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Comparing Series Meeting Formats

from LEAVEN, May-June 1990
by Sharon Barsotti
Illinois, USA

*If you can provide page numbers for this article, please send them to Publications.

During most of the seven years I have been a La Leche League Leader, I've led my Group's Series Meetings as I was taught by my co-Leader without giving much thought to how other Leaders led their meetings. However, while helping Leader Applicants in my Group prepare for leadership, I began to compare the dynamics of different discussion formats. During the course of their Leader preparation, we talked about planning and leading meetings, and we visited other nearby Groups, discussing the differences between their meetings and ours. As we talked, we noticed that meeting formats fell into certain categories. Many Groups routinely led their meetings using a round robin, that is, asking the mothers to speak in turn around the circle. The Leader sometimes began the discussion by delivering a question that the mothers answered in turn. Or the Leader gave the mothers cards or slips of paper that they were asked to read in turn. Other Groups we visited relied regularly on visual or discussion aids, sometimes in combination with a round robin. (When I refer to a visual aid, I do not mean holding up a book or writing main points on a board, as Michael Brandwein suggests in his International Conference sessions. I mean a visual focus around which the discussion is centered.) For example, at one meeting we visited, an LLL poster was cut into puzzle pieces with a question written on the back of each one. These puzzle pieces were distributed to the mothers in the Group. The mothers then read the questions aloud in order around the circle and they were discussed by the entire Group. At the end of the meeting, the puzzle was assembled. Another Group used the letters in the word BREASTFEEDING as a discussion aid, with the Leader asking each mother in turn around the circle to give an advantage of breastfeeding that began with one of the letters. We noticed that our meetings didn't fit into any of these categories. We didn't use a round robin except when the mothers introduced themselves. We almost never used visual or discussion aids. Although we always opened the discussion with an opening statement to set the tone and to get the mothers thinking in the desired direction, we didn't lecture. The mothers did most of the talking. Our meetings seemed to follow a "conversation-style" format. Although we planned our meetings with great care, our discussions were natural and free-flowing, like an impromptu conversation between the Leader and the mothers.

Mothers' Feelings about Different Formats

I began by thinking that the differences among meeting formats were insignificant, but after talking to mothers who had attended more than one type of meeting, I realized that the format can affect a mother's feelings about the meeting. Recently, at one of our Evaluation Meetings, our new Greeter described an experience she'd had at another Group's Series Meeting.

It was my first meeting. The Leader had made a cardboard mailbox, and each of us was given a postcard from the mailbox. The Leader went around the circle and asked each of us to read the question written on our postcard and either answer it or ask someone else in the Group to answer it.

I had just had my first baby and didn't know very much about breastfeeding. On my card was a question on nipple confusion - about which I knew nothing, so I asked someone else to respond. Another mother explained in great detail about nipple confusion and why not to give babies artificial nipples in the early weeks. I felt so ignorant. Some of the other mothers talked a lot about what was on their card and I felt as though I came across as really stupid.

I was surprised at her strong reaction. I knew from THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK the drawbacks of using "test questions" to stimulate discussion (see pages 44-45), but I had assumed that as long as the Leader made it clear to the mothers that they did not have to answer the questions themselves, they would not feel pressured. Our Greeter's account of her feelings convinced me otherwise. This pressure might be less if the mother was asked to share an experience rather than answer a "test question" asking for information. (Think of how much easier it is to answer the question "What advantage of breastfeeding is particularly important to you?" as opposed to "What is an advantage of breastfeeding that starts with the letter 'F'?") But if the mother who reads the question does not have an experience relating to what's written on her card, she might feel as our Greeter did - or even worse if she does have an experience but does not want to share it with the Group. Our Greeter finished her story by saying,

"I like conversation-style discussions much better, because I never feel put on the spot. I can talk if I have something to say or just listen if I feel like it." On round robins, a Leader Applicant from our Group said:

"Even though I'd been coming to LLL meetings for years, I was surprised at how nervous I felt when I visited a Group where a round robin was used during the discussion. I found it difficult to listen to the other mothers because I was thinking about what I was going to say when it was my turn. And because I had so much time to think it over, it was less spontaneous."

