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From Steward Update: Volume Twenty-Five, Number Two

You don’t have to be a cook to know how critical it is that a recipe list all the ingredients, make clear how much of each you need, and detail the temperature you need to set the oven. Without these instructions you’re likely to end up with an undigestible mess on your hands.

So it is with taking notes. Your notes are your ingredients for the completion of any number of steward tasks, and if you can’t make sense of your notes, or they’re incomplete, you’re sure to give yourself indigestion—if not worse.

The notes you take are an essential way to capture key points of a conversation with a member or to begin investigating a potential contract violation. Stewards’ notes can function as “to do” lists noting what follow-up is required or can keep you on track for a grievance presentation with management. Good note-taking helps a steward to be more organized. But should you scribble down everything that’s said? How many notes are too many notes? Are there best ways to take quality notes?

Why Take Notes at All?

Notes should be taken for two reasons:

  • To help you recall important thoughts or points from a conversation or exchange points from a conversation or exchange
  • To create a record of an event

If you will be following up to get more details for a grievance investigation, notes can keep you on track. What do you need to do next? With whom do you need to speak? With this type of note keeping there is no need for formality—keep them short and to the point, just a simple road map of where the investigation is leading is fine. Once the matter is settled here is no need to keep these notes, as they were your personal notes to guide your investigation.

Other types of notes are more formal, for example to record an agreement or to note key events of a meeting. When recording an event, simple facts should be written down in case they are needed at a later date:

  • What occurred?
  • Date, time, and location of event
  • Who was witness to the event?

Both types of notes have one purpose: to help stewards recall something they need to remember to properly do their job and support their members.

How Many Notes Are Too Many?

Many stewards start meetings with members by grabbing a pen and pad of paper scribbling notes with pen blazing. Instead, imagine what could happen by focusing on listening to what the member has to say, then capturing the most important points in note form. The result will likely be greater attention paid to the issue at hand, and the opportunity to build a greater steward-member relationship. You’ll have been more attentive to the member’s concerns and better able to figure out what the real issues are, rather than wasting time and paper on keeping a record of mostly useless conversation.

Don’t Let Taking Notes Get in the Way

Imagine you are a member asking a steward for help for the first time. As you are explaining your concern to the steward, you notice that she isn’t looking at you at all, but is simply focused on writing down what you say. How might that make you feel? Might you begin to be self-conscious about your words? Might you wonder if she is really hearing what you’re saying? Would you feel like you were connecting with the union rep? Failure to make eye contact with the member can send the unintended message, “You are not important, I’m only interested in your words.” As steward you can build trust and rapport if you:

  • Look up as you take notes to make eye contact with the speaker.
  • Nod your head slightly once in a while to show that you are listening.
  • Make notes of the most important facts while the member speaks, later adding your personal notes of actions needed.

By following these simple tips you will better communicate your interest in the member while getting the notes you’ll need in order to help.

What is the Best Way to Take Quality Notes?

Good note-taking starts with good listening, by focusing on what is being said, who is saying it, tone of voice and nonverbal messaging. A union representative may miss many of these if his or her head remains buried in a notepad. Asking relevant, probing questions will help clarify the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the issues.

Using these skills will help you build trust with the speaker, be it a line supervisor or a disgruntled member. It puts you and them at ease. It also helps you to separate key points in the conversation from general information, allowing your notes to reflect the key issues you need to follow up on.

Well-taken notes that are to the point, focused on the main concerns and facts, will help you better prepared and better able to assist members. Quality over quantity is the key.

– Patrick Domarats. The writer is a veteran labor educator