Being in an unproductive meeting is frustrating for all involved. When no one feels like they are being heard, attendees think their time is being wasted and leaders feel they aren’t getting anything accomplished. On farms, meetings have proven useful for communicating daily tasks as well as longer term planning, but it takes skill to make these conversations effective.
A good place to start is by organizing the tasks, time, and guidelines, of a farm meeting, explained Alma Jorgensen in a Rural Resiliency webinar. She described that having an agenda and calling it a meeting helps provide business structure and can take some of the family emotion out of it. Still, she recognized that getting to the table for that first one is often the hardest.
Jorgensen is the rural mental health outreach coordinator with a community health center in Minnesota, and she has helped many farm families hold better meetings. Her first suggestion is for the group to develop a set of guidelines for the meetings to create a common understanding of how the meeting will run smoothly and stay short. Some rules to set might be no swearing, phones away, no interrupting, and sticking to an agreed-upon length.
The agenda for the meeting should be a simple list of things to cover that everyone has had access to contribute to, Jorgensen said. She advised keeping a notebook in a dedicated spot, a specific white board, or a Google document that attendees can access between meetings to add things to the agenda. Items to include could be updates from the last meeting, financial decisions, new projects coming up, and ideas for improvement. However, Jorgensen cautioned, “An agenda is not a to-do list. It organizes the time you’re going to spend together and keeps the meetings short and effective.”
It is the job of the meeting facilitator to keep the discussion to the agenda while encouraging everyone to speak, ensuring mutual understanding, and delegating responsibilities. Jorgensen also outlined that the meeting should have a recorder who takes notes to keep everyone accountable after the meeting and a timekeeper who watches the clock so others don’t have to. Switching up these roles each time is critical.
“This can help break that power dynamic and help people feel like they have equal say within the meeting,” she emphasized. The recorder, especially, may be more focused on taking notes than sharing their thoughts, so rotating positions helps everyone’s voice be heard. Jorgensen also mentioned that shifting the power structure in the room can be done by changing where people sit each meeting.
Knowing who needs to be at a meeting can be a fine line to walk, Jorgensen said. In general, anyone who would be affected by the meeting’s outcome should attend. This means employees in conversations about day-to-day operations, both generations in succession meetings, and all investors in financial discussions. If someone is left out, apologize and determine how the next meeting can be better, she added.
During the meeting, stick to the guidelines and agenda and stay positive, Jorgensen said. Ask clarifying questions, listen instead of formulating a response, and work to find a solution. If necessary, bring in an expert or trusted adviser to offer a fresh perspective and help the group work through sticking points. “It is really not shameful to ask for help; it is sometimes necessary to have another person in the room,” Jorgensen said. “It can make your life and the life of those on the farm so much better.”
End the meeting once you’ve gone over the whole agenda or reached the allotted time, she concluded. Go over action points, do a quick evaluation of how the meeting went, and set the next one. Jorgensen recommended a recurring time that doesn’t detract from work or involve a meal, since the person cooking won’t be focused on the topic. No matter when it is held, aim to make each meeting better than the last, she said.