Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Human Meeting

Hello Reader,
Got meetings?

Headnote: Toastmasters International is a worldwide organization of clubs where people “learn by doing” to do leadership and public speaking. And yes, this may include raising our glasses for a toast!

Michael Cody, DTM, was dead. (Distinguished Toastmaster)

He had his heart attack during our meeting, in early March. We did CPR, held his hand, and after the 9-1-1 guys left we held hands in a circle. He never did regain consciousness—it took 75 minutes to restart his heart. At next week’s meeting we held a memorial, and we taped it for Michael’s mother. (And put it on Youtube, something I essayed about it in After the Memorial, archived in April) But it wasn’t enough.

In early May, at the end of our meeting, at the part when we take a minute or two to ask “Any announcements?” Lera looked disturbed. She speculated that members were avoiding our club because of the shock of that night: We might need further healing, and this just couldn’t wait until our retreat (for teaching and workshops) in late June. As a few people tried to comment on the speculation, like trying to talk while standing on a shifting empty oil drum, I thought to myself: This can’t be addressed in a couple minutes during announcements, and it must be addressed. As a group. Well before June.

I spoke from my deep center, “Next week in place of a speech I could facilitate us to plan for further healing.” People agreed. A man with much experience in the business world, that is to say, quite experienced in meetings, immediately volunteered to be my “speech” evaluator. By the way, according to the Calgary Herald, members of Toastmasters progress so fast because every thing is evaluated. This means all speeches, all help-the-meeting roles, and even the entire meeting.

I used the term '“facilitate” a discussion' because, while not everyone knows this, there is a huge difference between a teacher, chairman, workshop leader… and a facilitator. The former all show up with their own desires and wants for “their” group. You might imagine a yoga teacher arriving with her plans to stretch people’s ligaments, a chairman wanting a team to reach a decision, a workshop leader wanting “his” workshop participants to master “performance objectives.” To a facilitator, though, the group belongs to the group: I leave my ego at the door.

The “group” might want to do yoga or make a decision; contrawise, they might want to spend the whole hour sitting in yoga clothes discussing the river flood. My pet peeve, then, is an expert claiming to be a class “facilitator.” Forget that noise. I say: teach, lead or get out of the way. (Incidentally, there are proven ways to facilitate an anxious group to face making a decision)

My club meets at Unity Church. The windows are colored glass; the floor is linoleum. We put tables, with white tablecloths, in a horseshoe, with people speaking on a carpeted six inch podium, we call “the stage,” at one end. (Behind it is a big proper stage, but we leave that for the church) I like how modern folding chairs have seats that are padded, not steel. Before our regular meeting started I had first prepared a flipchart (Note: After graduation, out in the “real world,” flipcharts are preferred over blackboards, partly because they can be prepared in advance)

So there I was, standing in front of my peers, ready to facilitate. What could I do? Besides saying, first off, that as facilitator my role was to be neutral and not sway the group.

My first consideration was that this was an ambiguous situation—we had never done this before. So I showed them my flip chart, with the entire discussion agenda all on one page. I was secretly reminded how some folks at the movie theatres find it soothing if the trailers have given away the entire plot before they see the film. So I displayed the entire meeting, very clearly. I wrote in some timings, while saying I was only doing so to give us a sense of structure, as I had no idea how our times would work out, “We’ve never done this before.” I promised to keep them informed about time, and would ask the group if we needed more time. We sure did! Instead of a usual 7 – 9 minute speech, we took 25 minutes. It was OK; everyone said the time just flew by.

On the chart I wrote topic one, “do we need further healing?” and topic two, “what can we do?” As facilitator, I did NOT write decide or plan, not until the group decided to “write” that. Above the two topics, I wrote the two groups involved: we who are “present,” which we can be “clear” about, and those “not present,” that we are “less clear” about. Of course we needed to do both “groups”, and I promised to facilitate us to do one group at a time, as well as one topic at a time. I kept my promise.

Under topic two, I wrote two things: ‘share with the group anyone’s death-healing experience verbally,’ (which we never did) and ‘chart possible ideas.’ I showed them the second chart page, labeled, “ideas,” and under that, “NOT a commitment.”

I knew from meetings in the working world that many people “don’t get” the concept of brainstorming, and they don’t realize that for any ideas that get printed onto the chart, you needn’t say, “It must be true (truly important) or they wouldn’t have printed it.” To emphasize that we are not committed, during our “kick ideas around” phase, to anything we write, I printed an idea at the top, one we could all laughingly agree we wouldn’t do, even though it “seemed” sensible. (Our prime minister had suffered the death of his father, nevertheless, “telephone Justin Trudeau” was not something to commit to doing) Later I ended up squiggling in amendments to our ideas… which we could all see and ponder, as our ideas were happening, in real time.

