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September 02, 2004

Japanese Committee Meetings for Dummies

Curtis Kelly
Long-reigning chairperson of meeting dummies, with help from wise man Bernie Susser of Doshisha

For twenty years, I was a real meeting dummy. My participation in university committee meetings was characterized by grief, confusion, and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Recently, though, I feel like I am getting a handle on meetings, and although I cannot claim to be an expert on meeting form or finessing technique, I will give you a few points on how to organize or attend them. If you were like I was twenty years ago, these pointers might be just what you need.

Note that Department meetings are similar to committee meetings, but General Faculty meetings (Kyoujukai), being more formal, have more restrictions on discussion.

Have a hard copy of the meeting agenda to pass out to everyone. If possible, pass it out a few days before the meeting. It should have the meeting name, committee name, date, and a numbered list of topics and presenters. An agenda 1) gives everyone a chance to prepare ideas beforehand, 2) provides a "map" of the meeting so they know what is going on, and (extremely important to Japanese) 3) provides a kind of meeting report, an organizer, to file or pass on to other groups.

I was in a committee meeting recently and saw a real live example of why a written agenda is important. No written agenda was provided for the meeting, attended mainly by foreigners. Halfway through, one of the attendees started talking about an issue that did not seem to be related to the committee's function. He was prepared and had documents, but his 30-minute report (or was it a proposal?) left us disoriented. His presentation might have been cleared with the chair, but since there was no agenda, we did not know. It seemed that we spent half the meeting listening to something that had nothing to do with us.

Instead, the meeting topics should have been organized beforehand on a sheet of paper. That way, we would have known that this was an issue we should hear about or decide on. If it were not part of the meeting plan, it could still have been presented after we finished the other work, in "Sonota" (other business) section. "Sonota" topics should also be relevant to the duties of the committee, and the chairperson should be informed of them beforehand.

A written agenda is a must, but even with an agenda someone is bound to digress, and it is the hazardous job of the chairperson to get the meeting back on track without hurting feelings. A good chairperson is seen as someone who helps the committee get its work done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The topics in the agenda are usually organized with all announcements first (things already decided) and all proposals later (things to decide). (To be accurate, there is usually an "advisory," or something like that, section in between, but this one is even confusing to Japanese, so I am ignoring it.) Whatever the case, sometimes part of the topic will be announced in the first part, and then brought back up much later for argument and decision. (When permitted, I prefer to organize meetings by topics, with the announcements and proposals for that topic together.)

The agenda should just be a list of the topics and who will present them. Information on the topics are provided as additional pages. The last item on the agenda is always "Sonota" - "other topics." That gives everyone a chance to bring up other pressing issues not on the agenda. It also allows the leader to instruct someone who suddenly goes into another topic, to hold off until "Sonota."

Meetings are seen by most people as formal gatherings, not free discussion sessions (although I sometimes prefer the latter style myself). If someone has given up other work to come (especially Japanese staff or faculty), they don't want to sit around chatting. Sitting around and chatting is also important, but a discussion like that should not be called a "meeting." Therefore, most of what must be decided should be decided, or at least narrowed down, before the meeting, not at the meeting. Meetings are primarily reporting and approval-giving sessions. For important things that need the whole group to decide on, a list of alternatives should be prepared before the meeting and written up.

For example, it seems poor style to ask a question like "What should we name our new Website? Any ideas?" Ideally, ideas should be gathered before the meeting and then the attendees should be asked to choose among them or suggest others. A chairperson will still ask "Any ideas?" from time to time, but it makes that person seem a bit unprepared.

Another basic rule is that meetings should only be held once a month, except in exceptional circumstances (planning something new and important).

To bring something new up, a "proposal" should be prepared on a separate sheet of paper. The proposal should identify the problem and propose a well defined, data supported, solution. It should also contain, and this is important, a plan of implementation. The implementation should include what must be done, by when, and by whom (although a pre-defined list of duties to be assigned at the meeting can be presented instead). According to the late intercultural communication expert Dean Barnlund, English speakers tend to decide whether or not to do something first (like make a new program) and then work out the details later, whereas Japanese prefer to work out all the details first before deciding. That way, everyone knows what they are getting themselves into.

When an announcement is made (something already decided), everyone should be given a chance to ask questions about it. Opposing or suggesting changes to something presented in an "announcement" (hokoku) is probably the most common mistake non-Japanese make in meetings. They hear some announcement and then try to be helpful by saying, "Hey, why don't we do this instead?" not realizing that what they are commenting on was already decided somewhere else in another meeting, as someone else's job. Any opposition or addition to a hokoku announcement should be given as a gentle suggestion.

When a proposal (teian) is made, everyone should again be given a chance to ask questions about it, but they should also be invited to give their opinions on it too, including changes they think should be made. Sometimes the chairperson will even go around the table polling attendees. When the discussion ends, the chairperson usually summarizes the proposal again, noting changes, and says "Is this okay?" If no one speaks up, it is assumed that everyone agrees and the proposal is passed. Therefore, if you are against a proposal, but you did not say so in the discussion session, and sometimes even if you did, this is the time to register your position (but don't repeat all the grievances laid out earlier). If there is opposition, the leader might call for a vote.

The distinction between announcements and proposals is critically important to understand, and Japanese are sensitive to it. A lot of energy is spent on evaluating whether an item was properly proposed to the right group and properly decided on. Knowing what should be announced and what should be proposed, and to what group, is an important meeting skill.

Anyway, I hope these ideas on conducting meetings are useful. Remember the key points are:

  1. provide a written agenda
  2. decide as much as possible beforehand
  3. distinguish between announcements and proposals
  4. include an implementation plan with a proposal

* The "For Dummies" in the title is a reference to a popular series of books (eg. "MS Word for Dummies") that explain how to do difficult things to novices.

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