What Type of Meeting should a Group use – Formal, Informal, or Semi-Formal

Knowledge of Meeting Types will help to choose the right Type of Meeting for particular Circumstances

1 Readers will make wiser decisions on the type of meeting to use, if they understand the advantages and disadvantages of various types of meetings.

Some Characteristics of Formal Meetings

2 Formal Meeting have a fairly fixed method of operating and use definite rules. People who attend these type of meeting gradually learn some of these rules. Fewer variations usually occur in these meetings as compared with the usual way less formal Meetings operate. Thus they provide a useful starting point for considering various other types of meetings.

3 Formal Meetings use the rules of debate. The following discusses some of the rules:

(a) One Member has to put forward (move) a positive action (motion) and have another Member second this motion (i.e. agree with the idea*) before the Meeting can discuss the idea (motion).

(b) Each Member can speak only once on any one motion, except for the Mover who can summarise their ideas (if they wish) to close the dis­cussion.

(c) Members who want to point out an error in the meeting’s procedure (point of order) can interrupt a Member and have their point settled ­provided the Chairperson accepts the point as a procedural one.

(d) A Member can interrupt a Member and suggest the Group closes (“gags”) the discussion by moving that “the motion be now put” (pro­vided this Member has not already spoken to the motion). In most cases, the Chairperson will take a vote on this procedure matter imme­diately. If passed, the Chairperson must then put the motion. (Some Chairpeople ignore the two-part aspect of this rule. When someone moves “the gag” they tend to put the motion under discussion rather than the “gag” motion.)

(e) The Chairperson should conduct the meeting in a neutral way: they should not indicate any support for, or opposition to, any mo­tion.

(f) The Meeting deals with the items in the order laid down in the Agenda – unless the Group passes a motion to change the order. Anyone can move to change the order of later items – at the close of any item.

* The Rules allow a “pro-forma” second – the Member supports the idea “for the sake of form” to allow discussion to take place.

Some Advantages of Formal Meetings

4 Formal meetings have the advantages that definite procedures exist and many Members have (or soon learn) a rough idea of these procedures. Usual­ly they respect the need to keep to the procedures – especially if the Chairperson and/or other Members remind them.

5 Compared with a Group which has no procedure, the use of Formal-Meeting Procedures tends to increase the chance that the Meeting will make some decisions. Motions will exist and people will agree that the majority decision* will mean that the Group has passed a particular motion. However the procedure does not guarantee that the Meeting will achieve high-Quality decisions.

Some Disadvantages of Formal Meetings

6 The procedures laid down sometimes “strangle” a Group on the rules of debate. A Group may need to decide on something on which insufficient individual thought has occurred and a more productive procedure would involve a discussion on the matter where one person can speak more than once on a topic.

7 A free group discussion allows: (a) exploration of various aspects of a motion (especially if particularly complex) and (b) the Group to consider a more complex but wider set of ideas.

8 The need to put a formal motion sometimes restricts the structure of a discussion.

9 Examples. A Group needs to decide what time to start its regular meeting. Someone moves that they start at 6.00 pm. A number of people favour a different time. Four people out of the ten Members vote for 6.00 pm; six people vote against it. Thus the voting means the motion fails.

10 The Chairperson then accepts another motion on the topic. Someone moves for a 7.00 pm start. Six people vote for 7.00 pm ­thus passing the motion for a 7.00 pm start.

11 However a group discussion of the situation might have discov­ered that a greater number would have preferred to start at some other time – say 6.30 or 7.30.

* The procedure of some Meetings requires more than 50% for some deci­sions. For example, the expulsion of a Member might require two-thirds majority to pass such a motion.

12 A group discussion and the recording of the possibilities favoured by all Members would have shown all possibilities. Straw votes could have decided the most favoured time by a series of stages. The Group could approach the most-favoured decision by a series of splits along the lines of – who wants to start any time 6.30 or earlier. If the majority favour that idea the Group then has a definite time span within which to make a choice. Further split voting can reduce the time span still further. For example: “Who wants to start before 6.00 pm?”

13 In this case, the formal-motion approach hid the detailed desires of the Group. Further a Member might prefer 5.30 but next prefer 7.30. Thus he votes against 6.00 pm and against 7.00 pm. Then he finds the Group has decided on 7.00 pm and he does not know how many might have supported either of his favoured times.

14 A Member in a formal debate may speak early. Then she hears someone else speaking and thinks of an entirely different reason for opposing (or supporting) what she has said previously. Howev­er she has no right to put this idea before the Meeting. It could happen that no-one else has thought of her particular point and the Meeting would have made a far wiser decision if people had become aware of the particular point.

Formal Meetings Cannot “Change Their Mind” Within the One Meeting

15 One rule of formal meetings states that once the Meeting passes a motion it cannot reverse its decision within the same meeting. This point illustrates another weakness of formal meetings.

16 Example. A Meeting passes a particular motion. However someone thinks of a particular problem or idea which suggests they should do something different. If the meeting uses the formal rules of debate then one person can stop the change. This person only has to point out that the Meeting has not right under its own rules (formal) to change the motion.

