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Alicia Wallace: Stir The Pot - It Might Just Produce The Change You Need

Whether at work, school, or other institutions, we all have to, at some point and with some regularity, attend meetings. Assemblies, check-ins, updates, services, training and conferences all bring us to a space with other people with connections to the institution or topic at hand.

We look forward to some of these meetings while hoping others will be cancelled. No one wants to waste time hearing the same things over and over again or listening to the same people talk.

Meetings are often a formality that only serve as a time suck. Management tends to consider meetings a necessary ingredient for organised operations while others can hardly wait to be free from them. Meetings fail everyone for various reasons. There is no agenda or it is not sent to everyone in advance, time is not properly managed, the start is delayed until more people arrive, presenters are unprepared, there is no chair or the chair does not have the very specific and necessary skills to perform the task, too little time is allocated for questions and feedback - the list goes on.

For all these reasons, meetings are often unproductive and dreaded. People prefer emails, Whatsapp messages and, in rare cases, phone calls. We all have too little time, and we are desperate to get to the point.

Many of us go to meetings with no understanding of their purpose. Even with a clear purpose, the methods are often uninspiring. Meetings are frequently designed for the ease of convener rather than the utility and interest of participants. This is what needs to change. For people to meaningfully contribute to the outcomes of a meeting, they need to be engaged by not only the content, but the delivery of that content.

At a recent event – a few days of meetings – a colleague and I were asked to facilitate a session about 15 minutes before it was scheduled to begin. Everyone had just had a meal and we had completed a full day of presentations as a part of a consultation process.

The organisers were trying to get specific information for a report and dozens of people were invited to consider several questions and prepare to speak for five minutes. We saw on the first day that no one was prepared for a strict time limit, and the organisers did not want to cut anyone off. This was unfortunate because the room was booked for a specific time period, there were many people waiting to speak and everyone seemed to take a minute or two to give background information and warm up before getting to the meat of their presentations. It was not long before it became difficult to keep the same level of interest and attention for each presenter. It was clear that something needed to change, but no one was prepared to assess the situation, make a recommendation and implement the change.

Noting the energy in the room and the content of the presentations in comparison with what was needed for the report, we suggested a change in format. The presentations were individual and context-specific, but there were broader themes being raised and many dots that could be connected between experiences. Instead of having people deliver presentations, we suggested inviting them to participate in panel discussions. This would allow for brief introductions, give everyone the opportunity to speak, and prioritise the content most needed through questions from a moderator.

While some agreed with this approach, the person in charge did not want to change the format. She was wedded to the way the programme had already been laid out. We slogged through another day of presentations running over time and missed the opportunity to connect issues, explore ideas and make recommendations as a group.

There are times to follow the programme and there are times to have flexibility and respond to what is taking place in the moment. There were other ways to remedy the situation. It did not have to be panels. We could have had breakout sessions, worked together to map the issues being discussed, recommended individuals submit reports, or continue presentations with a timekeeper and interventions to keep presenters on task.

Sometimes, however, making a change on the spot can feel like admitting to a mistake. There could be fear that we will be seen as inconsistent or confused, or that participants will be caught off guard. It may be easy to keep doing the same old thing, but there are many benefits to allowing deviations from the prescribed schedule and format. Why not increase or improve the outcome? The success of a meeting is measured by its outcomes - not precision in following a script - and those outcomes are dependent on the organisation and facilitation of the meeting.

When it first started, Women’s Wednesdays – a monthly community event hosted by Equality Bahamas with support from the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas – was a panel series. We invited women to help facilitate discussions on a variety of issues including gender equality, healthy relationships and financial management. The event always started with a moderated conversation between three panelists which led into a broader discussion with questions, comments and ideas from everyone in the room. This was a comfortable environment for people to learn, challenge, think and ideate. We later changed the format to circle conversations, eliminating the panel discussion though we usually have invited guests. This has completely changed the dynamics in the room. There is no perceived hierarchy, “experts” are not easily identified, and we can see each other better than when we were seated in rows.

There are pros and cons to this new setup, of course. It is not as easy to fade into the background and participants are more visible. Some people like this while others were more comfortable with the previous arrangement. It has been interesting to see how a change in seating arrangements affects an established event. Organisers need to ask for feedback and make use of it in design practices because a full room is useless if most of the people would rather be somewhere else.

LET’S HOPE DRY JANUARY INCREASES AWARENESS OF OUR DRINKING CULTURE

HELLO, January! The bank accounts are low, gym participation is high, reading challenges are being accepted and some people are trying to go without alcohol.

It is like another version of Lent, people exercising restraint and discipline in many ways. It somehow wears off within a few weeks, but look how well we rally together around shared goals.

I am particularly interested in the experiences of people going dry for the month of January.

With just a week left, I wonder how they are doing. Have they given in and had “just one”? Have their family members and friends been supportive? Have they noticed the way social and work events have alcohol at the centre?

I made the decision to stop consuming alcohol years ago for various reasons. Every now and then, I find myself telling someone that I do not drink because so many events rely on consumption of alcohol and so many people expect it. It is challenging to find alternatives and I can only imagine what it is like for a recovering alcoholic to navigate a space where drinking is a favourite pastime and the first thing people recommendation.

Need to relax? Have a drink.

First date? Go for drinks. Meeting after work? Do it over drinks.

Feeling stressed? Knock one back. Too hot? Have a cold one.

It would not be so difficult to manage if people allowed sober people to refrain from drinking in peace. Sobriety is not respected.

There are questions about it and pressure to abandon it. “Not even one drink?” “Why don’t you drink?” People are at a loss when they realise they can’t just buy you a drink, as if there is no other way to engage. Some seem personally offended when they see you without a cup and try to insist you at least “hold something”.

Dry January is not likely to make it all better, but I hope it increases participants’ awareness of our drinking culture and how it has permeated so much of our lives. Maybe we could think more about people struggling with alcohol addiction and come up with activities that do not make their lives more difficult.

It’s hard to stay away from something that is everywhere, and even harder when people are constantly offering it or badgering you about it. We don’t all want to lay ourselves bare so, at the very least, take the no as a no. There aren’t enough people who do.

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