Even an experienced Leader may find herself worrying about what she's going to say if she finds herself near the end of the circle. My own experience with round robins (Murphy's Law being what it is) is that the person whose turn comes before mine more often than not says what I planned to say. One mother, who had attended two other US Groups before she moved to our area, said:

"The Leaders in New Hampshire and Virginia relied mostly on visual or discussion aids and round robins. Although I enjoyed these meetings and gained a great deal from them, in comparison they seem artificial, like party games. I much prefer conversation-style discussions. They seem more natural, like heart-to-heart talks."

How to Lead Conversation-style Discussions

If you have never seen or led a conversation-style discussion, you might like to give it a try. Conversation-style discussions are not difficult to lead, but there are different dynamics involved. A meeting that is led conversation-style begins with careful planning. Since there are no gimmicks to keep the momentum of the discussion going, it is important, first and foremost, to choose a focus for the meeting that the mothers will want to discuss. Before each meeting, my co-Leaders and I think carefully about who will be attending. We get out our attendance sheet from the last meeting and talk about who has called us during the last month and who we think will be at the meeting. Then we plan the focus based on these mothers' situations and concerns. The only exception to this is our "newcomer rule." The newcomers' needs receive first priority. Even if all of our regulars are in one situation and the newcomer in another, the newcomer gets priority and the meeting focus is chosen for her. Our definition of a newcomer is any woman who is attending this meeting in our series for the first time. What makes a conversation-style discussion different from a round robin or a meeting that is centered around visual or discussion aids is that the discussion flows naturally. Once the Leader delivers the question to open the discussion (THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK lists many opening questions from which to choose), the mothers respond as they wish. The discussion is like a free-flowing conversation between the Leader and the mothers. The mothers have the freedom to respond whenever they have something to say. No one is ever pressured to speak or has to wait her turn. As with any meeting format, the Leader is "the voice of La Leche League," so the newcomers get a sense of where LLL stands in the midst of a variety of personal experiences. However, in the conversation style discussion it is especially important for the Leader to respond to each mother in order to keep up the momentum of the discussion. When responding, the Leader may only need to nod or give a brief affirmation. Or, if she feels the newcomers need more information, she may ask the mother to expand on her comments or expand on them herself. The Leader's consistent response to each mother who speaks gives the discussion its conversational quality. The Leader's job is also to guide the discussion so that the intended points are covered. If the mothers are enthusiastic and talkative, one well-phrased question at the beginning of the discussion may stimulate enough conversation to cover the topic well (especially if the meeting focus is well chosen). The biggest fear Leaders seem to have about this format is that the mothers won't talk and they will face a silent audience not knowing what to do next. But if the discussion stalls, there are several ways the Leader can keep the discussion going. Let's say, for example, that the topic is "Nutrition and Weaning" and because the mothers attending (including newcomers) have mostly older babies, the focus is weaning and the points are the reasons an older baby might benefit from continuing to breastfeed. The opening question is: "Once your baby is eating solids regularly, why would you want to continue to nurse?" If the discussion stalls the Leader can:

Prepare in advance several more specific questions to bring out the desired points, for example, "Many of you have shared the emotional benefits of nursing your older babies. What are some of the practical benefits?' Or, "How about sleep? Have some of you found that nursing makes nap times and bedtimes easier?

Prepare several general questions relating to the meeting focus in case the points have been covered and there is more time left for discussion. For example, "Have your feelings changed since your baby was born about how long you would breastfeed? If so, how?" Call on specific mothers to share their experiences. The Leader will know the experiences of regularly attending mothers, but it may help to jot down the mothers, names and their experiences as a reminder in case there is a lull in the discussion For example, "Mary, you told me not long ago some of the reasons you enjoy nursing Sarah at this age. Would you like to share them with us?" If the Leader is not sure the mother would be comfortable being called on, she should ask her permission before the meeting. If you still find it difficult to visualize the dynamics of a conversation-style discussion and would like to see a demonstration, join me and my co-Leader, Julie Stock, a year from July at the next International Conference in Miami Beach, where we'll be leading the session, "Leading a Conversation style Discussion." As part of our session we plan to demonstrate a conversation-style discussion.

