It is, perhaps, a sign that we have too much time to review social media that the rantings of a couple of disgruntled middle aged men at a parish council meeting in Handforth, Cheshire made the national news on Friday. Nonetheless it was very heartening to see Jackie Weaver (of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils) keep both her temper and her dignity intact as she dealt with the ill tempered participants, even managing to maintain a sense of humour enough to ask that, henceforth, she be known as Britney Spears (after the Chair insisted he be referred to as the Clerk, without being appointed to that role).
Having spent time in meetings at every level of local authority, along with numerous charity and other board meetings of all kinds, I'm sorry to say the kind of behaviour seen in Handforth is not that unusual. Many meetings proceed perfectly smoothly, but equally a good number do not, and even where there is no obvious disharmony, there can be covert bullying, belittling or aggressive behaviours. Many of these are perpetrated by men against women. Early in my career, my family referred to one such participant as "Mr Shouty Man", due to my reports of his raising his voice and banging his fist on the table if decisions did not accord with his wishes.
Good governance means that people in meetings should not have to deal with this kind of behaviour; but that requires courage and the will to tackle it (both demonstrated by Jackie Weaver). Working with a community based group recently, I was told of the problem with the behaviour of a minority of group members (all men, in a mixed group); talking over people, interrupting, and generally being aggressive. I pointed out to them that dealing with such issues is not just the responsibility of whoever is chairing, but of everyone participating.
If we want a kinder, more patient, more inclusive culture in our meetings or our decision making, then that responsibility sits with everyone involved. If a group makes it clear, collectively, that aggression, putting people down or shouting are not tolerated, and this is enforced, then eventually it will stop. Those involved can be asked to leave or will do so of their own accord. Alternatively, if it is not challenged, or worse, those involved are allowed to get their way, then it will continue. Every group and every meeting has a choice about this; the culture of the meetings we are part of - whether that is a corporate board meeting in the City or a parish council meeting via Zoom - is simply the sum total of the decisions that each person present makes, about how they are going to conduct themselves. As Jackie Weaver demonstrated, a better way is possible.
A recording of a parish council meeting which descended into chaos with some members kicked out of the virtual room has been watched by millions online. The Handforth Parish Council meeting on 10 December spiralled out of control with some people being abusive and muttering under their breath while others tried to speak, hysterical laughter, participants answering phone calls and members being reprimanded.