Category Archives: Continuous learning

Listening Deeply–Essential for Leading

Considering that it is so essential for leadership, listening deeply sure is hard. I catch my mind wandering during meetings—making a grocery list, thinking of errands. I hear my inner judge evaluating instead of listening to the person talking to me. Sound familiar?

Four Levels of Listening

Recent work by Otto Scharmer sheds light on why really listening is hard. Presenting at a recent Community of Practice meeting, my colleague Cathy Geib explained Scharmer’s idea that there are four levels of listening.

  • At a superficial level, we hear through thick filters of assumptions, judgments, and confirmation bias. Instead of hearing the other person, we are locked inside the mind’s distorting echo chamber.
  • To go to deeper levels of listening, we have to listen with curiosity, seeking information that disconfirms our biases about the other person or point of view.
  • This curiosity, and the new perspectives it yields, prepare us for the fourth and deepest listening level, where we bring an open mind and can co-create real dialogue.

Heightening Self-Awareness

I’ve been using these levels of listening to heighten self-awareness and, using the practices I am learning, to help my clients. Heightening self-awareness begins with watching how we listen to our own thoughts and feelings.

To speak of my own journey of learning: I’ve lately been paying attention to my grief-transition process since losing my husband to cancer. One inner conversation goes like this. One voice says, “All the changes, all this newness, together with grief, tire me out. My old, striving life just doesn’t fit any more.” “Yes, but,” a second voice responds. “I’m a goal setter and achiever; I plow through to-do lists no matter what.”

The second voice often prevails because I’m very attached to achieving, having learned this “should do” script from my dear parents. I quickly label and then dismiss new needs for rest, a pause, and re-inventing my life. I am only listening to these emerging needs at level one, in other words, not listening at all.

A Way to Listen More Deeply

How can you and I dive below the surface to deeper listening? A practice of loving kindness helps re-pattern the mind. It works like this. Bring loving kindness to each thought—in my case, to both voices in my head.

Whatever is “loving kindness?” First, I acknowledge that both voices are real and true. Secondly, I gently accept both. Both voices are part of me; what if I were to accept and even welcome them? Embracing both voices frees me to accept my new needs for rest, for pause, and for re-creation. Acknowledging my goal-setting voice releases its defensive stance, and thereby loosens my white-knuckle grip on achievement as the one right way to live.

As a coach, going to and staying in a generative, deep-listening place is a core competency called “coaching presence.” To earn and maintain an International Coaching Foundation professional certification, coaches have to demonstrate skill in this and all thirteen other competencies. Check out the fourteen competencies. They are useful reminders for all supervisors and leaders.

10 Ways to Be an Effective Leader

shutterstock_282591626What can you do to be the most effective leader you can be? A Center for Creative Leadership report affirms that relationship management,” that’s, “how you interact with others,” is key to leading effectively. How can you assess how you are doing, and then improve?

Start by asking yourself these ten questions:

  1. Do I follow through on commitments?
  2. Do I stay curious in conversations, and listen to others?
  3. Do I mentor others?
  4. Do I give tough feedback in straightforward and relationally savvy ways?
  5. Do I work through conflicts in productive ways?
  6. Am I clear with others about their role in decisions (for example, giving information as input, giving informal advice, giving a recommendation, or participating in consensus-building)?
  7. Do I say when I’m wrong, and apologize when I make a mistake?
  8. Do I explicitly acknowledge others’ achievements and contributions?
  9. Do I actively promote diversity and inclusion?
  10. Do I have a reasonable, sustainable work/outside-work balance?

There are many ways to use the ten questions. For example,

  • Answer each question using a scale: always, most of the time, often, sometimes, no.
  • For every question, ask yourself, how do you know? What information supports your answer? Is there information that contradicts it?
  • Get other people’s input. Your leadership coach can do this through 360 degree interviews or surveys.

In other posts, I’ve explained how to use the Learning Compass as a tool for improving leadership. The Compass, a visual representation of the Learning Cycle, brings awareness to your thinking-learning-doing process. As you follow the steps below, notice that you are moving clockwise around the Compass to learn about your leadership and then commit to action.

  • First, gather information by asking the ten questions. (Compass Northeast: Imagining)
  • Then, reflect on your answers and analyze them by asking, for instance, where am I strong and what are areas for improvement? (Compass East and Southeast: Reflection and Analysis)
  • Next, stand back and reach conclusions. What do your discoveries add up to? (Compass South: Thinking and Synthesis)
  • Finally, make a plan and commit to carrying it out. (Compass Southwest and West: Deciding and Planning for Action)

It isn’t easy to be a leader. Nearly half of new CEO’s fail. The good news is that with attention, and supports like coaching, you CAN succeed.

