During MEETINGS 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand this June, attendees were welcomed with Maori chanting, singing, and fluid hand gestures. The sometimes formidable-looking greeting — called a powhiri — is customary at Maori gatherings, and can last an hour or more (though ours was five minutes long). It left me curious about how New Zealand’s indigenous people approach other aspects of meetings.
Turns out, the Maori consider almost every facet of a meeting, or hui, significant, from the greeting of guests to the food they eat and where they sit. That day in Auckland, the opening prayer was led by Ngahi Bidois, an author, entrepreneur, speaker, and Maori cultural ambassador. Despite his striking ta moko, or facial tattoo, Bidois (also known as “The Face of New Zealand”) is a gentle and generous presence. “Nga mihi nui ake nei ki a koe, Corin,” Bidois wrote, or “I look forward to working with you, Corin,” as he took time out of his busy travel schedule to answer some emailed questions.
A few themes emerged from Bidois’ rundown of Maori meeting tenets.
1. Greetings are important.
The ritualized Maori greeting is designed to both suss out guests’ intentions as well as set the mood. (Check out this video of a powhiri for former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark). Bidois explains that blowing a conch shell “brings everyone to attention and focus on what is about to occur,” and the challenge that follows, when a warrior places an object on the ground, “determines if the guest has come in peace or not.” (Due to a lack of time, the MEETINGS 2015 powhiri was shortened, “without anyone from your side responding,” Bidois pointed out.) While a powhiri might seem out of place at a U.S. association meeting, even a song, well-chosen quote, or moment of silence during an opening session can help focus attendees and highlight shared goals.
2. Respect the dignity of each attendee.
In Maori, “He aha te mea nui i tenei ao?” means “What is the most important thing in the world?” The answer: “He tangata, he tangata, he tangata,” or “It is people, it is people, it is people.” Each part of a Maori event is designed to enhance guests and ensure their health and safety, Bidois wrote. “All rules and protocols are based on highlighting the importance of each person no matter what their age, ethnicity, or role is. The respect and dignity of each and every person is considered highly important.” That includes respect for their health via the food that is served, respect for their time through proper pacing, respect for speakers by avoiding interruption or distractions, and respect for listeners by making every word count. (The intricate lines of Bidois’ ta moko are more than just a tattoo: They “outline the importance of listening, looking, and thinking before speaking,” he wrote.)
4. Guide attendees out of their comfort zones — and toward each other.
Hongi is the traditional pressing together of noses and foreheads during a Maori greeting. Bidois calls this a sometimes “uncomfortable protocol,” for those who aren’t used to it, but also an important one. “The hongi is a lesson in leadership as a form of engagement that all leaders need to participate in,” Bidois wrote. “Every leader needs a safe place from which to engage in activities that may be uncomfortable and challenging to them before returning to their safe place. Leaders need to be willing to face cultural challenges head on.”