Running Better Meetings: The Importance Of Communication Roles

Despite lists of good advice on how to run meetings, a great deal of time is still wasted. It estimated that time wasted in meetings is at least 25 percent and commonly 50% to 70%. Why? Because meeting communication roles aren’t play well (or at all).

By Murray Johannsen. Feel free to connect via LinkedIn or directly from this website.

Meetings — A Ritual Where Minutes Are Kept and Hours Are Lost

If you never worried about group communication, consider this. In larger organizations, you will be spending 70% of your time in a group ritual known as a meeting, that’s thousands of hours over the life of your career. And as you go toward the ranks of the executive, more and more time is spend in more and more meetings.

Think for a moment, how many hours have you spent in wasted meetings? You all know what I am talking about, the frustrating long, boring, staff meeting occurs every week. The problem solving meeting that somehow never solves the problem, the decision making meeting that ends. Your only recourse it to complain about it outside the room. 

To cite one simple example, you may to be talking about the budget but all of a sudden you observe the participants talking about pay, and how bad the pay is around this organization. You may reflect for a moment about the craziness of group dynamics that allows participants to be so undisciplined that they stray off topic and might be reminded of the old saying, “All sheep need a shepherd.”

Two Types of Communication Roles

In social psychology, one of the key elements of understanding how a group functions is to examine the roles played by each of its members. You might say a role is a set of behaviors associated with an individual, it is a pattern of behavior that is relatively consistent over time, and it changes depending on the situation.

Formal Roles

Formal roles have labels assigned to them. Formal family roles Include: Father, Mother, aunt, uncle, son, daughter and so on. Formal work roles include: worker, supervisor, manager, executive, investor, and of course, The Boss. if you stop to think about it, many university degrees are really preparation for formal work roles. It takes more study time learn how to be a doctor, a lawyer, much less time to be an electrician or a plumber. In meetings, the formal role includes leader, facilitator, scribe, etc.

So besides knowing how to play well your formal roles, its very important to learn how to develop the skills associated with the informal communication roles, especially the communication roles that help you run meetings.

Informal Communication Roles

These communication roles get played in a group setting. They typically last a very short time, anywhere from a second to a minute or so. Some of these roles are played spontaneously, almost randomly, like a stream of consciousness. With practice, one learns to play the right role at the right time. There are three categories of these communication roles: task, relationship and self-centered ones.

The Major Communication Roles in Meetings

The Leader Role

Every group has a leader. And most the time, that individual tends to dominate the conversation. This role is necessary but difficult to do well. Typically, strong leadership is required at the beginning of a problem-solving meeting to frame the issue and to motivate individuals to come up with solutions. It’s even more critical at the end of the meeting when people have to ” volunteer” to perform some type work of extra work. A leader often adapts a dominant style of communication that uses statements. The expectation communicated is that subordinates must obey.

The Facilitator Role 

The communication patterns exhibited by good facilitator are actually quite different from those seen in the leader. A facilitator is perceived to be neutral and strives to help the group reach a consensus. Because of this, facilitators tend to use statements less and rely more on questions more. A facilitator plays a leadership role in the group, but it is a very subtle one.

Recorder or Scribe

This is a vital role typically not played in meetings across the world. If you stop to think about it, most people have very bad memories. Let’s go back to meeting that you had on Wednesday or better still pick a staff meeting two weeks ago. How much that meeting do you actually remember? Most people would say practically nothing. Thus, the importance of the recorder. It’s actually a powerful position since the recorder shapes results that come out of any problem-solving meeting. Typically, a good recorder needs to capture and communicate key decisions and actions.


This is the last major communication role in meetings. Unfortunately, may participants end up playing self-oriented communication roles; and these roles typically lead to dysfunctional results.

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The Informal (Facilitator) Communication Roles

Facilitator communication roles (sometimes known as informal communication roles) are where you need to focus if one wants to run meetings really well. A great leader or facilitator needs to develop skill in playing task and relationship (maintenance) roles to deal with the self-oriented roles.

Task Roles

Task roles facilitate the process of getting the job done. They help to come up with a solution for a problem, identify who’s responsible, ensure that there is a plan. Collectively, these roles are necessary to execute on the task dimension of situational leadership models. There are ten of these task roles.  But if you want to be a great leader of facilitator, you must also understand the relationship roles as well.

Relationship Roles

 Sometimes problems occur in relationships. One example is conflict. Typically people categorize conflict as either constructive or destructive. No conflict in a group can be just as bad as too much conflict. Getting good at the relationship roles is important in seeing real teamwork. But these roles are tough to play — they require a great deal of skill. There are eight of these communication roles. Relationship roles act as a counter to the dysfunctional self-oriented communication roles you see when suffering through a bad meeting.

Self-Oriented Roles 

A great facilitator has to deal with self-oriented roles. You might call this good people behaving badly or selfish people behaving normally. There are 13 of these. 

Some of these are extremely difficult to handle since they are traits of personality, others just bad behavior. When these roles are overplayed, groups lock up and you walk out frustrated. By understanding the self-oriented roles, you can diagnose what’s going wrong. And by playing relationship and task roles, you can get the group going forward instead of seeing them stuck.

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