think about it.
  6. Act out parts you think may be challenging.  Bring your co-workers in on it, with a bit of background on the meeting attendees, and treat them the way you would your members.  Actually going through the hard parts will both help you know where you need more support and will help you feel more confident going into the meeting.
  7. Know when to call the question.  There is such a thing as enough discussion.  It’s important to sense when ideas are slowing down, when people are repeating themselves, and when sitting in silence for a bit longer will foster new ideas.  If you let folks sit with a decision too long, they may start to question themselves (especially whether it’s a bold decision) and backpedal, simply because they’ve convinced themselves otherwise.  Don’t let that happen!
  8. Know how the vote will happen.  This is so easy to overlook!  So many organizers approach the decision time as “Then, we’ll make a decision!” but if I ask them what will bring them to a decision and how will the decision happen, they fall silent.  I’ve gotten into trouble with this before, where I told meeting attendees it was time to make a decision, and we spent 20 minutes determining how we will vote.  By the time we decided everyone was tired and no one really wanted to stay to make the decision.  Have a list of possible voting options in mind, and propose one.  Again, it might not be the “right” proposal, but it gives attendees something to react to.  I usually propose a voting structure before we even begin discussion so that the issue doesn’t get mixed in with how to vote.
  9. Record the results.  Keep track of votes (depending on how the group decides to vote) to ensure transparency in the organization.  You can refer back to the results to remember where members are coming from, and check-in with those who dissented as time passes.
  10. Move on.  Celebrate a decision, but don’t let it linger.  Determine next steps and try to end the meeting.  The likelihood of productivity will probably decrease dramatically after the decision is made.

You’d better believe I went through these steps for that meeting I had. 

  1. Our question: “How do you want to relate to this organization?”  Framing it as “are you staying or leaving” would have set the tone up immediately for people to feel on defense.  I wanted the question to have space for alternative results aside from “Will leave or won’t leave”.
  2. I knew going into this meeting that emotions would be high.  But I also knew who of them would blow up first, who was on the fence, who is the one who always can see all sides, who will go with the crowd, etc.  I made sure to call first on the one who consistently delivers thoughtful pros/cons, and ended with the one who tends to think of creative solutions.
  3. I knew that what I believed was best was for them to leave the organization.  But I did not let this sway the conversation at all.  Instead, it did allowed me to think through what information and discussions I would need to be able to come to that decision or not, and incorporate it into the meeting.
  4. The options did not have to be stay or go only.  I thought about them becoming a “club” where we’d try out having them meet formally less frequently and allow them to choose what campaigns they wanted to be a part of.  I thought about setting a probationary period where we would lay out what they wanted to see happen and assess in 3 months if it happened or not, and decide based on the results.  I knew there could be other solutions I hadn’t thought of.
  5. After initial discussions and first impressions were expressed, I proposed that they leave the organization based on what they were saying.  That’s when emotions got high.  There was the person who stood up, banged on the table and said “Yes!  We don’t need you!” and the other whose eyes welled up with tears thinking about all the work they put into this organization.  But they were figuring out where they stood, how they felt if this was the actual outcome, and were then able to articulate what sounded right and wrong about that decision.
  6. I thought about things that could go wrong beforehand: someone doesn’t show up to the meeting and disagrees; no one shows up to the meeting; the host kicks us out of the meeting.  I acted out scenarios where they invited press to come to write a piece about how we had failed them, where they kicked me out, and where they packed the room with people and put me on the spot.  After doing this, I was prepared for what could happen.  No, I didn’t actually think someone would throw a chair.  But I did know someone’s emotions could explode, and practiced sending them out of the room.  And when the chair did fly, I looked at our host, said “I need you to step outside and take a breather.  We won’t make any decisions without you, but I can’t allow people to feel they can’t express their opinions without being threatened.”  I was calm, he was surprised at my response, and thought for a moment.  Then he walked out, we discussed if people agreed with the sentiment behind the statement and when he was ready 5 minutes later, he came in, apologized, sat down, and calmly explained how he was feeling.
  7. Once he explained and folks agreed with his points (but obviously not his actions!), I felt that we had reached a point where people were level-headed about the decision they had to make.  More conversation could mean more fighting, but we weren’t quite ready to make a decision before that energy was released either.  This felt like the right time.
  8. I proposed at the beginning of the meeting that the vote be unanimous because of the weight of the decision.  They agreed, and so when the time came to vote, there was no discussion about how we should decide.  I reminded the group of how we were voting, and then we just voted.
  9. We wrote down the results and statements so that their position would be conveyed to the rest of the membership in a way that felt fair but diplomatic about their reasoning behind their decision.
  10. We actually drafted a letter together to the membership.  I set up meetings with each person to transfer over any record keeping they didn’t want or we needed.  I wanted to get any group needs done during the meeting so that they could feel closure, and not that they need another meeting just to leave.  And then we closed the meeting, on tense but agreed terms.

Of course there were probably things I could have done better.  But at least now I have a trump card whenever a potential employer asks how I deal with conflict!

Not all of your meetings are going to go this way, by any means.  You’re going to decide whether you want to cater your meal versus have a potluck, and decide whether to sign on to an ally’s campaign or not.  But the process for preparing should remain the same.  Be prepared and you won’t be surprised.  You’ll make room for creative solutions because you’ve already begun to think outside of the box.  And if it comes down to it, you’ll see that chair flying from a mile away.

Your Turn:

I know some of the things I’ve expressed here are a bit controversial, particularly knowing the outcome that you want before the meeting starts.  So, what do you think?  Have other tips worked for you?

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