A meeting agreement, especially for virtual meetings, not only sets the stage for stronger conversations but also makes room for voices that may not always feel comfortable speaking up.
Virtual meetings offer a different dynamic than in-person ones. It’s easy for people to talk over one another, privacy norms are altered, and the format means that distraction is a tab away.
A meeting agreement is one way to tackle the free-for-all that a virtual conversation can become. The agreement, which represents an extension of an association’s code of conduct or code of ethics, helps to encourage better conversations during virtual meetings by fostering engagement and room for people who may not feel comfortable speaking up.
The Western Arts Alliance (WAA) has taken this approach to heart with a meeting agreement that lists 10 guidelines for participants to follow during virtual gatherings. It addresses ways to engage, the need for time management, and the importance of confidentiality.
Tim Wilson, WAA’s executive director, emphasized that the agreement is meant to encourage members to see virtual meeting rooms as a place where people are respected.
“I think it’s really important that members and participants, constituents, feel that they’re in a safe place,” Wilson says. “That was our primary motivation for adopting these, so that there’s a set of protocols in place that go beyond the obvious.”
This comes to life in an agreement that does more than simply address the basics of engagement, such as avoiding harassment and bullying. It takes the next step, making room for flexibility in the ways that people communicate with one another. For example, one of the rules in the meeting agreement allows for “productive silence”—that is, if the meeting goes quiet, there is no push by staff, moderators, or volunteers to prod participation.
“We can just be present with silence,” he explains.
By Members, for Members
The agreement, Wilson says, comes at a challenging time for the performing arts. COVID-19 has shut down venues, leaving many people out of work or forcing a pivot to livestreamed performances.
He says the agreement, inspired by a similar agreement used by Dance/USA, represents an attempt to directly address industry needs.
“We have an industry that is in high levels of stress or distress, and these agreements, when we adopted them, were an important step in recognizing how much distress there was, how fragile people were in this environment,” he says.
WAA developed the agreement’s tenets through its committee system. Committee members, including people representing traditionally marginalized groups, built the rules collaboratively during the early part of the pandemic.
The agreement is intended to be flexible and can be updated or changed based on need. And Wilson says there’s room for members to make suggestions on the fly.
“When we use these meeting agreements, before we start, we say, ‘Here are the meeting agreements—is everybody comfortable with them? And does anybody want to add anything?’” he says, which gives participants the opportunity to adapt the agreement to that meeting’s needs.
How to Bring a Meeting Agreement to Your Association
Wilson says that associations looking to implement a similar approach should focus on the needs of their members. In fact, members might bring up the concept themselves, so staff should be prepared to accommodate such a request.
“It’s the kind of thing where you have to be prepared for the moment when it comes,” he says. “It’s an idea that started with members—they brought it, other members say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’ And the staff has to be willing to really listen and give it a try.”
Wilson says awkwardness may emerge when first using this approach, as “productive silence” and other tenets may not immediately feel natural. And there is always the risk that your members may be “pooh-poohing and not really accepting” the strategy, he says.
But understanding where your community is can help. WAA had put in years of work on equity issues long before the pandemic, and it instituted the agreement at a time when there was a clear need for something like it for its member base. As a result, the arrangement found a warm reception.
“I think when you can create spaces where there is real trust, where people can make themselves vulnerable, that it can be a powerful way of engaging our members and of making change,” he says.
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