Good meetings are the product of a lot of things, but especially good preparation. Anyone who has spent any time around community associations has seen good meeting and bad meetings. Many things go into making a good meeting, from the agenda to topics to speakers and all the way to how your meeting room is set up.
What the table looks like and who sits where have a lot to do with how the people at that table interact. We learned that when we got assigned seats at the family dinner table. We remember that most of the time at the Paris peace talks was spent discussing the shape of the table. Human resource people know that the shape of the desk has a great impact on the interview to follow. Community association leaders should know that the shape of the room could help them run better meetings. Call it feng shui for condos.
“Town hall” meetings are all the rage in the news and online. Politicians love them and hate them. Pundits praise them as a voice of the people. One eponymous website aspires to be an exchange of ideas, dialogue and action in the best spirit of historic town hall meetings. The notion of an open forum, where everyone in a given community is invited to attend and participate, appeals to our democratic spirit. No less than Thomas Jefferson called the town hall meeting the “wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government”. While attendees rarely vote or make proposals at town hall meetings, the chance to speak and to ask questions of elected officials is part and parcel of our notions of government “of, by and for” the people.
Town hall style meetings have beer widespread in condominium and homeowner associations for years The typical annual meeting is base, on the town hall and usually set up like a town hall. Board at the front homeowners in the audience. A typical business agenda, with committee reports, etc. The last part, of the meeting is often reserved for questions from the floor. Most years, the meetings go off smoothly. They are business-like, or so it seems. And, well, it’s the way these meetings have always been done. Some say that community associations are the most local kind of politics and they see a link in these meetings to the puritanical notions of democracy that fostered the first town hall meetings.
There are some, of course, who do not think quite so highly of town hall meetings as a means of expression A YouTube search on the subject will turn up any number of town hall meetings gone bad. Passions turn to anger, and turmoil often ensues. You ¬can see videos of school board meetings turned into screaming matches, and even meetings where fist-fights and worse have broken out. Town hall meetings have even turn into a buzzword for bad behavior, as we learned with a congressman who could control his tongue claimed to be having a “town hall moment.”
In the community association world, bad behavior has been known to happen, too. High stress topics can lead to high stress meetings, and the kinds of topics that draw the most interest at condominium or homeowners association meeting, are often controversial. Major repair projects, special assessments and lawsuits are the kinds of things that inflame passions. Emotions can overtake people when confronted with such news, and a meeting can spin dangerously out of control very quickly.
The “town hall” style of meeting typically sees the Board at a table at the front of the room, with the homeowners seated in rows of chairs facing the Board. Some times, the Board is seated on risers, ostensibly for visibility. With or without the risers, this set-up creates a sense of separation between the officials at the head of the room and the rest of the group. It creates a natural “us” and “them” feeling to the room. Most times it is innocuous and has little effect on the meeting. At a high stress meeting, that feeling changes from the innocuous “us and them” to the much more problematic “us v. them.” At a time when the community need to come together to solve a shared problem, the town hall meeting creates a chasm between membership and leadership. The room itself is like fuel for the fire.
Planning a meeting where there is likely to be high stress conversations can help keep the meeting under control. One community association lived through the bad an the good, when a project that carried a special assessment got tempers flowing at a typical town hall meeting and the meeting had to be adjourned. No amount of talk was going to calm things when people started standing, wagging their fingers at the Board and shouting some variation of “who do you think you are?” When the meeting was reconvened a few weeks later, the room had been rearranged. Instead of a head table for the Board and rows of seats for the homeowners, there were now several concentric circles. Instead of the Board sitting together at the front of the room where they were the focus of the frustrated homeowners’ ire, they were seated intermittently throughout the rows of chairs. The Board was part of the larger group, not a detached entity sitting apart from everyone else. When a homeowner wanted to direct her anger to a member of the Board, it became hard to do when that Board members was sitting next to two other homeowners. The passions in the second meeting were controlled and redirected toward solutions instead of blame.
Another association realized that the town hall style meeting was not the best way to communicate about a repair project it was undertaking. There were a lot of things to inform the homeowners about, not just the construction work. There were insurance issues, financing, special assessments and so on. Instead of a town hall meeting featuring a succession of reports, they organized an information bazaar. Each of the topics was addressed at a separate booth, and homeowners could flow among the boots as they wished. Rather than a meeting at a set time, this meeting stretched over a few hours and people could come at their own scheduled. For distributing information (and soliciting volunteers) this bazaar was creative and effective.
There are other examples where the location of setup of a meeting helped to create an atmosphere more conducive to success. Meetings held in schools are different that meetings held at a nearby country club. One association serendipitously scheduled a meeting at a local Quaker Friends’ meetinghouse. Whatever anger one might have brought to the meeting was left at the door.
Plan every part of your meeting, including where’s it’s going to be held and how the room is going to look. Town hall meetings have a place, though it may not be everywhere or every time.