Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Mismanaging My Impatience in Meetings

I recently attended the meeting of a cooperative at which I was representing a group that had an interest in the main topic. Because I didn't need to present anything and was not a decision-maker in that setting, I was there mostly to listen and provide background as needed.

Things got off to a solid start, and after 15 minutes it was reasonably clear where the concerns lay and what the most likely remedies were. However, it took another 60 minutes before everyone present was brought into alignment about those things. It was excruciating.

What happened? Well, a number of things, all of which are depressingly common:

o  Jumping aroundAlthough it quickly became apparent that there were only two main concerns, I'll be damned if some speakers didn't feel compelled to make statements about both subtopics in a single turn at the microphone, making it hard to follow the bouncing ball. 

People do this, I speculate, in a misguided effort to get out everything they have to say in one go, regardless of the diffusing effect it has on the group's focus. It's generally much better if the facilitator limits the conversation to one subtopic at a time.

o  Straying off topic
While it's not fair to blame participants for a lack of discipline about containing their comments to one thread at a time if the facilitator is not offering that structure; it is, however, fair to hold participants accountable for comments that wander beyond the scope of the agenda topic, and to ask them to eschew free associating.

o  Repetition
When the focus is soft, or the facilitator is casual about offering summaries, people often find it irresistible giving their views more than once. Even though this tends to be numbing for the group, speakers often feel insecure about whether they've been heard if they don't immediately see the group actively working with their input.

o  Lack of concision
Meeting behavior is different than casual conversation, but the way many people contribute in meetings is just the same is when they're yakking with friends over a beer. In plenary you want contributions to not just be on topic, you want them lean. And they'd be well advised to leave chewing the fat for storytelling around the campfire.

o  Not keeping the conversation at the plenary level 
At what point does it make sense to stop talking about a topic in plenary and turn it over to a subgroup to tease out details? Groups that have not discussed where this line stands will frequently drift across it and get mired in minutia instead of handing it off to committee with alacrity and a crisp mandate.

o  Inability to coalesce the sense of the meeting
One the more important facilitative skills is the ability to sort wheat from chaff, offering a tight summary of what the group is likely to be able to agree to, or where the conversation is headed, based on what's been said so far. Even when you get it wrong, just being close will often help the group get there with only minor adjustments.

Some groups—especially ones using consensus—labor under the false impression that you can't reach a conclusion until everyone has spoken. Not so! While it's important to protect everyone's opportunity to have a say, it frequently happens that after a number of people have spoken that there are no additional viewpoints to contribute, and the group can legitimately move on. To be sure, you need to test for that (rather than just assume it), but it only takes a moment to offer a summary with the caveat, "Does that work for everyone?"

It's amazing to me how often groups miss the agreement in the room until they've been bludgeoned with it.

• • •
Observing all this, it was painful sitting through the meeting. As time went on, I found myself stepping in more and more, without portfolio, to offer summaries, suggest agreements, and identify loose ends. (As a professional facilitator, it's virtually impossible for me to turn it off when I'm in a meeting—whether I'm up front with a baton or not.) While I meant for my contributions to be constructive, in the end-of-meeting evaluation I got my knuckles rapped by a participant who felt he was hearing too much from me, a mere observer.

Sigh. I reckon enlightenment and the patience of the Buddha still elude me.

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