I seem to have been sitting through a lot of committee meetings recently, of diverse kinds. Every committee meeting has its own dynamic – a grant-awarding meeting is very different in form from that of some sort of a departmental strategy group; a programme committee for a conference will differ from a student-liaison body. Nevertheless there are some basic principles which apply more or less across the board. In the past I have derived a little entertainment describing the sort of committee members (and chairs) I hope you’ll never meet though probably will. Now I want to put out some suggestions for how you should behave to make sure you never feature in a future post poking fun at bad behaviour.
I think each of these rules is pretty fundamental to being able to make a useful contribution for committees at whatever level. Some of them are perhaps so obvious as to make it look as if they don’t need stating. But since I have not infrequently encountered individuals breaking each of these ‘rules’, clearly they do need reiterating and probably pretty often.
- Read the paperwork
Maybe there isn’t any beyond the agenda, but if there is, make sure you have at least skimmed through it and know what it covers. You can end up looking extremely silly if you ask a question the answer to which resides on page 1, or if you haven’t mastered the breadth of topics being addressed.
This may add up to little more than reading the paperwork, but sometimes it may require you to do a some background fact-checking (for instance reading minutes of earlier meetings or cross-referencing your facts). More particularly, if you feel you are going to disagree with a majority position then you probably need to marshall your arguments, as well as facts. How are you going to be persuasive? Who do you need to talk to in advance to make sure you have either allies or the information you need? What is missing from the paperwork that perhaps identifies some flaw in the arguments? Exploring the facts behind what is presented may be essential if you are going to be effective.
- Make sure you’re audible when you speak
I have never understood why people don’t realise you will never be persuasive or even valuable as a committee member if you can’t be heard. Shyness or lack of confidence is all very well, but you gain confidence by realising people are paying attention to what you are suggesting, and this will never happen if you mumble. Your arguments may be devilishly cunning but will also be worthless if the people on the other side of the table can’t hear. Even experienced committee members are guilty of talking to their feet. As far as I’m concerned it is a form of rudeness. Why should I strain my ears because you can’t be bothered to project your voice?
- Be aware of others
This is a more general version of speaking up but can go much broader. It means being aware of when others are speaking and not talking over them; take note of when someone else is being ignored (implicitly or explicitly) and facilitate their contribution being heard; and it means not being downright rude and aggressive. It is all very well to disagree with others but thumping the table and shouting should not be allowed to win the day.
This rule means do not get so engrossed in email or other diversionary activities that you are unable to participate. That moment when the chair calls your name out ‘Athene, don’t you agree?’ and you realise you have no idea what the question is, is a sure sign you’re guilty on this front. And yes, I have been caught out this way and in the not so distant past. But it also means no day-dreaming, so that when your turn comes you end up looking embarrassed and then drop all the papers on the floor as you endeavour to find the right page (a less visibly common experience now committee ‘papers’ may be paperless, but nonetheless often figuratively the case). Holding the whole committee up because you’ve lost your place is a real irritation for everybody else.
- Be aware of what’s coming up
A more specific version of point 5, it means if you have a key topic you want to argue about, or an agenda item that is your particular area of expertise, do not wander out for a comfort break two minutes beforehand or mix up your papers so that you can’t find the notes with the carefully thought out arguments at just the right moment. You may not only lose your moment in the sun, but also the battle that should have been an easy win.
- Be aware of what’s not being said
Often one is aware of sub-texts, of raised eyebrows and quizzical looks passing between sub-sections of the committee. This is likely to indicate that others know more than they are letting on; that in the equivalent of smoke-filled rooms debates have already been had and positions been staked out. Or it may mean that they know that Professor X is about to be head of department and turn everything on its head regardless of today’s committee decisions or that Professor Y is leaving taking with her the equipment under discussion but the decision is not yet public. Watch the body language; if necessary challenge it and see if those in the know will blurt out something they had not intended to reveal.
- Be aware when your case is lost
There are few things more annoying to a committee chair than the member who does not know when to concede. Chipping in with a yes but…when everyone else is lined up against you and you have already said the same thing three times (even if argued in three different neatly phrased ways) merely means you lose even the sympathy vote. Being determined is all very well. Being merely obstructive will not win you friends nor make it likely a future meeting will change its mind to accommodate the new evidence you bring forth. As chair, I have only once resorted to saying, quite explicitly, to someone failing to follow this advice that we have heard what they said and they are in a minority of one and so need to stop arguing, but it is a position I would take again if the case required it.
- Be concise
You all know those tiresome people who can never speak in less than complete paragraphs, probably multiple complete paragraphs. They make meetings tedious and ineffective because no one listens to them beyond a certain point. Don’t join their club. If you’ve prepared well your arguments can be expressed briefly – and expanded on as others require. Long-windedness means, not only do you appear to like the sound of your own voice, but also that you haven’t prepared thoroughly enough to know what the three crucial points in your argument are.
Finally, do contribute. If you sit silently you are wasting your own time (unless it is your first meeting and you’re just learning the ropes of course). You will never improve your skills in being persuasive if you don’t try them out. The committee chair may watch you anxiously, wondering if actually you disagree with everything but don’t know how to express that view pleasantly and it can act as a discouragement to real debate. Furthermore, you will never know what you could achieve if only you had the courage to speak out.
I have probably spent more time on committees than is good for my well-being, some (a few) have been a stimulating joy. Others have bored me to tears with few good outcomes. Of course the chair is crucial and there are many who fail in this role. But every individual round the table, however grand or not the committee may be, has the power to influence the group dynamics and the excellence of the decisions taken. It is in your hands.