Making Meetings Better

iurI’m not a great meetings person. I just generally find them tedious. I lose concentration easily, I get distracted, I end up thinking about a whole lot of things that maybe I shouldn’t be thinking about or eat far too many biscuits and then feel bloated and guilty at the same time! Meetings and me don’t really mix….but I have to go to a lot of them, in fact, I now have to chair many of them and so I’ve been on a bit of a journey about how meetings can be made better.


My main beef with them, it turns out as I’ve reflected on why I dislike them quite so much,iu-6 is not that they don’t achieve anything. Nor is it that I’m involved in conversations I don’t care about – actually I don’t go to any meetings in which I don’t deeply care about the things being discussed. So what is my problem? My problem is that meetings, and I don’t think this is unique to the NHS (but this is where most of my meetings take place), are so often devoid of any real human connection. They lack care for those attending the meetings. It’s so easy to get so focussed on the stuff, the business, the discussions, the problems, that we forget that there are other human beings in the room, each of whom arrive in the room (or virtual space) with many different emotions, stories, dreams and realities that may be really important, but we don’t know because we don’t give space to those things.


So, as I believe culture change has to start with me and the teams I work with, I am trying, somewhat awkwardly at times, to have different kinds of meetings! When I chair, I refuse to let us get on with ‘business’, until we have taken time to connect with each other. Using iura simple technique from the ‘art of hosting’ I give space for a ‘check-in’. A check in is really simple, it’s just what it says on the tin. There are usually 2 questions and they can vary from meeting to meeting. Often, I just ask: How are you? And what do you love about your job? It is so important to know how each other is doing, so we can create teams that care for each other. People don’t have to be honest, but when they choose to be vulnerable, it opens up a space that is incredible and invites the entire team to go a bit deeper. And giving space for people to focus on the positive aspects of their work automatically changes the dynamic of any meeting from the start. Another of my favourite questions is: What do you love about working with the person on your left? (And if there’s time another round of ‘And what else do you love about working with the person on your left?). It is so healthy for a team to learn to appreciate one another but more than that, to actually tell each other that they are valued. You can get to know one another over a period of just a few weeks so much more and you end up actually caring about one another’s lives and wellbeing.


Secondly, I learnt a trick from a great friend of mine, who recently finished an MSc at theShoulderStretch University of East London. In the department of positive psychology there, a bell goes every 25 minutes of a lecture and everybody stands up and has a stretch. Research clearly shows, we don’t concentrate for any more than 25 minutes. And so now, in my meetings, every 25 minutes, my alarm goes off and we all stand up and stretch and get the blood flowing round our bodies. We’ve become so conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, that if anyone’s phone goes we all start to stand and stretch! Plus, it is great for low back pain!


The other thing, I have introduced is 2 minutes of meditation/mindfulness at the start or CeOnPGFWEAA48hjin the middle of a meeting. Using a very simple technique, I encourage everyone to find a comfortable sitting position. We then breathe in through our noses for the count of 4, deliberately breathing a sense of hope, peace, love and gratitude. We then hold this and hold our breath for the count of 8 (people count at their own pace) and then breathe out to through our mouths for the count of 8. When we breathe out, we deliberately breathe out stress, bitterness, anger, distraction, or anything that stops us being able to connect. And then we continue. The first few times I tried this, we had some giggling (mainly from me), photos being posted on twitter (!) and general weird feelings…..but we have pushed through and it’s amazing how good it feels to just stop and be and let the busyness just wash over us for a couple of minutes.


I can hardly say the above is a revolution, but I can say that I genuinely enjoy the meetings now. I know my teams better, I am more connected to those I work with and I am more able to focus. Connecting, stretching and some time to be still……it’s exactly the medicine that NHS teams need right now, and probably a whole bunch of other organisations also!

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The Transformative Power of Listening

One of the hats I wear is to be the Clinical Lead Commissioner for Maternity Services in North Lancashire and I chair the Maternity Commissioning Group for Morecambe Bay. iu-1Over the last few years, Morecambe Bay has been under huge public and governmental scrutiny due to some sad and significant failings at UHMBFT, our acute NHS Trust. This lead to the in-depth and wide-ranging “Kirkup Review” through which we have learned together some sobering and important lessons.


In 2013, we carried out what is called a ‘Picker Survey’ in the Bay and had a startling reality check. 44% of the women we aimed to care for told us that they did not feel treated with kindness or respect. It was a devastating figure for us to hear. So, learning from the ‘Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge’, we learned that we needed to allow ourselves to really listen to what women were saying to us, to hear their stories and let the impact of those stories begin to change us. One of the great advocates for women, compassionate care, kind listening and careful communication in this area is Mel Gard, a Doula, who facilitates our ‘Maternity Services Liaison Committee’ (MSLC) around the Bay. The MSLC is a group of women and men who use our services, which Julia Westaway must be credited for facilitating so well. Over the last three years in particular, they have taken the time to build relationships with those of us whoiu-4 commission and provide services and in effect ‘speak truth to power’. Mel and many others have brought to us stories of times when listening and communication skills have been excellent within our maternity service and times when they have been clumsy at best and detrimental or abusive at worst. This has begun a culture change and a survey carried out in 2015 has seen this startling figure reduce to 26% (we know this is still far too high, but it is a vast improvement).


It is only in encountering the ‘other’ that we are really changed. Alan Alda says this, “Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.” There is no point in hearing the stories and impact of poor communication on our patients if it does not fundamentally change us and our practice. In the NHS, we’re so used to being the experts that we sometimes think we have the right to tell people what they should do, rather than really listening to them and understanding what is important to them, the person who is the expert in their own life and situation. It is partnership and not dictatorship that we need. It is a willingness to learn together rather than an arrogance that knows how to ‘fix’ things that we must develop. So, together with the MSLC we have devised an entire learning exercise for all those who work within our maternity service. We are going to allow ourselves to encounter the ‘other’, on their terms, not ours, and let the impact of their stories transform us. So, in the next couple of weeks, women from around the Bay are going to film and tell their stories in a variety of ways and this film will then be used as a learning tool for every person who works in our service around the Bay, including cleaners, the nursing auxiliary team, midwives, obstetricians of all grades etc in some wide-ranging attitudinal and communication training. Amazingly, we have just won a national grant of £65000 to help us do this really well, thanks to the exceptional work of Lindsay Lewis, our lead manager and Sascha Wells, our Head of Midwifery.


NAWIFUThe idea is straight forward. By hearing the real life stories from around the Bay and allowing ourselves to be impacted by them, we will then use some reflective conversations, and techniques from the ‘Art of Hosting’, to allow the power of real listening to change us and transform our practices. I am so grateful for the women and men who have been brave enough to tell their stories. I am grateful to our senior team that we have bimgreseen willing to be humble and be impacted by these stories. I am grateful for relationships and partnerships that are being established between those of us who provide services and those who use them. I am grateful for the tenacity of people who want to see our cultures change. I am grateful for ‘The Leeds Poverty Truth Challenge’ and its far reaching consequences. I am grateful for the opportunity to break down barriers and find positive ways forward. I am grateful for the transformative power of listening and the change that can happen when we really encounter another human being. Better Care Together is so much better when we work together with those we are trying to serve.


Stanley Hauerwas said this: “I was smart, but I had not yet learned to listen.” The NHS is full of really smart people. When we learn to listen, our ‘smartness’ will become real wisdom, and with wisdom, we can bring real, lasting change.




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