At last a third page became our Action Page, with what we would do, and when, and who would do what to implement our plan. And by this time we felt confident in our plans; we wouldn’t get cold feet later. Call such visible concrete actions the product of the meeting, a product that would not be possible, or at least not be optimum, without the process of invisible emotions and opinions.

To me the “process part” is way more challenging, more fun. At one point heads were nodding in agreement as it sadly made sense that we should have our healing outside of the church, and also outside of our regular meeting time… then one individual pointed out, in effect, that when you fall off a horse you have to get back on, therefore our healing should be right here. Because the individuals were deep in the process of being open to new ideas, and not stuck on what we had already said, the man’s idea instantly crystalized the group. Heads began nodding that yes, we should meet right here… I can assure you that made the planning much easier!

It all began with me standing there, facing a collection of still eyeballs: My peers. I had once heard that the success or failure of a meeting is set up in the first ten minutes. So I tried to be light hearted and inclusive as I showed the flipchart. Next? Imagine the silence that might follow if I simply said, “Now, does anyone want to share?”… As it happens, we are a strong group, used to yoga and spiritual things. I was suddenly inspired: “Hey, do you guys want to do 30 seconds of silent meditation?” I asked, while holding up my wristwatch. They said, “Yes!” I timed it for us. “Time’s up.” I’m sure it helped. To me, it’s all part of the process.

The first speaker was a white haired old soldier, complete with tattoo. He was surprised to find emotions coming up as he talked to us. Someone said that as she drives by the church every day, she doesn’t say to herself, “Toastmasters.” She says, “Michael.” Yes, we needed more healing.

I had to be a taskmaster, allowing people to vent a little, but not to get into healing. To cut people off if needed, so we could keep moving forward on our planning. To acknowledge sadness, to respect emotion, to show humor— and all the while, to keep us moving. No indulging in too-long personal stories, no running away from our task into digressions. A facilitator is like an orchestra conductor, keeping us all at the same pace. On the same page. In control of ourselves.

On the flipchart, you may recall, I had included “people not present.” Well. We found we didn’t need to share what anyone had specifically said, not after we who were present had already agreed we had a need to heal. Lera had previously scanned down a list of members. She pulled out her list and peered at it. We used a minute to consider which absent members needed personal calls—to merely announce the healing meeting, not getting too personal, we said. We used a minute to decide who would call whom. A minute well spent. By the way, during the meeting I saw no need to rigidly have every person speak, or have every person speak for a rigid amount of time. Those of us who were silent participated well by listening intently.

During our club evaluation phase, that night, my evaluator told the club, “This discussion was a great credit to him.”

Like all clubs, we have mini evaluation slip everyone fills out. We call them “love notes.” Someone wrote to me, “…We got results! and that is success!” Now we have a plan, and we will carry it out in two weeks.

Many people wrote something like, “Thank you for taking this on.”

Sean Crawford

~In my essay Getting a Sense of Humor, archived April 2017, I compared myself to Science Officer Spock, complete with blue shirt. Not very emotional. As it happens, when I was a young “man among men,” certain emotions, such as fear, were just not relevant.

Talk about denial: I have been told that football players in the locker room will lie to each other, avoiding eye contact, saying, “I want to get out there and hit!” Sure, I think sarcastically, and be hit, too! Now that I am an old bald guy, denial of emotion does not serve me. And it truly does not serve while I am chairing a group. Like an artist, I need to see things, see certain emotions the group is not yet ready to face.

~About my own ego: You know how you keep having to make mini corrections to your steering wheel as you drive? Of course I would have to mini correct the group. Well, I would have to correct myself too, as sometimes I would misjudge the corrections needed for my peers. In a mini way. Luckily folks would just ignore me when that happened, as we kept rolling along. It’s so nice to have left my ego at the door. Supposedly.

~One of my regular readers once wanted to know what I look like: During the memorial on Youtube, during the initial everybody shares go-around, I was one of the last to speak. During the part where individuals go up on stage to share, I was one of the last ones (fondly acting out how Michael wore his belt, as people laughed) I haven’t viewed the whole tape yet, simply because I was there, in real life.

~I wrote of our group listening intently, and being in control of ourselves. If on the World Wide Web you read that so many bloggers “hate meetings,” then maybe it’s because their peers and managers lack self-discipline. My theory is: Managers know they should keep their egos in check and do the right thing, while everyone knows what a functional meeting looks like, but folks just can’t bring themselves to be functional. Such a dreadful pity.


  1. Sean, you boldly go beyond yourself. This is one of my favourite pieces you have ever written. You are there in all your pure self laying open your ego and allowing your emotion to thread through. Michael must have been a very special man as he leaves people behind who mourn his passing. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you Cindy.
    It's nice to hear you have favourites. I told one of my favourite essay-bloggers about this one.

    It remains to be seen if this will get my average number of hits. It probably will, in the long run, just not this week.

    You are right that Michael was special. Let us hope that in the fullness of time you and I will have made a contribution to people too.