The purpose of a meeting will always be to arrive at some mutual conclusion which can be most efficiently achieved by discussing, debating and deciding the outcome together. Otherwise, why have a meeting?
It follows then, that whoever is leading the discussion, debate and decision-making has a responsibility for ensuring fair and open coverage of everyone’s views and all available information. This means the leader must certainly behave impartially, whatever his/her personal opinions are on the subject.
Not always easy. And it can be tempting for a senior, influential Chair to allow their own views (consciously or unconsciously) to dominate. In some situations, you might genuinely believe this is the “right” thing to do. How do I fairly chair a balanced discussion when I already have a strong preconceived commitment to a definite outcome?
There are a couple of options. First, you can split the responsibilities of Chair and Facilitator. As Chair, you can introduce the topic, head up the discussion (if that is your area of expertise), and clearly state your own position. You can drive the content of the meeting, (although you should take care not to manipulate or steamroller others).
The Facilitator’s role is to look after the process of the meeting, to ensure the purpose is clear, that no individual dominates at the cost of others, that all views are expressed and heard, that ground rules and timekeeping are respected, that outcomes and actions are achieved and mutually accepted. The Facilitator must indeed be impartial, especially where it is recognised that the Chair has clearly preferred outcomes for the discussion.
Alternatively, you can develop a culture of “rotating” the Chair at your meetings. Either a different person chairs the meeting each time you come together, or you can have individual topics at the same meeting chaired by different participants. This allows any person with a decided bias on any agenda item to step down from the impartial position of leader for the duration of that discussion, so that s/he is free to “fight their own corner”.
As a bonus, it is also an excellent way for all participants to practise and develop their chairmanship/facilitation skills.
All meetings need someone to facilitate, that is to ensure a fair and balanced process, as well as someone to chair full and sufficient coverage of the issues. This is much easier when you don’t have a personal axe to grind. Facilitation is a sophisticated and subtle skillset all on its own, often quite separate from chairing. So next time you’re leading a meeting, consider making the task lighter – you don’t have to do both jobs yourself!