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Why do some meetings fail? A guide to effective chairing

17 July 2007

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Wendy Garcarz
MA DipEd DipTM

Managing Director
4 Health Ltd

Wendy is managing director of 4 Health Ltd, a training and development consultancy firm based in the West Midlands. She is an organisational development specialist and architect of learning organisations, and has authored several books and publications, including:

Make Your Healthcare Organisation a Learning Organisation. Oxford: Radcliffe Medical Press; 2003.
Statutory & Mandatory Training in Health & Social Care. Oxford: Radcliffe Medical Press; 2005.
E  [email protected]

We have all found ourselves in meetings thinking, “Why am I here?”, or, “Why can we never make a decision?” The quality of the outcome is often down to the skills of the person chairing the meeting.

Why do meetings fail?
Meetings usually fail for one of three separate reasons:

  • Lack of clarity: over roles, the responsibilities of those present, the purpose or expected outcomes, as  well as unclear powerbases or hidden agendas.
  • Lack of resources; not having the right people in the right place at the right time.
  • Poor chairing skills; lack of focus or control, no clear framework or method of progression.

Lack of clarity
The chair must understand the roles and responsibilities of those attending the meeting to ensure people play their part in the proceedings. The chair should establish a clear purpose for the meeting, what the expected outcome is and how that will be progressed. Effective chairs will also understand the dynamics/powerbases of participants and their organisations, and take steps to facilitate equitable and objective proceedings that deliver actions and results.

Lack of resources
The chair will take measures to ensure the membership of a meeting providesenough knowledge and skill to achieve the required result. It is imperative that this is not left to chance, and that membership is regularly reviewed to ensure the right people get involved at the earliest opportunity.

Poor chairing skills
In order to obtain a good result from a meeting, the chair should display the necessary skills to orchestrate the membership in an effective and productive way. The chair should establish a clear agenda, keep the meeting focused on the task, manage participants and progress the work of the group.

If the chairman is doing a good job, issues are easily resolved, solutions agreed upon and consensus gained. Chairing a meeting means ensuring it achieves its aims, and people feel it was worth their time and effort. This may all sound very simple in theory, but in practice it can be a very demanding task.

Approach of the successful chair
An effective chair will have:

A chair should ensure all participants have an opportunity to express their point of view, and actively encourage them to do so. Their views, however, should not play a significant role in the meeting unless their appointment as chair was expressly for their knowledge or specialist skill. It can be difficult to be impartial, particularly if the topic is one that the chair is actively involved in, but it is essential if the outcome of the meeting is to stand up to scrutiny.

Often there are real extroverts at meetings, who enjoy being vocal and expressing their opinions. A good chair draws a balance between enthusiasm and someone dominating the proceedings. The more contentious the issue, the more likely the chair is to encounter vocal participants. The chair needs to be firm under these circumstances, but not rude or dogmatic, and should actively involve others in the debate, not allowing topics to get hijacked by passion or personal agenda.

Retain the focus of the meeting
It is all too common for meeting agendas to fall by the wayside when popular or controversial topics are under discussion, but the chair must retain control. The meeting may begin very well, but participants can quickly become embroiled in a particular topic and all sense of time goes out of the window.

A chair must assess the importance of each agenda item and ensure adequate time is allotted to deal with each issue. If one issue begins to dominate, the chair must take control. A number of tactics can be employed to achieve this, eg, suggesting a further meeting to discuss the issue at a later date or that the main parties concerned could continue the discussion at the end of the meeting. Sometimes it will be necessary to call for a decision and then move on to the next topic. The chair needs to stay alert and make sure the issue has been given an adequate and impartial hearing within the allotted time.

Summarising is a valuable tool for a chair, and is a particularly effective way to end a topic or discussion, to confirm understanding, and as a prelude to making a decision. It can also be useful to review what has taken place or what action is now required. It requires active listening skills, and chairs should have high levels of concentration in order to assimilate a lot of information, process it quickly and use it to make a decision. Practice is needed to summarise well, but it is a skill well worth developing.

