While speaking in New York in February 2008 I attended the local meeting of NEFAC in the city. Observing the conduct of the meeting it struck me that a lot of things I took for granted about how meetings should be run were perhaps not as self-evident as I would have presumed. So I wrote up a short piece for Anarchist Black Cat based on my experience of meetings and how I thought from this they should work. While hunting down translations of my articles for my article archive on this site I realised that one Turkish language article on Anarkismo.net was actually a translation of that forum post. As I want to add the translation I'm posting the original forum post here in order to link to the translation.
You may want to check out the original thread on Anarchist Black Cat as there was a bit of back and forth about the text below. You'll need to register an account before you can read that thread but that just takes a minute. BTW don't take the intro as being overly critical of that NEFAC meeting, I'd been to much worse meetings in my time, it was just this one triggered this bit of writing.
Time and location
Try and have the meetings at a regular time and place so that members can remember when and where they are and someone doesn't end up having to make two or three phonecalls per member to ensure a reasonable attendance.
You need a space that is private and where members can see and hear each other. Three people might be able to meet around a table in a cafe but anything bigger requires a better space, if need be you should hire a room.
Someone (the Local / Branch secretary) should be responsible for getting there early and ensuring the space is ready five minutes before the meeting is due to start. If members are used to late starts they will arrive late.
You need to make your meetings short. This can be very difficult and much of what follows is about how to do that. Long meetings are frustrating and may well exclude members who don't have much free time.
A meeting at which minutes are not kept and circulated shortly afterwards is almost useless. Things will be forgotten and what exactly was decided will be unclear. This may result in big rows and lasting damage. Good minutes are essential to the process.
Good minutes are short rather than long. They don't transcribe or summarize what everyone said - in any case this is almost impossible to do accurately without proper training and done badly can be worse than useless.
They do tell you what decisions were made and who is going to make sure that decision is implemented.
'Barry will bring the leaflets to Saturdays demonstration'
'Jill will send an email to our announcement list about the demonstration by Tuesday'
'George will bring the banner to the demonstration'
Minutes are most useful if they are circulated to everyone (eg by email) within 24 hours of the meeting. Then they remind people of what they have committed to do which is a lot better than reminding people what they have failed to remember to do after the event.
Facilitating / charing
Any meeting of more than three or four people will need someone to facilitate it.
Briefly the facilitator should ensure
1. The an agenda is drawn up at the start of the meeting and that it is stuck to.
2. That someone is actually taking minutes and that when a decision is made they clearly record what decision that is. If the discussion was complex its often a good idea to ask the minute taker to read out the decision they have recorded.
3. That anyone who wants to speak gets a chance to do so if time permits and that no one speaks again until everyone has had a chance to speak once. It is a very good idea when you get to the end of the list of people who have spoken once to specifically ask if anyone else wants to speak before taking anyone for a second time.
4. Don't be afraid to be formal about this even if you are all friends, get people to put their hands up and stop people interrupting each other.
5. Encourage people to move to a decision and certainly once everyone has had a chance to speak once start to help this process by looking out for and formulating what needs to be decided.
6. Keep people on topic, don't let them suddenly jump to a new point on the agenda until the current one if finished and decided on.
7. Don't allow 'conversations' between two members with opposed views to dominate a meeting. In fact as far as possible discourage anyone from speaking more than twice on any topic.
8. Don't whisper with those near you about how to run the meeting, make sure that whatever is said can be heard by everyone.
9. Once positions have been sketched out check if people are ready to move to a vote. If time is short remind them of this when checking.
If your local anarchist group is any good its going to be busy, perhaps with lots of projects. While this is good it can make for awful meetings as item after item is added to the agenda and people present 'flow of conciousness' reports that ramble on and are followed by unfocused discussion. Without intervention this tends to be the default thing that happens at meetings and means they drag on and on and often items at the end of the agenda are squeezed off or not properly discussed as people have to leave.
These sorts of meetings feel frustrating and useless. Here is a general model that when followed will result in a meeting that feels a lot more productive.
a. Proposals - when drawing up the agenda first ask for things that members have a specific proposal on, all the better if this is in written form. These items should get most of the available time and be taken at the start of the business section of the meeting.
b. Reports - things that members simply want to report on should come after proposals have been dealt with. Reports should be very brief and focus on new developments. Questions should be taken on the report but discussion should be avoided unless there is lots of time or the need for a proposal have come out of the report.
Divide your meeting into two one hour sections divided by a ten minute smoke break.
A. Agenda items (3 minutes)
B. Minutes of previous meetings ( 5 minutes)
C. Proposals (35 minutes)
D. Reports (15 minutes)
E. Any other business (2 minutes)
A ten to twenty minute introduction to a topic prepared in advance by one or more members
Forty minutes of discussion of that topic by all members.
Yep you should try and get all the business into one hour. Normally this is quite possible, WSM branches have been following the above routine for years. Not always sticking strictly to it but close enough to know it is possible and to know that our better meetings are the ones that do stick to it.
Section 2 (which could be called an education section) is essential in a number of ways
1. It makes a meeting feel much, much more worthwhile. It's normally both educational and enjoyable.
2. It massively helps you develop cohesiveness as a group and a common understanding of your political positions
3. It can be used to step back from the nuts and bolts of a struggle to examine the big pictures. If you engaged in a housing struggle a regular educational where a member presents an overview of how things are going can be a massive aid that would normally be drowned out be the mechanics of sorting out who is knocking on which door.
4. It can be used to develop a theoretical position on the latest new idea in circulation. Everyone talking about 'Empire'? Get someone who likes reading that sort of stuff to prepare a twenty minutes summary and then you can all argue over the ideas.
5. It can bring members 'up to speed' on a particular area where one member has developed some expertise.
6. In some cases it may be a good thing to invite people who might join to come to.
7. In some cases it may be a good thing to invite someone outside the organisation to do the lead off.
8. It need not be much extra work - for instance if someone is researching an article for a magazine get them to do a talk based on the first draft. This will be helpful to them as they can use the feedback to understand what areas need more work. Make use of whatever expertise exists and if research time is short get people to do a lead off based on a short reading.
9. Plan ahead - try and know what 50% of the talks are going to be three or more months in advanced so that members can research them. The rest can be shorter because they can be based on overviews of ongoing struggles or areas of individual expertise.
Rotation and training
All this is good for your meetings but its also something you can bring to other organizations and struggles. In general everyone loves someone who knows how to make a previously frustrating meetings process work.
So treat meetings as a way of training all members how to organize meetings. All the tasks mentioned above should be rotated from member to member so that every member becomes good at facilitating, at taking minutes and at doing a simple talk to a small number of people. Let new members observe how its done for the first few meetings but as soon as possible encourage them to join the rotations.
It can be difficult to facilitate a meeting and tell one of your friends to shut up and stop interrupting. So remember this and particular if like me you are something of a opiniated loud mouth try and check your own behaviour. If your speaking a lot ask yourself if you really need to speak again before your hand goes up. Some arguments your not going to win and its better to let the process move on.