Reflecting recently on the banality of most meetings, I turned to “Meetings as Ritual,” an article I wrote in May 2005 and later included in the Bonfire Collection (2014). Here are some excerpts from the original text:
Consider for a moment the possibility that meetings are rituals…. For the purposes of this reflection, ritual is defined as a repeatable cultural performance, a specific act performed on a specific occasion. Rituals are culturally coded behaviors that give us a heightened sense of identity and meaning. Rituals help define us as a community; they remind us of who we are, how to behave and what is of ultimate value.
…Because rituals both shape and mirror cultural evolution, they are a rich source of information about the social order and a powerful tool for its transformation…. Meetings are one of the dominant rituals of our times and therefore, properly used, could serve as an effective instrument for social and cultural change.
…What if meetings reminded us of what is sacred, of what must be treasured and protected? How would meetings be different if we saw them as an opportunity to educate, guide, nourish and heal ourselves? What if we entered meetings with passion, reverence, and a sense that our participation was of vital importance?
...The rituals practiced in most meetings produce a specific kind of suffering…. People talk too much or not at all. Agendas are too full, poorly organized or non-existent. Discussions meander, priorities are unclear, and the decision-making process swings between despotism and anarchy….
Applying the Criteria for Good Ritual to Meetings
Here are some of the lessons we can learn from “good” rituals – meaning those that inspire and energize us – that might make our meetings more meaningful and effective.
1. Be clear about the purpose. Do we know the true purpose of the Monday morning sales meeting? If we did (and had a choice), would we bother to attend?
2. Know your role. What is the role of those who attend a condominium meeting? To complain about the neighbors? To listen to committee reports? To advise the board of directors? If their role were clearer, would they behave differently?
3. Plan ahead. Good rituals require careful preparation. A meeting in which the room is clean and the chairs are in place, an agenda has been drafted, the right people are present and the needed materials are at hand sets the stage for an effective session.
4. Make it special. Rituals transform the ordinary into something special. When we take the trouble to put flowers on the table, bake cookies for the coffee break, or simply greet people with a smile as they arrive, we send a message that beauty, caring and human connection are some of the values that guide our work.
5. Take time to get centered. The world is full of difficulties and distractions that need to be set aside to enter ritual space. A moment of silence can help get everyone mentally ‘in the room’ and focused on their intention for being there.
6. Vary the timing and texture. Rituals can be short or long, formal or impromptu, complex or simple. Meeting formats should vary according to their purpose.
The Meeting Facilitator as Ritual Leader
If meetings are a contemporary ritual, then the facilitator can be viewed as a kind of “process priest(ess)” who helps set the tone, maintains the focus and guides the group through the various stages of its work.
…We need meetings that invite dialogue, promote understanding, encourage collaboration, stir creativity, and meet our fundamental need for meaning and belonging. We need meetings that engage our hearts and minds and give us an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world. If we settle for less, we are wasting our time.