Scouting Magazine - May 1975
SO YOU ARE ON A COMMITTEE!
by Keith Monroe
Boy Scout officials often meet men who say proudly, "Oh, yes, I'm in Scouting. On the district committee, I think. I don't know just why they have it, but you fellows seem to think it's necessary."
A committeeman who doesn't know why he's needed? This may sound
ridiculous to you, but a newcomer often finds more fog than he
Like a parachutist dropped in a strange desert, your first job on a
committee is to get your bearings.
That includes determining the committee's objectives. If objectives
are vague, insist they be made clear.
You may find your committee's broad objective spelled out in the
bylaws and still not know what specific targets are now on the
horizon. Almost every lodge and service club has a boys' work
committee, for example, with duties delineated in literature from its
national office; but the literature can't tell precisely what your
committee's projects are for this year.
So ask questions. Press for clear answers. Is your group supposed to
be judging, investigating, advising, planning, or creating? Your
questions may stir up thought, which is unsettling but healthy.
Each member should take that slice of the work which interests him
most, or which he can do best. But he isn't always told, unless he
asks, what the committee thinks he can do. Whatever it is in your case
-- potent connections, a sharp pencil at figuring costs, a shrewd eye
for legal pitfalls -- the sooner you know, the better.
If you're a newcomer, the old-timers will be sizing you up. Don't seem
too shy or too brash. If the whole committee is new, the problem is
multiplied. Of course, the chairman's job includes melting these
invisible barriers, but he needs help.
Eugene Peckham in Dynahelps for Democratic Leaders stresses the need
for quickly fusing "just a gathering of people" into a team and
advises new committeemen to get this process started. His first
suggestion is "Come early." Locate the meeting place. Familiarize
yourself with its facilities.
Before the meeting is called to order, chat with every member, if you
can. This gives you a chance to mention who you are and why you're
interested and to evoke similar information from the others. If you do
this casually, with a smile, you'll no longer be a stranger by the
time the meeting starts.
"Silence is the virtue of fools," wrote Francis Bacon. It certainly
isn't golden in a committee meeting. A silent committeeman may learn a
lot, but he contributes nothing -- and may dampen the spirit of
In asking questions, don't worry about sounding naive. The others know
you're new. They'll welcome your questions as a sign of interest, and
your fresh approach may light up something they overlooked.
Before long you can start expressing opinions. Not lengthily, of
course, nor bluntly, but helpfully. Unless someone else has adequately
stated the same opinion, say what you think about every issue that
comes up. Perhaps you can do it as Ben Franklin did:
"When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied
myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly... I began by
observing that in certain circumstances his opinion would be right,
but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some
Paul L. Johnson, seasoned committeeman in a dozen civic enterprises and full-time executive of Pacific Telephone Company, jots down every opinion and suggestion voiced at every meeting. After a while he synthesizes and points up what others have said, the areas of agreement and disagreement, and his own judgment in the light of his experience.
Chairmen often have trouble, and you can help. If you see that Jones
is too shy to speak, you can say, "I'd like to hear what Mr. Jones
thinks about this." If the conversation strays off the subject, you
can herd it back. If someone has a good point but isn't getting
through to the others, you can tactfully rephrase it so they grasp it.
If another member doesn't understand the committee's aims, tip off the
chairman so he can enlighten him or ask you to do so.
Another, more subtle help you can give is simply to show enthusiasm.
Let everyone see that you're interested and loyal.
There are many ways to be obnoxious in committee work. They include
heckling, second-guessing, monologuing, dogmatizing, pontificating,
belittling, and quarrelling. No committeeman tries to be obnoxious but
many are, without trying. To avoid it keep a hard eye on yourself, a
tight rein on your ego, and an open mind.
Another group of errors -- genial ones -- might be labelled
distractions. Telling a long, involved story; starting a debate on a
side issue; joking with a neighbour while a colleague is speaking.
