Giving everyone a voice; the dynamics of team meetings.

When I was first a headteacher, after a few weeks of SLT meetings, one of my colleagues – a good friend, and an AHT – said to me, “Blimey, you don’t half talk a lot in meetings!”. “Is it bad?” I said. “Yes, it’s pretty bad!”

Oh dear. Deep down I knew she was right. So – what to do? I knew I wouldn’t be any good at policying myself so we devised a process of rotating the chair – each week, a different member of the team took on the roll of chair for the meeting, running the agenda, keeping the timing and momentum going and, crucially, ensuring everyone had a say. This included cutting people off if they went on too long, bringing in people who indicated they wanted to contribute and, ideally, inviting the silent people a chance to offer a view if they hadn’t yet voiced their ideas.

This worked brilliantly – I had my share of airtime but no more and everyone in the team gained from the experience of running the meetings. Plus, because a new person picked up the baton each week, the meetings always had fresh energy and a sense of doing thing properly without falling into lazy habits. I actually felt more liberated in terms of being able to have my say when I didn’t have to keep an eye on the clock and the agenda at the same time.

That is just one example of where team dynamics were managed explicitly to good effect. Another example I’ve explored a lot recently in relation to coaching and team CPD, is the very simple but powerful routine of pair discussion within a team meeting.

Very typically in a group of four or more people, there are people who dominate and others who are more passive; there are those who push forward and those who sit back. This is not remotely related to their respective knowledge or competence – it’s just an attitude; a demeanour. “There goes Dave, Pontificator Guy, banging on again….!”

If we want everyone to have a voice, to feel included, to have their ideas heard.. then we need to manage ourselves in groups. I have found that organising discussions with Pair Share works incredibly well – even with just four people. This normally arises in the ‘Probe’ part of a team coaching session. “Let’s pair up and probe: where do we find things challenging? What issues have arisen since last time we met?” This allows everyone to talk. It gives every individual person a relatively safe space around the table to air their thoughts without it feeling totally public. Then after a time, the chair – or coach – can call people together. Jenny and Pete, let’s hear from you first; Jenny, what were your thoughts? Now Jenny might normally be someone to sit back. Here she has a chance to express her thoughts without fighting through the social dynamics, competing for airtime, picking her moment when Dave has shut up for a second.

You then sample other pairs. It’s easy to hear a response from three or four pairs – which is way more time efficient than hearing six or eight individuals. For larger numbers, you can sample pairs – then ask if anyone has anything additional to add.

I’ve seen this make a big difference to people and to the richness of the conversation. People are much more likely to say what they really think to a partner and then when you ask them to report back, you get deeper into the realities. Everyone feels like they’ve contributed. It breaks up routine behaviours, embedded bad habits of dominance and passivity. Nobody opts out – they can’t. Nobody dominates – they don’t have the opportunity to.

Above all, I think it’s just important to remember that, without structure, you’re not likely to hear everyone’s voice and that can’t be a good thing.

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