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Meeting Focus: a Description

Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue

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Part E of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991).


In a discussion an individual may be rebuked for not "keeping to the point". In a meeting this may refer to relevance to a point on the agenda. It is the agenda which is used to focus the meeting process, although when there is a programme, focus may only be achieved through the agendas of individual sessions or possibly through a concluding plenary session. What is focus in a meeting and what is its significance, especially in relation to the aim or objective of the meeting?

1. Imposed focus

A meeting may be convened to focus on a particular concern decided in advance. In such a case those present, and the points raised, will be clearly related to that concern, although perhaps not in the view of all present. Focus is thus a question of establishing and maintaining the relationship of a variety of subsidiary concerns to one central concern, even though the proponents of particular subsidiary concerns may not recognize each others relevance to that central concern.

2. Emergent focus

A meeting may be convened in the hope that a point of common focus will emerge as a basis for interlinking a variety of partially (or un-) related concerns. The problem is then to facilitate its identification and emergence.

3. Multiple focus

Whether imposed or emergent, it may be a question of a multiple focus, rather than a single one. There may be no intention, desire or ability to relate the multiple points of focus to one another or to a single underlying concern. This may be reflected in a variety of unrelated points in an agenda or meeting programme.

4. Degree of focus

Whether a matter of ability or intention, the meeting may resist any classification or sharpening of focus in preference to a diffuse focus or none at all. An unfocused meeting may be viewed as more creative or effective under certain conditions, or perhaps all that is feasible. Note that focus may be achieved without any verbal acknowledgement of its nature.

5. Aims, objectives and goals

Although it is possible to make useful distinctions between these, it is their difference from focus which should be noted. Each of them is in one way or another an intention or desire as opposed to the definite achievement characteristic of focus. But focus is also a precondition for them, in that it interrelates the relevant elements necessary for their achievement, whether any subsequent action is taken or not. In this way a meeting can focus on its objective, for example, or may fail to do so because its ability to focus is inadequate.

6. Focus and transformation

To achieve whatever transformation it intends, a meeting must bring the resources it has assembled to bear, bringing them appropriately into focus. This establishes the critical quantity or variety of factors necessary to the transformation. Focus ensures that the configuration of factors assembled will direct the energy of the meeting participants appropriately, rather than allowing it to dissipate ineffectually. Individual actions are then mutually reinforcing rather than nullifying. Depending on the nature of the meeting, focus may also be required to disseminate or contain the energy released by the transformative process.

7. Strategy and process

Focus may be brought about, from the prior unfocused condition, by an appropriate strategy for a process - a focusing procedure. Such strategy may even be considered the time dimension of focus.

8. Structure and focus

One method of ensuring focus is through the conventional hierarchical structure of executive and other programme committees and officers, culminating in the meeting president. The weakness of this approach results from the limitations of the simple hierarchy as a means of appropriately channelling and interrelating the information flows associated with interrelated topics. This is especially true when the hierarchy also has to perform protocol and other non-substantive functions which prevent either the executive director or the president from ensuring a substantive synthesis, even if they were able.

9. Focus and configuration

Where hierarchical ordering of the meeting programme or lines of responsibility no longer suffices to contain the complexity of the subject matter, a programme matrix may be used. When this is inadequate more complex configurations are required (eg critical path and network diagrams). There is however a major constraint in that focus is no longer possible if the complexity exceeds the ability of participants to comprehend. And in order to maintain comprehensibility the configuration of issues must contain elements of symmetry and pattern to reinforce memorability and communicability. Whilst it is not necessary for all participants to comprehend the whole configuration, there must be sufficient overlap both to maintain connectedness and to prevent loss of confidence in the chain of overlaps linking the most distant parts of the configuration.

10. Focus and the individual

The adequacy of the configuration depends on the quality of the participants and the extent to which its features engage their attention and energy. The greater the variety reflected in the configuration, the greater the potential, but also the greater the risk that participants will only be engaged partially or superficially and that the focus will be trivial. Powerful focus is achieved when the meeting configuration matches to a significant degree the psychic configuration of the participants. Participants respond to finding their own condition reflected in the meeting configuration, and the meeting reflected within themselves - it is this resonance which energizes the meeting. Any action through the meeting is then directly consistent with the individual's own development and calls upon all the participant is able to contribute because of the manner in which that contribution results in personal growth through the meeting. The meeting configuration thus reinforces connections which enable focus and transformation at a new level of significance, both collective and individual.

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