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Abler-Minded: How to watch a meeting

First, let me state unequivocally – I hate meetings.

As I progressed in the military, I had to attend more and longer ones. Conferences were even worse – two, three, sometimes four days of nonstop meetings.

To keep from going insane, I started to try to identify and watch the “players.” It was easy enough to identify the folks in charge. After that, I tried to figure out who really knew what they were doing and also to pick out the ones on the opposite end of the “clue” spectrum.

Over the years, I became pretty adept at people analysis.

When I “retired” from active duty, I went to work for an engineering services firm and one of my first assignments was in business development. As part of that task, my boss and I would spend a great deal of time meeting with prospective customers.

My boss would always come away with extremely positive feelings about the chance for new business. I usually had to bring him down to earth by giving him my evaluation of what was said and what wasn’t said. It helped when he eventually discovered I was correct in my assessments.

I came to realize that often what isn’t said or what doesn’t happen at a meeting is far more important than some of the things that occur. So, the next time you watch your city council, the school board, a city commission or any other meeting, here are some things to watch for.

These are especially useful for passing the time if the meeting is as dreadful as many are.

Watch the chairperson first. Does he or she actually run the meeting? A well-run, efficient meeting should follow the agenda without trips down blind alleys or memory lane.

If the chair doesn’t get back to the core of the discussion quickly, you’re in for a boring, non-productive meeting. If the chair doesn’t control the meeting, doesn’t lead the discussion, isn’t the first one to answer questions directed to the group, or if the chair always cedes the discussion to another individual, that’s a sign of trouble or weakness.

Try to identify the person who is enamored with the sound of his or her voice in an empty room. This is the person who tends to dominate the discussion while often lacking anything to say. This is also the person who may appear to be running the meeting instead of the chair.

And if he or she is usually the one to make the key points or actually knows more than anyone else on the dais, you’ve identified the one in power. He or she is usually very adept at obfuscation, misdirection and spin.

If you think an explanation should have begun with “Once upon a time,” you have broken the code.

Every once in a while, watch each person on the council or board when a long discussion is happening. This is where you can evaluate who’s really paying attention and who is like the little leaguer out in right field picking daisies while the game is being played.

If no one’s paying attention, they are either bored, too, or the decision has already been agreed to prior to the meeting and the speaker is probably spouting the agreed-upon position.

If an important issue comes up and there is little, if any, discussion before an individual makes a formal motion, this is another sign the decision is pre-ordained. If others quickly jump on the bandwagon as cheerleaders, that’s even more evidence the railroad is under full steam.

On the other hand, if all are paying close attention and everyone is participating in the discussion, something positive is happening. This is when you should be paying attention, too.

When the council, board or committee is voting, you can learn a lot by how the votes turn out. Many routine items are unanimous by nature. If you have five voters on a truly healthy governing body, the majority of the votes on nearly all issues should be 3-2, and the 3-2 voter split should not be predictable.

If votes are unanimous or usually 4-1, you have a council or board that is not going to effectively address the negative aspects of the issue and their decisions on important issues.

Public meetings should schedule adequate time for a public forum. Or, the group should hold periodic meetings for the sole purpose of a public forum. If these public bodies place restrictive limits on the ability of the citizens to ask questions and address appropriate issues at formal meetings, they are essentially stifling free speech.

Another clue that your elected officials aren’t working for you is that at meetings they seldom answer a direct question and prefer to offer meaningless explanations in response to criticism.

Finally, if you don’t bother to attend and watch or listen to the recorded proceedings of your city council, school board or commission meetings, or whatever, you’re really not taking a very active part in your community.

I’m not suggesting you attend all the meetings that are scheduled, but you should certainly be able to make one or two every year just to keep abreast of the people who run your city or board.

If your main source of information is the health club, the bar, the coffee group or a neighbor, you’re certainly not getting the whole story, either. After this last election a new term was coined – the low information voter.

I doubt that is meant to be a complimentary term. Isn’t it really an insult if the people we elect count on the low information voter to carry the day for them?

Kind of reminds me of the old story about the two guys walking down the street. One turned to the other and said, “My boss called me in this morning and told me I was oblivious and apathetic before he fired me. I sure don’t know what he was talking about and I don’t care.”

Well, that’s what’s been on my mind.