Watch yourself, and don't take offense if someone says, "We aren't
getting very far with the meeting's business." Meetings are faster and
more fruitful when everyone sticks to the subject and saves funny
stories for the coffee klatch.
A third type of mistake is over-helpfulness. Many chairmen are
inexperienced, uneasy, and self-conscious. A helpful remark that
implies criticism may throw them into a tizzy. If you think your
chairman needs advice, speak to him in private and with tact.
If you offer advice in open meeting, he may be upset not only at the
implied rebuke but at interference with his program. He can give your
ideas more judicious thought if he hears them in a quiet corner. And
if he turns down your proffered help, you won't have been publicly
Another error is inviting somebody to join the committee-- or, more
commonly, asking the committee to invite him--without first consulting
the chairman alone. He knows what kind of people he wants. There may
be reasons, which he can't state openly, for not wanting your
How about committee members who talk too much? And how should you
behave if you're in the minority? These are two of the questions to be
discussed in our next issue.
Some committeemen talk too much--without knowing it. How to recognize
and curb this in yourself: How to behave when you're in a minority.
One other mistake, however, is ubiquitous and persistent: talking too
It's hard for a talker to know how much is too much. Enthusiasm and
good ideas are welcome to any committee. Good or not, ideas are
welcome to any chairman who understands the democratic process. But
many a man becomes as gabby as a circus barker without ever realizing
it. Logorrhea, like halitosis, is a fault that friends are loathe to
mention. How can one detect it in oneself?
If you notice people fidgeting or staring into space when you talk,
you talk too much. If a chairman politely cuts in--"We appreciate the
contributions you've made, but I suggest you hold your other points
until later," or if you are several times asked to speak briefly, it
may dawn on you. A major offender will sooner or later be chided by
the chairman or someone else, or quietly dropped. But even when you're
aware of your bad habits it's hard to correct.
Eugene Peckham in his Dynahelps for Democratic Leaders offers
prescriptions to people who realize they talk too much and want to cut
down. One is to put their thoughts in writing before they speak. This
makes them clarify and condense and gives other people more time to be
Ask a question--lower voice
Another is to ask a question rather than launch into a statement. The
question can be framed to draw the statement out of someone else,
usually in shorter form.
A third is simply to lower the voice. "The chances are you have a
strident voice," Peckham says, "or you wouldn't so successfully
overwhelm others who want to talk. Turn down your volume."
The garrulous are chronic interrupters. "Practise yielding," Peckham
says. "When someone tries to interrupt you, let him. When a silence
falls, wait for someone else to break it."
If you can do that, you've kicked the habit.
If you're in the minority
Harmony is sweet. It's almost indispensable to teamwork. But harmony
is a matter of atmosphere-friendliness rather than hostility. It
doesn't mean that members always agree.
In fact, a good working rule is that majorities are usually wrong--at
first. New ideas stick in the craw. Old ideas seem sacred. Emotions
and personalities trample logic. Vital facts are often invisible (no
committee ever has all the facts).
Therefore, it's a duty of a good committee member to question
everything silently and to speak when answers continue to elude him.
Why is this being done? Why this way? Are there better ways? Are
pertinent facts ignored?
Most of us shrink a little from asking such questions. We know our
colleagues prefer to feel that everyone agrees with them. As Ordway
Tead points out, even in the midst of disagreeing, most of us abhor
disagreement. For the sake of peace and the approval of others, we
tend to keep quiet. But in our stronger moments we remember Abraham
Lincoln's stern reminder, "To sin by silence when they should protest
makes cowards out of men."
Your protests can be couched as mild questions, thus ruffling fewer
feathers. A question can be a welcome stimulant to a fair-minded
committee. Figuring out the answer may lead people to change their
view. On the other hand, their answer may explain their view so you
yourself agree with it.
