There are many excellent resources, online and at your public library, for conducting family meetings, and all can be adapted to fit your needs and circumstances.
- Institute meetings at regularly scheduled intervals that work for your family. We email ahead to confirm meeting-times during the holiday periods that we typically get together – which is once or twice a year, since we don’t live near one another. Encourage commitment by keeping them a high priority. Begin and end on time.
- Keep things focused with an agenda. This too can be emailed ahead of time, with input from family members. Minutes that are taken and journaling exercises can become a family journal to look back on. The roles of leader and secretary can be rotated until everyone feels at ease with how to conduct an effective family meeting – and depending on the Teaching-And-Learning to be done during that meeting.
- Use “I-Messages.” This is a way of airing issues constructively that does not make others feel attacked or defensive. Example: instead of saying, “You always interrupt me and dominate the conversation!” say, “I feel badly when I’m interrupted – it makes me feel like my ideas don’t matter.”
- Make sure that everyone feels heard. If someone hasn’t talked, ask: “What do you think?” If someone talks too much, stay respectful. You could say, “It sounds like this is important to you. We need to hear how everybody else feels about it.” If someone is not showing respect, use an I-Message: “When I hear name-calling, I get concerned that we won’t be able to cooperate.”
- Make decisions by consensus. “Consensus” means communicating, problem-solving and negotiating on major issues until no family member has any major objections to the decision – all can live with it. Decision-making by consensus incorporates the major needs and wants of all, in contrast with autocratic decision-making (which allows one person to decide), and democratic decision-making (allows the majority to decide).
- Summarize discussions/agreements to make sure you’ve actually achieved consensus. Help clarify the proceedings with statements like “What I’m hearing us say we can all agree to do, is …” or “Does anyone have any major objections to…?” Look for nonverbal as well as verbal signs that a family member is uncomfortable with something.
- If things get “too hot to handle,” anyone can call for a break. Take 15 minutes or whatever seems right, before reconvening.
- End with something fun that affirms good feelings. Enjoy a family tradition -eat dessert, play a board game that everybody enjoys, watch a DVD together.
- “Debrief” afterwards. If you can’t do it in writing the end of the meeting, do it soon after, via email. Be attentive to what worked, what didn’t.
- Stay flexible and do what works. As family members grow and change over time, so, too, do rules for family meetings. If your family just cannot seem to find a time when everybody can get together, consider alternatives. Perhaps you can touch base with them individually on how they are doing.
Adapted from R.J. Fetch and B. Jacobson’s fact sheet, “10 Tips for Successful Family Meetings” (4/07) http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/consumer/10249.html; and Don Dinkelmyer, Jr.’s “Step Into Parenting,” http://www.steppublsihers.com