21 Leadership Tips for Chairing Difficult Meetings

September 30, 2011

I was recently asked to chair a meeting with a group I’ve been volunteering with for a number of years now. The President was away and as part of my duties as Vice-President, it fell to me to organize and chair the meeting.

We are a dedicated group of people and most of us have volunteered together for at least two years, with a few members being newer than that. There are strong personalities in the group, each of whom has different ideas on how things should be done. Meetings typically run over time and at least half a dozen items get moved from one month’s agenda to the next without resolution. Frustration levels in this group are high. Once you pair that with a couple of strong personalities that sometimes clash, it makes for challenging meetings. Here’s how I handled it:

Before the meeting

1. Read documents from the previous meeting. I prepared by reading over the financial statements and minutes from the previous meeting. You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often that we, as a group, don’t do this. (I’ve been guilty of it myself, at times.) Since I was chairing the meeting, I wanted to set a tone of “leading by example”. So I sat down and reviewed every single document, which included a 43-page set of new proposed By-Laws for the group. In total, I reviewed over 80 pages of documentation to prepare for the meeting.

2. Prepare an agenda. I used the minutes and agenda from the previous meeting to prepare a first draft of the agenda. Then I went back to my e-mail history and reviewed all the issued we had discussed in the previous month. The group had exchanged over 100 e-mails in the month since our last meeting. Not all members receive all the e-mails, but as VP, I get copied on most of them. I didn’t re-read them all, but I scanned the subject lines and reviewed key messages, ensuring that important items made it to the agenda. Knowing that our meetings typically run over time, I put the most pressing issues at the beginning of the agenda, so that if we ran out of time, we would not have important matters outstanding. I could have circulated a call for agenda items, but in this case, I chose not to. I knew we had a lot of issues to cover and I was confident that I’d captured the most important ones. This was a strategic choice on my part. I also didn’t want to open up too many new issues with our President being absent. There are times, however, when sending out a call for agenda items can be useful.

3. Prepare a progress report. It is not typical of our group to have executive members prepare a report, but I thought it would be useful to have a 1-pager with highlights of work that had been completed. I made sure that my report just gave updates and that there were no action items or decisions to be made.

4. Collect the necessary documents in an e-mail. I attached a copy of the agenda, the minutes from the previous meeting and various financial documents and my report so participants would have all the documents in one place. I made a list of the attachments in my e-mail and asked everyone to print their own copies or bring them in digital format on their laptop.

5. Send the reminder e-mail with clear instructions and expectations the day before the meeting. In addition to the list of attachments mentioned above, I also reminded members where the meeting was being held, the time it started and asked them point blank to budget two hours for the meeting. In the past there have been varying ideas on how long our meetings are. The reality is that nobody really knows how long they should be. But as someone who has been part of the group for several years, I’ve seen people get frustrated (or just get up and leave) after about 2 hours. I made it clear how long I expected them to be there, and in turn, I promised them that the meeting would not run over time.

6. Politely decline demands to change the agenda once it has been circulated. In my case, I had someone write to me with new items that had never been on the table before, demanding that they be included on the agenda. This was done via e-mail to our entire group. I politely responded, using “Reply All”, saying that I had reviewed the request and that they would not be included for three reasons: 1) agenda had already been set, 2) members have complained about meetings running over time and it was my intention to honour the 2-hour time limit for the meeting and 3) these items were both new and not urgent and could therefore be addressed by the President at the next meeting.

7. Arrive early and prepared. This not only gives you a chance to select the seat you want, but it also sends a clear, non-verbal message to people when they arrive that you are organized and prepared. This in itself sends a message that you are taking a leadership role for the meeting.

During the meeting

8. Stick to the agenda and follow it in order. In our meetings, we typically jump all over the place, going from one item to another. The agenda becomes more of a wish list of things we’d like to talk about than a step-by-step guide as to what issues we are going to address and in what order.

9. Hold the agenda in your hand. By doing this, you give yourself a physical reminder of the meeting plan you prepared. You also send a visual cue to others in the meeting that the agenda is important and that you are paying attention to it.

10. Allow one speaker at a time. Our group has developed this habit of all talking over one another. It is not uncommon that 2 or 3 people will be talking at once. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, not only because it makes it difficult to follow the conversation, but it makes it almost impossible for the meeting secretary to take good minutes and record the events of the meeting accurately. I’m a stickler for good minutes, but it’s hard to prepare good minutes when three people are all talking at once. For this meeting, when someone interrupted someone else, I literally put up my hand in a “Stop!” position and said, “Just a minute, please, Jane is speaking. Let her finish and then it’ll be your turn.” Members responded well to this and it made it easier to hear the ideas being presented, and made it easier for the minutes secretary.