Cracking tough nuts
But sometimes your quizzing will leave you still in disagreement. What
First, of course, you need to re-examine your own thinking. How does
it look from the other side. Are you sure of your facts? Is your
opposition based on a pet theory or a pet peeve. Our own rationalizing
has a way of sounding very rational to ourselves. Try to think it out
and perhaps talk it out with some frank friend, before you plant
yourself firmly in a minority stance.
Having done all this, don't back down because the majority is unmoved.
If the good of your group demands that the others change their
opinion, it's up to you to persuade them. How you'll do it depends on
the situation. There are times to fight, times to explain, times to
Be a John Brown
Sometimes the majority is merely apathetic. The boys' work committee
of a service club was plodding comfortably along, taking a few orphans
to ball games and giving them a Christmas party. But one member, John
Brown, got excited about the work of a youth centre in the worst part
of town. It faced bankruptcy. He urged his committee to dash to the
rescue. But the other committeemen thought this too much trouble for a
small group of boys.
It was John Brown's fiery, table-thumping enthusiasm that finally
broke them down. He told stories of boys the centre was helping. He
reminded them that these boys' parents would never support such an
enterprise. "That's why it's a blighted area," he barked. "These kids
will rot in the alleys if we let the centre close."
He advocated a bigger, stronger centre, which the service club could
promote. To clinch it, he had figures at his fingertips. He proved
that all this could be done with the committee's available budget. He
swept everyone along with him, and the club eventually took deep pride
in the project. But if Brown had been quiet and patient, the youth
centre would have died.
Or a Chinese fighter
Sometimes it's better to roll with the punches and conciliate an angry
majority rather than fight it. (A Chinese proverb says, "By fighting
you never get enough, by yielding you get more than you expected.")
For example, a church board was told, correctly, that a Scout troop
chartered by the church had broken new chairs in the recreation hall
and had torn the carpet. The board exploded. It decreed that the troop
must meet elsewhere.
Boys will be boys, as their fathers know. Two fathers were on the
church board. They also knew that the elderly majority of the board
would not consider boyishness an extenuation for damaged property. So
these minority members counselled with the Scoutmaster and his troop
committee and later with the Scouts.
All hands were ashamed of the damage, eager to fix it, and glad to
promise that rough games would henceforth be played only outdoors.
This news was taken to the church board. In addition, the troop
proposed to include service to its sponsor as part of its activities
in the future, beginning by rebinding the church's old hymn books.
This compromise mollified the board, so the troop wasn't banished.
Fall back and regroup
Now let's examine the minority member. He isn't always right, although
the human brain is so constructed that he usually thinks he is. And
when he is, sometimes surrender is smart. Being a loyal loser isn't
always cowardly. It may be better to let a group make a mistake that
to try to stop it.
For example, a Y.M.C.A. leader planned a camping trip to a lake where
canoes were available. But an unsupervised canoeist had drowned there
in the recent past. So the camp committee was dead set against any
canoeing for its boys. The leader was saddened, because he was an
expert aquatics man and a strict enforcer of safety rules. He might
have forced the committee to let them use canoes by threatening not to
go unless they did.
But he applied a lesson of history pointed out by Liddell Hart in his
book Strategy: "The most satisfactory peace settlements, even for the
stronger side, proved to be those made by negotiation rather than by a
decisive military issue." The camp leader knew that imposing his will
on the committee might make them so angry that they wouldn't work with
him in the future. He dropped the issue. The canoes weren't worth a
major battle. A year later the committee let him use them.
Before you force an issue, ask yourself: Is a principle at stake?
H. A. Overstreet's The Mature Mind points out the significance of this
On a tablet in front of the Old South Meeting House, in Boston, are
words that describe our Revolutionary forefathers as "worthy to raise
issues." They knew which things were important and which were
unimportant. A person has to be mature to be worthy to raise issues.
Most of the small frictions in life that destroy mutual confidence and
enjoyment come from raising issues that are not worth raising -- and
most of the social inertias and timidities that keep our world from
moving toward its ideals express a reluctance to raise issue that
should be raised.