Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chairing

Hi there, blogfolks! It's been a while, and I'm sorry to have forgotten to write anything in December. If the archives are any indication, though, I'm in good company...

I have to admit that this topic has given me quite the pause. I spent a good while thinking "chairs? what can I possibly have to say about chairs?!" before I decided to be sneaky about it. So, while I am technically going to talk about chairs, I won't be going with the obvious, physically present, bottom-supporting chairs that you might be thinking of when you read the month's topic.

Rather, I'd like to discuss "chairs" as in chairing - the activity. While I haven't chaired a meeting, I've got some background in leading class discussions both in my seminars (with other grad students) and in my tutorial (with first year students). Leading discussions is difficult, but can be incredibly rewarding. What can you do to prepare for chairing?

In my experience, there are a few things that can make the process infinitely less painful, and (hopefully) more enjoyable and productive for the others involved.

1. Preparation
This is a fairly obvious step, yet it's one that's easy to neglect - if you want to lead a discussion on some topic, you'd better know what you're talking about. Read about the issues you'll be covering, and come up with an agenda. For classroom discussions, I've found that one good question tends to lead to about 15-20 minutes of talking - though you'll have to be prepared to ask follow-up questions based on what comes up in that time. In terms of meetings, it might be more the case that you have to limit your points to what a group can chew on in the time limit you have. (That is to say, if you only have half an hour, don't plan to address six issues - even if only a few of the people present have something to say, time goes by *quickly* and each point someone makes will likely prompt others' responses, escalating into a snowball of eating up your precious time if you aren't careful). Make it thorough, but manageable.

2. Active Listening
When you're in the position of leading a discussion or meeting, it can often be very difficult to understand what other people are saying. Different communication styles abound, and what makes perfect sense in one person's head might confuse another person when said out loud. If someone asks a question or makes a point, try to rephrase it and confirm that that is indeed what they meant. Not only does this show that you're paying attention, but it may even help the other people present chew on that person's ideas a bit. Try to ensure that you're engaged with people's ideas, and that those ideas are fully fleshed out when presented.

3. Concrete Goals
Setting out to discuss an issue or solve a problem frequently leads to surprising places - if you're not careful, what started out as one issue can quickly turn into a tangent on another. Along with making an agenda, try to ensure that you've got concrete goals to deal with. For a class discussion, this might be trying to find several possible answers for a specific question, or for a meeting, it might be assigning responsibility for an action to an individual. Not only does this help things get somewhere productive, but it helps make everyone feel like their time isn't being wasted. The last thing people want is to be subjected to the personal ramblings of someone who doesn't particularly care about the issue in question. Having a goal in mind can help direct the conversation to somewhere meaningful.

What about y'all? Any suggestions on how to make chairing a more engaging and helpful experience?


1 comment:

  1. What I originally wanted to write was something inspired by this post (http://skepchick.org/2011/08/ask-surly-amy-chair-people/) that I haven't been able to get out of my head for a while, but it would've required too much thinking and careful writing, so I'll have to save that for another time. So you and I were kind of on the same wavelength..ish. :)

    I had to lead a safety meeting at work one day as part of my course requirements for safety training (also part of my job description, but only sometimes). Anyway, the concrete goals part of this is the most crucial one for me. Safety meetings tend to get carried away with complaints and stuff like that, so you need to be able to shut down whining and focus on the important things.

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