All sorts of things go on at meetings but it is disappointing how rarely a productive and creative exchange of ideas leads to good collective decisions. Nevertheless, use of assertive technique can facilitate positive and productive meetings.

Meetings produce many of the decisions that affect how you do your job, what your future opportunities are going to be, and what direction your organization as a whole is going to take. If you are able to function well, powerfully, and clearly at meetings, then you can have a positive influence both on your own prospects and on how the organization itself develops.

Chairing

If you bear this manager's formula in mind, it becomes clear how to make the other decisions that arise in chairing a meeting. When someone is rambling on miles off the point, when should you intervene and bring him or her back to the agenda? When an argument arises that in your judgment is more of a personal sparring match than a debate useful to the meeting, when should you step in? When someone slaps a suggestion down without allowing due discussion, at what point do you ensure that discussion does take place?

The question to ask yourself is: "What is necessary to be assertive on behalf of the task of the meeting?"

Defining The Task of the Meeting

To manage a meeting successfully you must know what the task of the meeting is, so you must be properly prepared. Familiarize yourself with the agenda and read previously circulated papers. Deluged by printed material, we all have to learn ways of reading that are not unlike the "active listening" model of listening,that is you learn to read very fast and summarize the main points for yourself as you go along..

Only if you have absorbed preparatory materials properly can you identify the "task of the meeting." In Mind Your Manners, John Mole comments dryly on the tendency of some managers to regard such pre-meeting work as optional:

It is not usual for everyone to be well prepared. Even when papers are previously distributed, they will not always be read. Lack of preparation does not inhibit passing of opinion and judgment.

This does not make a good impression on colleagues and competitors.

Control

A meeting brings together people with:

* Information

* Skills

* Representative interests

* Vision.

You have to make sure all their data can be pooled and that the best possible synthesis can take place. You will need to use the skills of "contacting your strength," using the core phrase, and good prompting.

It takes confidence to be a good chair and have sufficient personal authority to keep the meeting on track.

Contact Your Strength

In the heated and often claustrophobic atmosphere of meetings, the chair needs to work well on emotionally,and strategically-neutral core phrases to ensure that appropriate discussion takes place..

Utilize Core Phrases

Why do participants wander off the point at a meeting? They may want to impress other participants with their ideas and forecefulness. They may be feeling isolated in their work and using the meeting arena as a chance to communicate compulsively. They may be extremely concerned about something that does indeed need discussion but is not relevant to this particular meeting. Perhaps the most difficult person is the one who simply loves the sound of his or her own voice. When you are chairing, it is useful to notice why a speaker is rambling and adjust your core phrase accordingly:

"I can see you're very worried about X, John, but we can't deal with it at this meeting. Bring it up again at the Y meeting. What we must focus on here is..." or "I must stop you there. We must return to the point we are dealing with, which is..."

The hooks you may get in return are:

"Let me just finish..." (manipulative)

"Don't you interrupt me..." (argumentative)

"Well, I must say, no one's ever found it necessary to stop me in my tracks before..." (irrelevant logic)

Show you've heard (but not with too much empathy in case the other speaker wants to wander again) and repeat your core phrase.

"No, we must move on. What we must focus on here is..."

"I understand that. We must return to the point we're dealing with, which is..."

Dealing with an aggressive "Don't interrupt me..." is difficult. Don't get into a "yes you are/no I'm not" argument. Try:

"What I'm saying is that we must get back to the point, which is..."

Sometimes a determined wanderer-off-the-point will just go on talking right over the top of your interruption, as if wallpapering over you. Keep using your core phrase:

"I must ask you to stop there..." and up the ante if you need to.

"I must stop you there."

"Ed, I must stop you there."

"There, we must stop and come back to our main point which is..."

Notice that using the person's name makes your assertive interruption more effective.

If you have to use repeated assertive interruptions like this, you must stay well grounded in good strong body language. You can allow your voice to become more authoritative as you reiterate your point if you want; except in the most exceptional circumstances, do not shout, even if the other person has begun to do so. It is much easier to keep control of the meeting if you hold on to your assertiveness and do not let it spill over into aggression.

Good Prompting

If members of the meeting have been slapped down or silenced by other domineering members, you may need to use your assertiveness to draw ideas out of them. This must again be done in a strategically,and emotionally,neutral way to preserve the objectivity of the chair. Simply invite a contribution and ensure that the person has a fair chance to have a say:

"Janet,did you have a point to make on this?""

"Let's hear the suggestion Peter was in the process of making."

"Alan, you were starting to explain something,could you complete that explanation?"

