Handforth Council: Virtual communication gone wrong

Think your virtual meetings could be better? You may already have watched the 18-minute long, edited extracts of last December’s extraordinary meeting of the Handforth Parish Council Planning and Environment Committee, which was held on Zoom. It’s gone viral, and there has been a lot of focus on the fiery exchanges in the first few minutes of the video, as non-local Jackie Weaver (a parachuted-in representative of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils) brings the meeting to order.

It’s hard to gauge the context from the video, which is clearly essential to understanding what’s actually going on. The clip begins in rancour, with some heated discussion about meeting protocol; there’s a power struggle as the chair of the council asserts his right to run the meeting; he and two other attendees are subsequently ejected to the waiting room. Weaver receives support and apologies from the remaining councillors. “Welcome to Handforth”, councillor John Smith says. “It’s nothing if not lively”, she replies.

It’s all very English, and watching it is a reminder of why Miss Marple and Midsomer Murders have been such popular TV staples over the years: small communities can be riven by simmering feuds and resentments, which sometimes boil over, as seems to be the case here. It would be all too easy to sit back and make fun of the (largely) elderly councillors, all unpaid volunteers, as some of them struggle – like the rest of us – with technology.

What’s been skimmed over in the coverage is how civil most of the meeting as seen in the video turns out to be. It’s the outbursts that have drawn everyone’s attention, but they’re over at the six-minute mark. The remaining 12 minutes are professional and cordial, and it seems to be a pretty well-run meeting, all things considered.

When ‘it’s all going a bit Handforth’

So what should you do if things threaten to go wrong? Here are four things to think about, based on techniques we teach in our courses on virtual communication.

Choose the right medium: do you really need to hold a full meeting, or could you resolve the issues you’re trying to discuss with a smaller gathering of people? And do you need to hold a meeting in the first place? If email or a simple two-way phone call would work better, do that instead. Too often, we assume that a meeting is the best way to sort out a problem; and that can waste an awful lot of time.

Agree on the ground rules: given the apparent rifts between council members as suggested in the video, it’s doubtful anyone thought December’s meeting would pass without incident. But that’s why it’s essential to have an agreed code of conduct, known to the attendees beforehand, and reiterated by the chair at the start. How people should treat one another, is as important as what they’re saying. That’s what a lot of the fiercest argument in the Handforth video is about: the treatment meted out to Jackie Weaver, which some attendees think is unfair.

Respecting disparate views, giving people a fair hearing, and agreeing not to shout at one another are standards everyone could probably agree on. Putting yourself on mute when you’re not speaking is a good idea too (the Handforth video is punctuated by the off-screen sound of flushing lavatories at regular intervals)

Respect the chair: part of the problem at Handforth is that there’s considerable disagreement over who should be in charge of the meeting. They opt to elect a chair; but however you decide it, it’s vital to have someone in charge. This person may not be the most senior person attending, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to them or treat them with respect. The chair is there to ensure that meetings stick to the agenda, run on time and are conducted with civility. Too often meetings fail because either the chair isn’t assertive enough, or because other people refuse to listen to them and try to take over.

Deal with disagreements: It’s important, as the person in charge, to keep your cool and stay positive if differences arise. That’s something Jackie Weaver does brilliantly throughout the proceedings. The classic strategy is to ask people to take it ‘off-line’: to deal with the problem outside the meeting. But if the whole point of the meeting is to discuss the problem that’s causing the argument, and people can’t talk about it calmly, then you might as well reschedule. Throwing people out may seem like the most drastic step, but it’s notable that once they’ve done so at Handforth, the meeting proceeds without further interruption, in a respectful way.

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