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Leading Your First Meeting: Tips for a Nervous Leader

Kathy Coatney
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 28 No. 6, November-December 1992, pp. 83-85

Tips for Leading That First Meeting

Marianne de Sousa, a Leader from Ontario, Canada, has these tips for leading your first meeting:

*Wear bright and cheery clothing (something that makes you feel confident).
*Arrive early for set-up and to find your Leader's chair.
*Tell yourself that the mothers are there for LLL information and to enjoy themselves.
*Smile, smile, smile.
*Be proud you represent LLL.
*Use positive phrases.
*Use eye contact and give mothers your undivided attention.
*Thank them for coming and sharing their experiences.

You've just been accredited as a Leader and now your first meeting looms ahead of you. Butterflies are fluttering in your stomach, and you're certain no other new Leader has ever felt this nervous. Janet Jendron, South Carolina Leader and member of LLLI's Board of Directors, writes, "I don't remember the topic of my first meeting, but I remember preparing for hours and being very nervous, even though I had taught school and done office training sessions. This was different. My heart and soul were involved!"

Preparation during Application

You may think you aren't ready to lead a meeting, but believe it or not you have been preparing to lead since the first Group meeting you attended. Even though you may not have been aware of it, every meeting you have attended has taught you something about leading. Like your gradually increasing involvement in the Group, it has been happening a little at a time all along.

While you were a Leader Applicant you took the time to learn more about breastfeeding, and to observe how the Leaders in your Group run the meetings. Meeting logistics vary from Group to Group. Some Groups have one Leader, while other Groups have several Leaders who share leading responsibilities. When there is more than one Leader, there are several ways to co-lead. One Leader may lead the entire discussion while co-Leaders help by discouraging side conversations, bringing the meeting back on track, reminding the Leader of a point missed, contributing to the discussion and watching for mothers trying to make a point

Another approach is to divide the meeting into parts, with each Leader leading one part. This approach gives Leaders a chance to sit back and enjoy part of every meeting without the pressure of leading the entire discussion, and it gives the mothers a chance to get to know more than one Leader. Co-leading makes leading easier, especially if you have a toddler in tow. It allows other Leaders to take over the meeting so that you can meet the needs of your little one.

If your Group is part of an active Chapter you can practice your first meeting by co-leading Chapter meetings with the Chapter Leader. This is a great way to begin. Your audience already loves you and understands that you're nervous. Other Leaders can help you along and make you feel more comfortable.

You can also work with Leaders on enrichment topics for your Chapter or Evaluation meetings. Coordinating enrichment gives you experience in planning a meeting. You can talk with other Leaders in the Chapter or mothers in the Group to find out their needs (developing your listening skills) and offer a series of topics for the next several meetings. If you haven't been asked to help with enrichment, volunteer. Your Leaders probably haven't thought of it and will appreciate the offer.

Role-playing with a Leader or at a Chapter meeting is another great way to practice your first meeting. Think of difficult questions that may come up at meetings and ask Leaders for the most bizarre questions they've ever been asked. Then have Leaders ask you these questions and practice answering them. Another idea is to have a mock meeting with the Leaders taking roles as new and repeat mothers. This gives you the chance to prepare and lead a meeting as well as being a great confidence builder!

Another resource is Human Relations Enrichment (HRE) sessions, where communication skills are presented and Leaders and Leader Applicants practice them. These skills--which are useful when leading meetings as well as during phone helping--are available at many Area Conferences and through local HRE instructors.

Visiting a neighboring Group gives you an opportunity to see how different Leaders work together and use different styles of leading. If you are particularly nervous about leading in your Group you may want to consider this idea. New Zealand Leader Jenni Gibbens says, "Although confident of my ability, I felt scared at the prospect of doing my first meeting in front of all the familiar faces of our LLL Group--I was concerned that the members might be critical, and of course, they would be very aware that it was my first meeting." Jenni's solution was to lead her first meeting with a nearby Group where no one knew her or her inexperience. This built her confidence and she decided to lead the entire next series for her Group.

Observation can be one of your best learning tools. Watch how Leaders respond to questions, initiate discussions, and handle conflicts during the meeting. Also watch to see how the mothers respond. Learn to read their body language. Do they feel comfortable and freely express their ideas, or do they seem reserved and hesitant about what is being presented? How do the Leaders help mothers feel comfortable? Just as our children learn by our example, you can learn by watching your Group Leaders.

Preparing for Your First Meeting

The big day is coming closer. You need to know the nuts and bolts of putting a meeting together. Two excellent resources are at your fingertips-Chapter 3 of THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK, "Planning and Leading Series Meetings," and your co-Leaders. If you are co-leading, set aside time to get together with the other Leader(s) before the meeting. If you are going solo, ask another Leader if she will help you plan the meeting.

