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We tend to run our meetings free-form, often with little more than a vague agenda and a hope that the magic of bringing people together will lead to a joyous outcome. But unlike fairy tales, that rarely happens. Mostly we leave grumbling, the results just adequate or worse.

Richard Lent, a Boston-area consultant who has spent 25 years trying to improve his meetings, believes you can learn from the techniques he has tried. It boils down to not continuing with a laissez-faire approach, wishing that you can muddle through, but applying some structure that nudges participants in the right direction. "Structure is rugged. It creates a format where it is relatively easy for you to behave effectively in a meeting. It makes it clear to everyone what they must do now," he said in an interview.

Take 1-2-All, one of 32 structural approaches in a "tool chest" from his book Leading Great Meetings. Although he facilitates sessions of 50 to 80 people, he says any meeting of more than seven individuals constitutes a large group – and a potential problem, because most participants won't stay engaged, knowing a few passionate colleagues will gobble up most of the air time. So the onlookers flick through their e-mail and maintain limited involvement.

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Instead, announce the issue at hand, and then tell everyone they have one or two minutes to reflect and write down their ideas. Then ask them to turn to a neighbour and share their initial reaction to the topic. When you reconvene as a group, ask each pair what they talked about before edging into further general discussion.

The individual reflection allows participants who need more time to get their thoughts together an equal start with those who think as they speak. The second stage – the 2 of the title – allows thoughts to be tested and reactions gauged not just by what is said but by non-verbal expressions.

After that, participants can refine their proposals for distribution to all in the meeting. The approach engages everyone and gets more ideas on the floor than just throwing an issue out for general discussion.

One thing that kills people's engagement is not knowing in advance how an issue will be decided. If the decision turns out to be not to their liking, they'll blame the method. So the Five Cs tool encourages you at the start to explain which option is in force:

Consensus

The group will develop a common conclusion that all will support. Often we reach a false consensus, assuming approval if we don't hear concerns. But for consensus, you must ensure everyone's enthusiasm.

Consent

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Everyone expresses an opinion and those with a concern indicate it's not fundamental – the proposed course of action is good enough.

Compromise

An acceptable, middle-of-the-road outcome. This is weak, but may be best for the situation. It can be helpful to take a break before forging a compromise, perhaps for a few minutes while everyone considers possibilities, or a few days for a small group to develop a proposal.

Count

Ask everyone to vote and the majority rules. "We use this way too much. Every time you vote, you divide the group. You have winners and losers," he said in the interview.

Consult

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The leader indicates he is asking for everyone's input to help shape the decision he will take.

His FATT tool advises you to ensure every meeting item is focused (the topic is clear and has boundaries), actionable, timely, and timed, with a specific amount of time allocated. He urges you to appoint a timekeeper who advises participants when time is running out on an agenda item, so the group can then choose to wind up discussion or change the agenda to allow more time on this issue.

Multivoting allows you to get a quick idea of where people stand on options. Give everyone a certain number of adhesive dots that office supply stores carry – between three and seven – and have them put those beside their preferences. The dot landscape will send a message about the group's feelings. Discuss which items received the most and least dots; what surprised people about the distribution; and what relationship people see between items that got many (or few) dots.

"Your meetings can be much better. You can change the way you run meetings and do it very easily by your next meeting. It doesn't require special training," he said.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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