11. Ensure everyone is heard. If I promised someone I’d let them speak, I kept that promise. Everyone got a chance to say something. One thing that happens when you have two or three loud extroverts all talking is that the introverts become even quieter, shrinking away from animated conversation. A couple of times I did a “round robin”, going around the table one-by-one, so each person could give their comments.

12. Give each person the spotlight, even if it is only briefly. In the case of our group, each person is responsible for mini-projects that they take the lead on. I prepared the agenda so that everyone would have a few moments in the spotlight, where they were responsible for reporting on the work they’d completed in the past month, as well as proposing solutions and asking for feedback on their projects. People tend to be most interested in what they are directly responsible for, so I ensured that everyone’s projects got some attention and that everyone was publicly accountable for their contributions to the group.

Business - Group - team hands

Unite your group by focussing on finding solutions to problems.

13. Focus on solutions to problems. Differences happen, especially in a group of alpha personalities with distinct values and opinions. By focussing on how to solve the issues on the table, you are united in your cause, not divided by your differences.

14. Thwart attempts to hijack or derail the meeting. There were three attempts during the meeting to either hijack it (which is when someone other than the chair tries to take control of the situation) or derail it (which is when someone attempts to get you off track or divert the conversation away from the agenda). I did not take this personally, as our group has developed a culture of people all jumping in, demanding that things be done in a certain way, or trying to take over because they don’t like the fact that we jump all over the place. In all three cases, I acknowledged what was happening, reminded everyone that we had an agenda to follow and we had a lot of material to cover in a short period of time. As the chair of a meeting, it was my job to keep us on track, keep us organized and maintain control. I still wanted decisions to be democratic, but I also wanted to send a clear message that I had no intention of letting the meeting get chaotic.

15. Ask tough questions. Our group has a habit of going off on tangents, with people telling stories and getting away from the business at hand. I took on the role of asking some tough questions. I did it in a polite and respectful way that was intended to keep us focussed on our agenda. I asked questions like, “How does this story move us toward a solution?”, “What’s your action plan to move this forward?”, “What are your specific recommendations on this issue?” and “Are you making a motion on this item?”

16. Allow some humour. The tough questions and “tough love” approach to running a meeting can be oppressive. In our case, we have one member of the group who has a mischievous sense of humour. She made a few jokes throughout the meeting and I let her do so, without getting off track. The comic relief helped add some lightness, which kept people engaged and ultimately helped the meeting to be productive.

17. Conclude by reviewing the details of the next meeting date. Ensure that everyone leaves the meeting knowing when and were the next meeting will be held. This also sends a message that the current meeting is about to conclude.

18. Thank everyone for their attendance. Whether they are volunteers or not, people made a point to be there. I acknowledged the time they took and their contributions.

19. End on time. I promised everyone a two-hour meeting. With 20 minutes to go, there were still a number of items to address. I made it clear that whatever was not addressed would be tabled, with a view to moving it to the top of the agenda next month. I was pleased that people later came up with their own ideas on how to make the next meeting more efficient (e.g. have questions prepared beforehand and not waste time shuffling through papers to find an important piece of information).

After the meeting

20. Follow up right away on your action items. As chair of the meeting, it fell to me to lead by example. I made a point to follow up on each of my action items as soon as I could, to set the tone that we are accountable to do what we say we are going to do.

21. Follow up with a group thank you note. This is a strategy I learned from Patricia Morgan, a specialist in resilience. I once sat on a board chaired by Patricia and within 24-hours of every meeting she sends a follow-up e-mail to all members of the group. She lists each person who was present by name, thanking them for something specific that he or she contributed to the meeting (a good sense of humour, diligent preparation, thoughtful input on a particular issue, providing the space to host the meeting, etc.) Each person is acknowledged for their individual strengths and contributions. I have found this practice to be extremely helpful, particularly in a group where personalities differ. It highlights the entire meeting in terms of the constructive and positive contributions made by each person. Even though personalities may differ, we are all investing our time and expertise. Acknowledging people’s contribution publicly and by name has a profound effect on their perceptions of one another and helps us focus on each others’ strengths.

Will these steps ensure a perfect meeting? No. But they can help set the tone of a meeting, ensure that expectations are clear from the start, that things move ahead in an orderly way and that each person’s contributions are valued.

I wasn’t expecting a perfect meeting and I didn’t get one. But in general, it was very good. And I got three thank you notes from members of the group, acknowledging how well the meeting went. That made it all worth it.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Free PD Resource: 3 Early Literacy Professional Development Webinar Recordings

September 28, 2011

Are you looking for some material for your next PD or staff meeting to get your early literacy practitioners thinking? Webinars are a great way to build knowledge and generate discussion in your team. You can ask participants to watch the webinar before the meeting and come prepared to talk about it, or you can watch the webinar as a group and then have a dialogue about it.