Making a Presentation

Presenting a report to a meeting can be nerve-racking. Important decisions may be made on the basis of the data that you present. Your personal sense of authorship also makes you feel vulnerable: in a very real sense, a trashed or rejected report leaves you feeling rejected and trashed, too. Nevertheless, presenting a report well is very satisfying, raises your personal profile, and may make a real contribution to your development within the organization.

Report-writing skills and the use of all the visual aids and design of materials are an important part of any manager's portfolio and must, of course, be learned separately. The assertive skills that come into play when presenting a report are voice quality and body language.

Low and Slow Voice Quality

Remember your basic formula "lowish and slowish." The most common mistake in presenting a report is speed of delivery. If your report is well structured and concise, you can afford to take it at a steady momentum. Do not lose the force of what you are saying by hurrying.

Sometimes you will present a report that is making a strongly felt request, and sometimes you may need to present a report that is highly critical of someone or something. In either case, watch the voice timbre. Sounding like you're pleading will not make your case more persuasive, nor will sounding furious make your evidence more damning. Stay within the assertive/resonant range, and the report really can "speak for itself."

Body Language

Stand Tall and Relaxed. Everybody is looking at you, for at least part of the presentation, so the visual impression you make is very important. Use the absolute body language basics: lift your spine, drop your shoulders, keep the front of the body long, keep the back of the neck long.

Control Emotions

Use the assertiveness principle of "acting over" your emotions. Maybe you don't feel terrified,you need not let your terror show. Terror is an emotion you can share with your speaking partner later on. If you have practiced assertiveness, you have the specific skills to retain an appearance of calm and control, whatever is going on inside..

Make Frequent Eye Contact

Sweep your gaze across all the faces in the room fairly frequently (at least every two or three minutes) so that you have at least some eye contact with all those present. Some people are far more receptive than others and will return your gaze and interact with what you are saying; some will always avoid your eyes. You must be politically alert here. Avoid the temptation to address yourself mainly to any listeners who are nodding, smiling, and receptive,,it may look as though you are in some sort of private collusion with them. Be aware..

Control Your Hands

"What shall I do with my hands?" is the constant cry of anyone called upon to make presentations. If your hands seem to be a terrible liability: (a) clasp them loosely behind your back or in front of you for most of the time, and (b) avoid fidgeting with them.

Once you have acquired competence in sticking to those two rules, you may find that you develop your own expressive and individual vocabulary of gestures. Such natural movements are not a liability at all.

Coping With Catastrophes

We have all attended or given presentations where disasters have happened. You fall over your own feet on the way to the flip chart; you drop your notes in a cascade, which is then irretrievably out of order; you left the transparencies in the taxi; the electricity fails ,all the stuff of standard Freudian anxiety-dreams and all things that can easily happen in real life..

Assertiveness is invaluable,you simply say what you feel, you negotiate for time if you need it, and you report on what you are going to do next: three core phrases one after another. It gives you a chance to "act over" feeling panicky and flustered; conversely, it gives you a way of saying that you are flustered, while holding onto your dignity..

Should you be unlucky enough to fall over at a very public moment, console yourself that you are in the good company of Terry Wogan, Nancy Reagan, and many more public figures who have missed their footing with audiences of millions. Then take a moment to get your breath and work out whether you have hurt yourself. If you are good at instant witty remarks, such an episode presents you an opportunity; if not, a short core phrase will do. There's no need to apologize.

"Well, I don't seem to have hurt myself,so I'll continue with the presentation now!""

Suppose you drop your notes, or leave vital material behind, or the audio-visual equipment doesn't work? Report assertively what has happened:

"I just realized that I left the transparencies in the taxi."

"The electricity is off, so we can't use the video."

"As you can see, I've dropped my notes!"

Negotiate for time if you want it:

"I need five minutes now to collect my thoughts and decide how to continue without the slides/video and to reorganize these notes." "Could I ask you to take a short coffee break/talk among yourselves/ bear with me while I do this/have a few minutes of fresh air [whatever is most appropriate]."

Apologize assertively if it feels sensible to do so, but don't roll in the dirt:

"I do apologize for this hold-up."

Then, report what you are going to do next:

"I will provide each of you with the statistics from the transparencies tomorrow. I can summarize the position and go on to..." "I'll give you a brief run-down of what is on that video and organize a screening of it next week. We can talk about the issues it raises for us..." "Thanks for bearing with me. I have my data in order now and can continue..."

Sometimes, paradoxically, you appear to be more in control by acknowledging that you aren't. Depending on the context, it may be useful to say:

"I feel quite shocked now..."

"I've momentarily lost my train of thought because of that..."

But only do it if you are sure it is not giving power away. Otherwise, save your personal commentary on your nightmare presentation for the ears of your speaking partner.

Dave Hardin is an independent business consultant based in Los Angeles.

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