When Formal Meetings Will Have More Advantages Than Informal Meetings

17 The advantages of a Formal Meeting will vary according to the knowledge Members have of its rules and their skill in using such rules.

18 Conference Participants skilled in participating well in a discussion will have a higher probability of achieving an effective Meeting or Confer­ence if they do not use the formal rules of debate. However unless people have had some training in Conference Participation (along the lines sug­gested in other notes) probably they will not accept that view. Only when they see a Conference using appropriate techniques and with skilled Participants will they appreciate the possibilities which skilled training in Conference Participation will produce in a Conference.

Formal, Informal, or Semi-formal?

19 However, given the fact that most people have very little (if any) training in Conference Participation, Formal Meetings will often produce more results than Non-Formal Conferences. Nevertheless it will not prove easy to make a useful comparison. Formal Meetings will produce results and decisions but any real assessment of the value of different types of meet­ings should include the wisdom of the decisions made; i.e. the quality of the decisions, not just the quantity.

Most Meetings Use A Semi-Formal Approach

20 Deciding on the best type of meeting has even more complexities than those already discussed. In practice few Meetings really use a complete Formal-Meeting approach.    Invariably, in watching so-called Formal Meetings, an Observer would find that many variations exist.

21 Examples. Quite often the Chairperson will not remain neutral but strongly influence the Meeting to decide things in a certain way. Such Chairpersons will: suggest motions, indicate support or disagreement with a particular motion, try to persuade others to their own viewpoint, and even refuse to accept ideas from Members.

22 Often Leaders or one or more Participants will make use of the Formal-Meeting procedure when it suits them but ignore it when it does not.

23 Sometimes the Conference Members (or some of them) will become aware of the situation. Some may have a vague feeling that something does not appear to work well but they will have difficulty in suggesting specific additions, or deletions, to improve things.

A common Problem – the Chairperson equals the Chief Executive, President,  etc.

24 In many cases,  the Chairperson of the Formal Meeting will also have a position in an Organisation which puts them in charge of the people attend­ing the Meeting. Under these circumstances they will have little chance of influencing the Chairperson’s behaviour – if they want to reject such attempts

25 They will increase their chances of influencing the Chairperson if they all become more knowledgeable about how Conferences operate and make a concerted effort to point out to the Official Leaders that they have “forgotten” various procedures. However probably it will take a fairly consistent and persistent approach by at least the majority of the Members to achieve much.

26 Thus the semi-formal meeting (a meeting which uses formal meeting procedures on some occasions) does not provide the advantages of a free discussion at all on many occasions. Often Members feel frustrated and the decision-making capacity of the Group (as compared with the Chairperson) becomes relatively low.

27 An exception occurs when the Chairperson does not feel strongly on a particular point. Under these circumstances the meeting can really discuss the matter. However will the Group recognise this situation? If they do, will they have the spirit or desire to put forward an effort which on previous occasions has proved of little value.

Meetings Can Formally Vote To Stop Using The Formal Rules Of Debate

28 Members who find themselves in a situation using formal or semi-formal approaches should remember the possibility of moving a motion which calls for discarding the rules of debate and allowing a round-table discussion on a particular problem for a given amount of time. Thus the Meeting “closes” in a formal sense for a given period of time and the Group can gain the advantages of an informal discussion.

Informal Meetings will usually function better if they use “Straw Votes”

29 In general, provided people know how to get the best out of a group discussion, an informal discussion will prove of most benefit. However this statement will prove true only if the Chairperson (Conference Leader) takes votes on appropriate matters at appropriate times. Thus they will use a straw vote quite regularly. A straw vote allows Members to indicate to other Members their present feelings about a particular situation with­out necessarily denying themselves the right to make further comments and to change their voting later. The straw vote indicates to everyone just how they should best arrange the next contributions on the particular topic because they know who tends to support or oppose various ideas and the size of each group.

30 It allows a Group to get agreement on parts of a motion without going through the detail of agreement or disagreement of a final nature with a particular motion.

An Informal Meeting can have All the Advantages of a Formal Meeting ­and more

31 An informal discussion can use most of the ideas used in a Formal Meeting.

32 It can take votes and take them more often and yet allow people to change their voting.

33 It can formulate decisions in the form of motions. However it has a freer procedure to help groups decide on motions and get agreement or disagreement to various parts of them.

34 It can close a debate on some particular topic if the group decides to do so and re-open it later and can reverse a decision it has already made.

35 The skilled Chairperson can, and usually should, remain neutral for most discussions. However sometimes a Chairperson has a useful viewpoint that no-one else has considered. In a Conference a Chairperson can put it to the meeting in a way which provides them with information without necessarily trying to dominate the meeting.

36 At any time any Member can propose changing the procedure of a meeting and the meeting can agree (or disagree) to the change. If the Chairperson proves hesitant about the idea of changing the procedure of a Conference, Participants can demand to have a vote on the idea. That demand will have effect IF the Conference Leader believes that any Member can force such a straw vote. If in doubt Leaders can ask the group to vote, on who wishes to (a) take a vote on the matter and/or (b) hear the particular Member talk on a new topic.

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