First decide on the format you will be using. Some options are listed on pp. 37-40 of THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK. Also, see "Comparing Series Meeting Formats" in the May-June 1990 LEAVEN.

Next decide on a focus for your meeting. To determine a focus, think about who will be attending and plan the meeting according to their needs. The needs of new mothers should always be the primary consideration.

Next it's time to think about your introductory remarks. Start by introducing yourself and your co-Leaders, which leads nicely to telling about LLL and its history. From there give a brief history of your Group, and then introduce the Group workers (either you or the Treasurer can explain dues), then provide the location of the toilet and play areas. It is also a good idea to caution against side conversations and to give a qualifying statement such as:

"La Leche League is interested in encouraging you in your own mothering experience. Some of the ideas you hear or the things that you see may be surprising. We ask that you take what seems right for you and leave the rest."

For more information on qualifying statements see p. 47 of THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK. Now it's time to start the introductions. Start by introducing yourself and your children, then have each mother do the same. Lori Campbell, an Ohio Leader, found that doing the introductions can be a great way to slowly break into leading. Lori chose to limit herself to introductions at her first meeting and feels that it helped build her confidence and eased her "gradually with love" into leading.

Now it's time to begin the meeting. Start by announcing the meeting topic, and then move on to the focus of the meeting.

Ana McDonald, a Leader from Texas, shares her story. The day she sent off her Letter of Commitment, Ana started planning her first meeting. Before the meeting she called some of her friends and asked them to come. While chatting with her friends on the phone she learned their concerns and formulated discussion questions to address them. These turned out to be the most enthusiastically discussed issues. Ana says she went to her first meeting with prepared discussion questions for pregnant mothers, new mothers, experienced mothers, and a couple of questions appropriate for everyone. She typed up the points she wanted to cover in the introduction, the body of the meeting, closing announcements, and concluding statement--then she highlighted the most important points. She also brought THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTEEEDING and other reference books for tricky questions. Ana says, "Remember you are going to the same meeting you've been going to for years, and you are among the same friends you've been with for years. Your role is slightly different, but everything else is the same. You are still sharing with friends, only in a new way."

Meeting Challenges

Large, noisy meetings can be difficult for the seasoned Leader, but may be terrifying at a first meeting. If you have a co-Leader, consider splitting into two Groups. Then rejoin and report to the large Group.

If the Group is unexpectedly large try enlisting the help of your regularly attending mothers. Seating can be arranged so that mothers with babies are on the floor and mothers with toddlers are behind them so they can easily check on their children. Group workers can make sure that newcomers find the library and talk to them to make them feel comfortable.

Large meetings usually mean lots of toddlers, so eliminate noisy toys. Keep the meeting short--about an hour--or take a break in the middle for snacks and drinks. Some Groups arrange to have a mother or teenage helper provide the toddlers with focused attention in a separate room. Remember to praise the mothers for the great job they are doing with their children.

Small meetings tend to be cozier. Indiana Leader Christine Bauman believes that flexibility is the key to making small meetings work. Her first meeting consisted of Leaders only, and since she was hosting the meeting, they turned it into a Leaders' meeting. Sitting at the kitchen table gives a small meeting a homey feel. Another option is to hold it in the playroom so that mothers can supervise their toddlers while listening to the meeting. It's a good idea to have lots of prepared questions, refer to the library, and keep the meeting less structured than larger meetings would be.

Side conversations can be annoying and make it difficult to concentrate on the meeting. It may help if at the beginning of the meeting, the Leader explains to the group that while they are there to share breastfeeding ideas, it's easier for everyone to share and hear if each mother takes her turn one at a time. However, sometimes a general statement isn't enough; you may need to use another technique. Oklahoma Leader Deanne Betram used this technique with a mother who had been carrying on an extensive side conversation during her first meeting. "After the meeting I talked with the mother. I told her I overheard some of the conversation she was having with the mother next to her. I told her that some of the things she said were wonderful! It is so helpful sharing experiences with all the mothers during the meeting." Deanne says the mother smiled a great big smile. She had no more problems with side conversations, and this mother went on to become a Leader.

Every Leader gets her share of difficult questions, but most of us hope they don't come up at our first meeting. Mothers may express strong feelings, doubts, and disagreements about League philosophy. How we phrase our responses can make a difference. "Many mothers have found...," "Some babies...," "THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING suggests..." are ways of sharing information and League philosophy without making a mother feel judged. Our job is to provide an environment that allows mothers to consider League information and philosophy with an open mind.