Many people feel that being a chair means opening the meeting and refereeing dis­agreements, but effective chairs never let meetings deteriorate to this level before taking action. They will consult with participants by issuing an agenda (and may ask for items on the agenda to involve participants). There will usually be a note taker, or meeting secretary, who will work closely with the chair to ensure all interested parties have been notified, assess the level of interest for the meeting, and allot time to each item, based on decisions required and the number of
people attending.

During the meeting, the chair must remain focused on the outcomes and decisions it requires, and manage timing effectively to progress the meeting appropriately. They should also decide when to end discussion on each issue, use appropriate questions to gather information or redirect discussion, listen carefully to all contributions, and clearly summarise proceedings, with emphasis on decisions taken and future actions.

These are all key ingredients for a fruitful meeting. A tactful but assertive chair will facilitate an effective meeting, and that’s what everyone wants.

However, it should also be noted that the chair is an important member of the group, and may be required to vote on the major issues or use a casting vote in case of stalemate discussions.

The selection of a chair for a formal meeting may be subject to certain rules. For example, the company secretary may be required to chair the AGM. Informal meetings may select a chair by a simple vote or via instructions from whoever called the meeting. Sometimes there is a rotating chair, where everyone gets a turn at leading the proceedings. While this idea is democratic and inclusive, it is unlikely that the skills and qualities required of an effective chair will be found in all of those attending the meeting.

Personal qualities of the chair
The main concern of the chair should be the aims and objectives of the group, and the integrity of the meeting process. The skill set of an effective chair should include:

The chair will maintain control of a meeting to ensure that progress is made in line with the agenda.

Following an agenda does not always imply unquestioning adherence to it. If an unplanned discussion could produce clarification or an alternative solution, it may be more expedient to allow the diversion.

It is important that the chair supports an equal and fair consideration of all sides of the argument. This requires a degree of self-control, and can be especially difficult where the chair holds a strong view on the topic of discussion.

The chair must be able to accept and work with a broad cross-section of personalities. They should view each meeting without too much preconception as to how individuals will act and react, but be able to respond as the need arises.

An effective chair
If you want to be an effective chair, it may be useful to consider your skills and consider areas that require development. It can be very helpful to observe how others chair meetings and learn from their good practice. In summary, the chair:

  • Creates an agenda and ensures the meeting sticks to it.
  • Ensures that everyone gets the opportunity to speak, and that their views are heard and recorded.
  • Summarises key points, decisions and actions (this also helps the minute taker).
  • Keeps the meeting focused on the agenda.
  • If you are keen to become a more effective chair, consider:
  • Attending the regular meetings before you accept the position of chair.
  • Setting an overall time for the meeting, and allocating time limits for each agenda point.
  • Reading any meeting papers before you go into the meeting.
  • If you are new to the committee, and it is not a public meeting, trying to jot down a seating plan, so you know who is who.
  • If the committee/meeting is new and there aren’t too many people, asking the members to introduce themselves.
  • In formal meetings, the convention is “speaking through the chair”. That means it is considered rude to speak unless the chair invites you to do so.
  • Never discussing a paper tabled at a meeting; papers should be presented in time to allow participants to read, digest and formulate a view about them.
  • If you are chairing a new committee or meeting, trying to judge the level of formality to understand how strictly imposed these conventions are.
  • In a formal meeting, keenly observing participants so you notice anyone who wants to speak. Don’t let others speak out of turn – allocate a speaking order if too many want to speak at once.
  • Jotting down your own notes at the meeting and especially note any action points that are down to you.

Do not take conflict in a meeting personally. Often arguments will become quite heated or angry at meetings. Remember that some of this behaviour is often strategic and theatrical. As long as the members are not being abusive or disrespectful to each other, heated debate can be a very positive thing. Table 1 offers excellent guidance for handling disruptions and inappropriate behaviours in meetings.


Chairing offers a position of authority that allows you to take steps to control and guide a group. A chair carries the responsibility to ensure meetings are productive, and to progress work. It is not a role that should be undertaken lightly.