Meetings as a social contract

Why do people hate meetings?

‘Making Meetings Magical®’

What do you expect when you attend a meeting?  Is your implicit ‘social contract’ honoured?

Unconsciously, each participant in your meetings has signed up to a ‘social contract’.  Evidence for this is most obvious when the ‘social contract’ is violated.

Have you ever attended a meeting that for any reason whatsoever left you annoyed, angry, disappointed?

The reason this negative emotion arose for you is probably because something occurred that you thought was inappropriate.  And you can probably name a handful of meeting behaviours that will trigger this negative emotion for you.  Each of these negative meeting behaviours represent a violation of your implicit ‘social contract’, a set of expectations that you bring to a meeting.

And each participant at the meeting has their own implicit ‘social contract’.  Further, it may not be identical to yours, though some overlap is highly likely.  And because these ‘social contracts’ are implicit – i.e. not shared - no one knows what they contain.

Far better that the ‘social contract’, which is set up between the entity that called the meeting and those who attend, is made explicit.

This social contract has three important elements: (i) the intended content of our conversation, (ii) the intended timing of the meetings and its respective elements, and (iii) the desired behaviours within our meeting – our ground-rules.

The social contract, like any contract, involves an ‘offer’ and an ‘acceptance’.  The ‘offer’ occurs when the agenda is circulated.  The ‘acceptance’ occurs when participants turn up, armed with a set of expectations as to what will occur, when it will occur, and how it will occur.

To make absolutely sure that the ‘social contract’ is shared and understood, the meeting’s first agenda item addresses this specifically, by asking and then responding to three opening questions:

1.       What are we here for?  The answer to that question is spelt out by the agenda which has been circulated in advance.

2.       How long have we got?  The answer to that question is also made specific on the agenda.  Timings include meeting starting time, meeting finishing time, and the specific time allocated to each agenda item.

3.       How will we work together?  This question has two answers.  The first, made clear as a notation against each agenda item, relates to what is expected of participants in dealing with that item.  This notation permits participants to do the required pre-meeting preparation.  The second is a set of ground-rules on participant general behaviour and issued as an appendix to the agenda.

These three questions confirm the shared social contract leaving participants in no doubt as to what is about to occur in your meeting.

A facilitator, conducting a community development workshop in a small rural town, commenced the workshop by addressing these three questions.  Two gentlemen immediately stood up and walked out.  They had intended to be at the cattle breeders meeting which was being held next door.

By opening the workshop with the three focusing questions, only two minutes of the cattlemen’s time was misspent.  Without the focusing questions to begin, considerably more time might have been wasted as the two gentlemen sat there in confusion.

© Ian Plowman

February 2018