Ten tips on how to prevent your meeting becoming unfocused, an office popularity contest or a downright brawl.
1 Show a sense of direction

You may not have strong views on each agenda item, but you must convey a sense of purpose to everyone else. You will be blamed and resented if you lose control and regularly allow discussions to meander, but you should not dominate the meeting.

2 Familiarise yourself with each item on the agenda before the meeting

You need to earn the respect of all participants –and a mastery of detail, subtly disclosed, is one way to achieve this. Similarly, you will be held in awe if you can summarise debates succinctly and objectively.

3 Make sure everyone gets the papers they need beforehand

You will look incompetent if people have to read important documents on the spot. Also, don’t let other people get away with coming to the meeting unprepared or late.

4 Compensate those who lose arguments

You may not have strong views on each item, but you must convey a sense of purpose

Ask yourself how the winners and losers on each agenda item will feel afterwards and find ways to compensate people for losing. They should at least feel they have had their say, and you might consider allowing them to win on other points. Some chairs complete meetings in 20 minutes but leave the participants seething for hours afterwards. Ideally, discussions will be satisfying emotionally as well as intellectually.

5 Encourage the shy and muffle the verbose

Your task will be easier if you make short, sharp but always focused interjections at regular intervals. It is surprisingly easy to spend an hour discussing a problem that can be resolved by a minor amendment.

6 Find your allies and focus on the issue

In a group of 20 people, you are likely to have a few negative but articulate characters. Over a period of time, these people can drag the group down. Seek out the positive, “solution-oriented” people and ask them to give their views before the depressives can set the tone. Try to focus on the issues rather than the characters. You can do this by shifting the visual focal point from the speakers to a flip chart where the different options under discussion are listed.

7 Be ready to make compromises

You may not have strong views on each item, but you must convey a sense of purpose

A good chair needs to be able to reconcile different views. And if you cannot find an option that works for everyone, don’t make a decision just for the sake of it. It is no weakness to say: “It is clear that we all need to find out more about this area. We will come back to it next time.”

8 Be prepared to get tough

Union meetings and political rallies are notorious for getting overheated. Unless the chair is very firm, you can move to a mob mentality within a few minutes. If you want to avoid decision-making by lynch mob, insist that people follow your rules. These could include speaking through the chair, keeping contributions limited to new comments, sticking to the timetable and so on.

9 Exude an aura of well-being

Build up a stock of pleasant phrases to sugar the pill when cutting people off or stopping rows. Understand that other people will be jockeying for position in meetings, but don’t let office politics undermine the proceedings.

10 Follow up

Devise procedures to ensure that all “action points” are implemented and keep on good terms with the person doing the minutes. You will need their help if you decide that parts of the discussion are too delicate to be recorded.