Be Flexible

It may seem risky to try a new meeting format, especially if meetings are going well. There's no denying that round robins and visual and discussion aids offer definite advantages to the Leader. For one, momentum is automatically provided. If a mother finishes talking, you don't have to worry about what to say next, just go on to the next mother. Also, a round robin or a discussion aid may require less preparation time. (A visual aid, on the other hand, may require more.) And Leaders sometimes become bored using one approach all the time and enjoy varying meeting formats for a change of pace. The type of mothers attending meetings can also influence a Leader's choice of meeting format. For example, a Leader may find that a format that works well when talkative mothers attend meetings needs adjustment when the mothers do not participate as freely. Also, Leaders are unique individuals, with different personalities and different leading styles. Some Leaders find the conversation style discussion more naturally suited to their personalities. Other Leaders prefer to vary their formats, using round robins and visual or discussion aids to add variety. Whatever the Leader's inclination, mastering the conversation-style discussion will increase her versatility, giving her another tool with which to meet the needs of the mothers in her Group.

Consider the Newcomer

When considering a meeting format, think of it first from the perspective of the newcomer. At Series Meetings the needs and feelings of the newcomer should always be the primary consideration. (On the other hand, Evaluation, Toddler, and Couples' Meetings are places where the needs of the regularly attending mothers can be the primary focus.) Ask yourself:

Will the newcomers be able to choose whether or not they participate in the discussion? Many newcomers come to meetings to learn but may not want to join the discussion. Most would prefer to be given the choice. Make sure a newcomer will not be expected to respond to a question to which she may not know the answer.

Does my meeting format enhance communication between the Leader and the mothers, or does it sometimes get in the way, making exchanges stilted or artificial? Genuine communication can sometimes be inhibited by visual and discussion aids, especially when there are many parts to keep track of or instructions to remember. Also, if a meeting format involves lots of reading aloud, be wary. This leaves less time for sharing experiences.

Is my meeting format flexible enough so that individual concerns can be discussed? Some Leaders feel more at ease with a highly structured meeting plan. They may be tempted to maintain tight control over the discussion to avoid the unexpected. But a meeting where every second is planned may not allow newcomers to raise their concerns. Be sure to allow some open time for questions at every meeting. Make an Informed Choice You can make an informed choice about meeting formats by learning, observing, and experimenting. Read the section in Chapter 3 of THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK on "Choosing a Format" (pp. 3740). Visit other Groups and observe how they lead their discussions. It is easier to focus on the dynamics of a meeting when your own plan is not at stake and you are not personally involved with the mothers. Be open to trying new ways if the newcomer will benefit. Rather than trying a new format just for the sake of variety, first imagine it from the newcomer's point of view. If you think she will find it interesting and it will allow her to ask her questions and participate as much or as little as she wants, take a chance and give it a try.

My Best Meeting Ever

Leading Series Meetings has always been my least favorite part of being a Leader. During my eleven years of leading meetings, I have routinely used the round robin format. I have tried various ways to make this approach interesting and helpful, but I was never really comfortable with it. At a recent Chapter Meeting, I learned about leading a conversation-style discussion. It sounded so interesting that I decided to try it at my next Series Meeting. As my meeting date approached, though, I began to doubt if I could do it. I had almost made up my mind not to try, but I kept thinking of my own experience as a new mother and how uncomfortable I felt about being put on the spot during the round robin discussions. This motivated me to take courage and try this new approach. Each month I always set aside a block of time to prepare for my meeting, but on this particular day, I was interrupted so many times I didn't have a chance to prepare as I normally do. However, this turned out not to be a problem, because I found the conversation-style discussion easy to prepare for. THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK gave me the tools I needed to lead a meeting this way. I re-read the section pertaining to the meeting topic, then jotted down several discussion questions that seemed to address the concerns of the mothers attending. I opened the meeting as usual by introducing myself and my co-Leader. After the announcements, I asked everyone to introduce themselves. Then I gave an introduction to the meeting and threw it open to discussion, using one of the discussion questions I had prepared. I kept the conversation flowing by affirming the mothers' responses and occasionally directing the discussion. This turned out to be the best meeting I have ever led. I was surprised at how easily all the necessary points were covered. The mothers didn't hesitate to ask questions or add to the discussion, and no one felt put on the spot. I not only felt relaxed during the meeting, for the first time I even had a good time leading.

Note: contact information updated 11/17/06

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