A word, or two, about meetings

Meetings to organise things are a necessary component of village life

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard, or heard of the phrase: ‘I’m happy to do something, but I won’t go to meetings.’ And then the listener nods sympathetically, and wonders, silently, “Well, that’s fine, but how do you suppose the tasks will be organised, if nobody turns up for the meeting where that’s done?”

Email correspondence is all very well, and it’s often my own first resort when trying to contact someone, but it doesn’t replace face-to-face meetings with other people interested in the same agenda. Collective agreement on the best way to go forward is usually something that you need a meeting for.

Take the preparations for the bonfire in the big Baynes’ field at Bridge End next week. Much of these preparations by now are pretty much died-in-the-wool standardised, and many jobs can be, and are, allocated by an organised mind marshalling the volunteers. But some things, like the food tent, need careful scrutiny and attention to responsibilities that can only be developed conscientiously within the context of a meeting.

Who’s going to do what, and how, and when? What are the Health & Safety considerations? Who’ll order the toffee apples from the Co-op so that there’ll be enough, but not too much left over? How many bacon butties might be useful this year? Who’s going to do the soup, and what about the other liquid refreshments, the tea and coffee? Are there enough cups to hand for the evening’s demands? Who will create the Allergen Notice, newly required this year? The price list? And so a meeting is convened, as it was last night, discussion is careful and considered, and the organising group (in this case, the Allendale Lions) feel more comfortable about the imminent public event.

One challenge with meetings, however, can occur when the agenda and the decisions are already decided on beforehand, and those at the ‘meeting’ feel their input is not valued. Of various different meetings in the past, for example, (not the one last night!) I’ve also heard muttered retorts of disenchantment when, for example, it’s suggested that everything will work out as it’s always been done, and a couple of organisers/workers can sort out everything anyway. People might rightly ask, though they usually do so silently, or with their feet: ‘What was the point of coming out to that meeting then?’

So meetings need to be an inclusive exercise, bringing everyone into the picture, valuing everyone’s input, carefully weighing up different contributions together before coming to a consensus. Very few meetings, in a friendly atmosphere like most of the ones I’ve been to in Allendale, actually require a formal vote; rather the decisions are made collectively, cautiously but steadily. It can be challenging, especially if someone begins to feel that their ideas aren’t being fairly considered (and you might be surprised at how thin-skinned some folks are!), but it’s more fun really, to work together with everyone.

Sometimes things go wrong. If a group meeting hasn’t been convened to consider the various eventualities beforehand, then some poor soul may find themselves left holding the can. But if the event has been organised by a formal group, then the group itself must bear the responsibility for any mishaps, so shirking that collective responsibility beforehand is probably counter-productive. Group members all have to own a project to see it through safely and ‘up to spec’ by shared standards within the group.

Group leaders too have a slightly different responsibility to that of the other members: they have to keep the meeting in order, to collect opinions fairly, to listen to everyone and to try to move the decision-making process forward. Members look to their leader to do that, and meetings often disintegrate when a shared sense of due process isn’t achieved, when little conversations take precedence over the group task. Most of the meetings I’ve gone to, over the years, thankfully, have been chaired by wise and experienced leaders, but as I learned to my cost, it does take time, and constant attention, to develop that sort of expertise.

Sometimes though, meetings can have the feeling of a pub session, of merely sparkling conversational riffs and retorts, especially in Allendale when many meetings are held in the pubs anyway. But if the conversational riffs become more important than the business of the meeting, attendees may wish that alcohol had not been involved. I sometimes think that such meetings are often more fraught, under the influence of drink, than they need to be; while other folks might opine, “But I need a drink just to get through with it!” There’s always been good reasons for temperance, of course, just as there’s always good reasons for a stiff drink!

Life always goes on, but to be honest, it just wouldn’t be possible to sustain such a vibrant village as Allendale, without a fair assortment of meetings to organise things. So I usually feel that bit sorry for folks who won’t do meetings; they’re probably missing out on really experiencing village life!

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