Get Ready to Read has posted three freely available webinars for early literacy on their site. You can watch the programs and download the slide presentations for each of these three topics:

Shared Book Reading

Reading with children provides valuable opportunities for enriching vocabulary and other important oral language skills as well as for extending basic knowledge about the world. Viewers will learn how to maximize language growth through shared book reading. They will also find out how to increase children’s understanding of concepts of print, how books work, and the wonders of letters and words on a page. Activities will be demonstrated to help prepare children to become motivated, equipped, and successful readers and writers.

Phonological (Sound) Awareness

Phonological awareness, or the insight that words are made up of discrete parts, is one of the strongest indicators of future reading success. Viewers will learn how to use books, songs and conversation to increase youngsters’ ability to learn important preliteracy concepts through play with sounds and syllables. Enjoyable activities will be described and modeled to help children rhyme as well as identify, separate, and blend sounds with words.

Speech to Print Connection

Children can be empowered to match what they know best – speech – with what they need to learn to read – print. Through children’s first exposure to the alphabet, the speech to print connection is built. Activities to strengthen letter naming and children’s own name recognition serve as the springboard for establishing sound-symbol relationships and word recognition. Enjoyable group activities demonstrate how early literacy can be promoted to prepare children for later reading success.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Digital Resource: Using Video with Adult Learners

September 27, 2011

The other day I stumbled across the Adult Literacy Education Wiki, which features dozens of free resources on how to use video with adult learners.

Topics include:

  • How to create videos
  • Video-making tools
  • How to incorporate videos in class
  • Video streaming
  • Ready-made video resources
  • Instructional videos useful for adult learners
  • Blogs
  • Samples of student-created videos

This is a great resource full of resources and ideas. Go check it out.


Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Happy Banned Books Week!

September 26, 2011

Did you know that September 24 to October 1, 2011 is Banned Books Week sponsored by the American Libraries Association and 5 other organizations.

In celebration of the week, I’m pledging to read at least one banned book (though I haven’t decided which one yet.) Lauren Davis reports in the Eye on Education blog that the Harry Potter series has been the most widely banned book series of the past decade.

My friend and mentor, Dr. Nicholas Zekulin, a professor of Russian at the University of Calgary has what we believe to be the world’s largest collection of Harry Potter books in translation. Maybe I’ll pick up the Spanish version and enjoy Potter en español.

Here’s my invitation to join me in reading a banned book this week, or at least have a conversation with someone else about censorship, freedom of speech or banned books.

Related posts:


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

The Best Time of Day to Tweet, When to Post to Facebook and other Social Media Insights

September 25, 2011

KISS Metrics has done some serious research into social media. Their stats are for the U.S., but they make those of us in Canada and other parts of the world think about when we tweet, too. KISS metrics notes that nearly 50% of the US population lives in the Eastern Time Zone. If you add in those who live in the Central time zone, you get to 80% of the population.

So what? For maximum effectiveness, post to Twitter and other social media when people in the Eastern and Central Time Zones are likely to be on line.

Top Facts about Twitter

If you want to be re-Tweeted, the best time to Tweet is 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time. That’s 3:00 p.m. for those of us living in Calgary and other parts of Alberta. Figure that out in your local time zone by converting the time at TimeandDate.com.

If your purpose isn’t to be re-Tweeted, but rather to have followers click on your links, the statistics change a bit. The report says that the highest click through rate (CTR) is noon and 6:00 p.m., Eastern time.

How often should you Tweet if you want people to click through to your links? Survey says… 1 to 4 times per hour. The click through rate (CTR) is apparently highest for those who Tweet their links every 15 to 60 minutes. If you tweet links more than 4 times per hour, your followers are likely to become numbed to your barage of Tweets. Personally, I never Tweet with links that much. I guess I need to start Tweeting more!

KISS Metrics2

People are most likely to click on your links mid-week and on the weekends. That is when the click through rate (CTR) is highest.

Top Facts about Facebook

The best day to share on Facebook is Saturday. That’s when the most sharing is done. This offers good food for thought for companies, schools and non-profits who only share on Facebook during the work week. Maybe it is worth using a tool such as Hootsuite to schedule your FB updates so you are sharing when employees are off the clock.

And if you’re wondering when on Saturday (or any day) to post things that are most likely to be shared, the best time of day to post on Facebook is at noon.

If you have a Facebook page, the KISS metrics show that one post every day will help you build the most “likes”.

Check out the full post by KISS Metrics.

So, what’s the moral of the story? Use social media regularly and consistently, but don’t jam it down anyone’s throat. Share information when others are likely to share your links. Pay attention to when people are on line and post at times when your links and “shareables” are likely to be seen.


Share this post: The Best Time of Day to Tweet, When to Post to Facebook and other Social Media Insights http://wp.me/pNAh3-TN

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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