Questions--whether difficult or simple--can sometimes make a Leader's mind go blank. This has happened to us all. Leader Sue Atkinson from Quebec, Canada, says, "Don't worry about 'freezing.' Be as prepared as possible--have something you can fall back on that takes the attention and pressure off you. For example, co-Leaders can fill in and get things going if you really get nervous." If you're leading alone, you can just say that your mind has gone blank and you will look up the information after the meeting. This tells the mother that you aren't avoiding her question and will find the answer for her. Don't be afraid to say "I don't know." If your mind blanks out during the discussion, just move on to the next topic and come back later when you remember what point you were trying to make.

If a discussion question is met with silence, this isn't always a negative sign. Silence allows mothers time to think about the question or to digest the information they have just heard. Before delivering the question, prepare the mothers by telling them to take a moment to think of an answer. Prepare for silence during the discussion by having several questions ready to get the momentum of the meeting going again. Write in your notes the names of Group mothers who are willing to share stories related to the meeting points (ask their permission before the meeting), and call on them when needed to fill silent pauses. If silence continues, ask the mothers what it means. They may be confused by the question, afraid to answer for fear of feeling foolish, or they may need more background information in order to respond. You may even want to say "It's risky to be the first to respond" to help mothers relax and get the meeting moving.

A shaky start can increase your nervousness. To take the pressure off, Ana McDonald advises first time Leaders not to set themselves up as experts. A Leader's role is to enable the Group mothers to learn from one another. Even if everything coming out of your mouth is stammered or stuttered, don't worry. Take a deep breath and begin again. Start a new topic. Lean on your co-Leader or Group mothers. Let them carry the meeting while you catch your breath. Look around the circle and remember that they are your friends. When one topic is covered, it's time to touch on a new one. Off you go again, and this time the words flow. Like learning to ride a bike, practice is necessary but sooner or later the new skill is learned.

What if you find out at the last minute that your co-Leader won't be able to make the meeting? Leader Cynthia Hamilton from Ontario, Canada, led her first meeting solo with her toddler in tow. She had to leave the circle several times to check on her child, and when she returned she told the Group, "These are the things I hope you've covered...." She found this way she could keep up with what was going on while she was gone without stopping the momentum and still keep the meeting on track. Your core Group of workers can be especially helpful in these cases. Enlist their help in keeping track of your toddler. One Leader remembers leading the entire meeting while walking back and forth holding her toddler's hand. Most of all keep your sense of humor. New York Leader Shelly Leal points out that the best prepared meetings can go wrong even for seasoned Leaders.

Every Leader wishes she could change certain things about her meetings. Keep in mind there is always a next time to do it differently. Don't dwell on the negative. This is the time to congratulate yourself. You did it--you've led your first meeting! Even if everything went wrong, look for the humor in it. One Illinois Leader remembers this story:

My co-Leaders and I always prepare for Series Meetings by getting together a week before the meeting to plan the discussion. But as we found, it's not always possible to plan for everything.

One meeting night there was a big thunderstorm headed for our area, but by meeting time it had not yet arrived, so we decided to hold the meeting as planned. I opened the meeting and led the first part of the discussion on getting breastfeeding off to a good start. The babies and toddlers were active and loud, but the discussion flowed smoothly.

My co-Leader, Julie, began the second part of the meeting. She delivered the discussion question and the mothers had just begun to answer when a huge lightning bolt hit nearby, the power went out and our meeting room went dark. Even though our building had an emergency generator, the lights only had enough power to light the exits so we couldn't see each other or the children.

I began to panic, but Julie was unruffled. She calmly suggested that the mothers stay in their seats and take their children into their laps. Almost immediately the babies and toddlers calmed down and the room grew silent. Julie then suggested that we continue the meeting, so she asked her question again and the mothers began responding.

Aside from the darkness, the meeting proceeded as usual. When the discussion ended, the power was still off, even though the storm had abated. As Julie closed the meeting, she asked if any of the mothers had flashlights in their cars. Several did and brought them in. The flashlights didn't provide a lot of light, but we used them at the refreshment table, to find and check out library books, to look through our information sheets, and to walk mothers to their cars.

We still laugh about that meeting and marvel, because even in the dark, more library books were borrowed than usual. And at Chapter Meetings, when Leaders ask for ideas on keeping down the noise level at meetings, we share our unusual approach.

Take a Bow

It's a good idea to have a definite ending to the meeting. You want the mothers to leave with a good feeling. Summarize key points of the discussion, make any necessary reminders, thank the mothers for coming, direct them to the Librarian and Treasurer (add a quick reminder about dues), and invite them to stay for socializing and refreshments. Look for all the positive things that happened in your meeting. Write them down. Remember the mother who shared how much she enjoyed the meeting and how appreciative she was.

Every Leader develops her own meeting style. It takes time and practice, but remember just as a baby falls in love with his mother, your mothers will learn to love you and your style of leading. You're knowledgeable, prepared, caring, and now it's curtain time--time to begin your first meeting. Picture yourself sitting with your friends sharing your love of breastfeeding. You're ready--go for it!

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