The Art of Note Taking

The Art of Note Taking
There isn't a steward alive who hasn't had to take notes on a grievance and refer back to them later on: it's a basic part of the job.  But it's the exceptional steward who really understands what a vital role note-taking can actually play, and how to make the most of notes in his or her work on behalf of the union. 
Your notes are more than just a list of facts and details - although those are critically important, to be sure.  They're also an important tool for thinking through your case, examining your logic, and testing your assumptions.  In fact, approaching note-taking as a critical tool of analysis removes the sense of drudgery and makes it easier to tackle the task. 
 
Ultimately, whatever the source of the notes, your case will hang on them.  So, from the beginning even before you have filed a grievance, think of your notes as your key to victory.
 
The Art of Good Note-taking
The first challenge is to get the story from the grievant.  The skill of taking good notes at this point may well conflict with your need to listen.  So, separate the tasks:  first, let the grievant tell the story so that she or he feels genuinely heard, then go back over the story, chronologically, writing it down and checking the details.  Keep in mind that spoken language is less precise than written language.  Ask for clarification.  Review parts of the story that don't make sense to you.  Before you finish, it's a good idea to have the grievant read over your notes.  Be open to making changes, even if they do not seem too important to you.  Later on, they may be.
 
Every experienced steward intends to review his notes as soon as possible after a meeting but it takes fierce determination to actually do it.  Even spending a few minutes shortly after a meeting tidying up your notes and inserting bits that clarify the text can save you a lot of grief later on.  If you don't do a quick review you may well find later on that you have written something that no longer makes sense and cannot be checked - and it will be important.
 
It is a good idea to develop a system for writing out your notes.  Wide margins and spaces between lines will leave you room to add details and put reminders to yourself about what you need to do or check out.  Colored pens or highlighters are extremely useful to mark important points or tasks to be done.  Using abbreviations for common terms can make note-taking faster, but be careful that they are obvious:  remember, those notes should be useable by someone else.
 
Think what you would need to successfully use someone else's notes, and make sure your own meet that standard.  You want three major components to stand out in your notes:
 
1.  The facts of the case
Rely on the five W's: the who, where, when, what, and why of the case.  And then throw in a "how".  But note that this information is the beginning, not the end point.
 
2.  The whole story
If you cannot find in your own notes the weaknesses of your case, you aren't finished.  Ask yourself, "What am I missing?" and "Who sees it differently?"  "How will management spin the story?"  Do your notes reveal the weaknesses of your case, the logic of the "other side"?
 
3.  Analysis of the case
Make sure your notes distinguish between the facts of the case, the proof of those facts, and the opinions of all the parties involved.  Further, make sure that your own thoughts are separated from the facts and from others' views.  Your complete set of notes should allow anyone else picking up the file to handle the case.  Another person should be able to see the following from your notes:
  • what the case is about, in general;
  • what proof exists (and where it is);
  • who the witnesses are, how credible they are, and if they are willing to come forward;
  • what action has been taken on the case; and
  • your thoughts about the case.
Making sure that someone else can present your case from your notes means a lot more than having legible handwriting!
 
One final note: as a steward, you always need to always be mindful of confidentiality.  As your notes become complete, they may contain sensitive points; for example you may have information that alleges that an informant, management, or even the grievant has lied.  Be careful with the storage of your notes, and be careful who reads them and how they are used.