How Hopeful People Affect Us

We have only to consult our experience to know that our leaders’ and co-workers’ moods and outlooks affect us. My colleague Cheryl radiates sunshine and hope; they “power” her life. During a year-long collaboration, I marveled at her earnest friendliness, genuine curiosity about others, and often-expressed appreciation. When we faced challenges, her hope buoyed me.

Poet Emily Dickinson pictured hope as a bird—fragile and strong, delicate and unstoppable, freely given and giving generously.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

And sweetest in the gale is heard:
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea:
Yet never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Try an “awareness experiment” about how hopeful people affect you.

  • Begin by thinking of two or three people you know well who have a sunny outlook, a hopeful approach to living.
  • Now focus on one of these people, or all of them, one at a time. Reflect on what it is like to be around them.
  • Notice your thoughts. Jot them down. Then see if you notice patterns.
  • Notice how you feel, and jot down these feelings. Are there patterns?
  • Notice your body. For instance, are you inwardly or outwardly smiling? Feeling “up?” How is your breathing?

Now complete your Learning Cycle by asking: What did you just learn? What is one thing you will do differently today to sing hope’s song?

Here are suggestions for exploring further.

  • Look up Positive Emotional Attractors, of which hope is one, on the web.
  • Read some of the brain and social science research that explains how we boost our own growth and inspire others with Attractors like hope.
  • Do the exercises in chapter 4 of Resonant Leadership.
  • Do more “awareness experiments” on your own.

Have fun.

Work Cultures–Not Like Amazon

fish jumpingWhen I read the recent New York Times piece on Amazon’s ferocious work culture, I felt sad– because it isn’t only Amazon. Americans are working harder, longer, and under fiercer pressures. Instead of being wowed by Amazon’s growth and dominance, let’s create workplaces where:

  • Work is creative and challenging AND
  • Values and practices support developing people
  • Policy and practice support balance.

Here’s a key: in organizations where work IS learning, work will be creative, and talent management will emphasize growth and development. What do I mean by “work IS learning?” Coming to work everyday, you tackle tasks that ask you to create, analyze, decide, plan, and act. If you intentionally think about how you will do a task, reflect on what you’ve done, and then ask questions like, “what can I do the same, differently, better, etc.?” that’s learning. And it doesn’t take extra time. If, as a supervisor, you are encouraging others’ learning, you help them work smarter and perform better.

David Kolb, the master of learning, says, “The process of experiencing with awareness to create meaning and make choices is what we call deliberate experiential learning. Deliberate learning requires…a personal understanding of one’s unique way of learning from experience and the ability to intentionally direct and control one’s learning. In short, one needs to be in charge of their learning to be in charge of their life.” (D. A. Kolb, 2015)

You take full charge of this learning by:

  • Understanding how learning happens
  • Knowing your unique way of learning
  • Tracking where you are on the Learning Cycle throughout the day
  • Making intentional choices about where on the Cycle to move to.

Understanding how learning happens
The Learning Cycle describes an orderly process for learning. To help our clients picture the Cycle, Kay Peterson and I show it as a compass.

Compass-4-Modes small image

The orderly process of learning goes like this. Moving clockwise, you:

  • Have experiences—due North on the Compass
  • Reflect on the experience, facing East
  • Step back, think, and reach conclusions, facing South
  • Decide what to do next and then initiate these actions, facing West.

To further illustrate how the Learning Cycle works, try this experiment. Re-read Kolb’s quote. Reading the quote is an example of what Kolb means by “experiencing with awareness.” We’ll use this mindful experience to prompt learning. Re-read Kolb’s quote now.

Ready to practice going around the Learning Cycle? Here is a guide:

  • What, if anything, struck you—both individual words or phrases in the quote, and also your own thoughts or feelings. You are now facing East on the Compass, where meaning-making begins with reflection.
  • Mentally sort through your reflections on the quote. What do they suggest? How do they relate to your work, to opportunities for your growth, and to yourself as a leader/role model? As you answer these questions, you are moving South, to “Thinking,” which involves analyzing and reaching conclusions.
  • Because Kolb is inviting us to be more intentional about learning, what is one thing you will do more of, less or, or differently? Now you are facing Compass West.

Knowing your unique way of learning
Thanks to Kolb, everybody in your workplace can “understand one’s unique way of learning.” The Kolb Learning Style Inventory 4.0 (KLSI 4.0) tells you about your learning style. The nine style preferences are habitual places we start from—like default modes on a computer. Unlike the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, for example, which uses complicated terms and four-letter Type codes that take awhile to understand, or Emergenetics, which uses color codes that users have to memorize, KLSI 4.0 is both profound and accessible. You can readily see how you typically operate in relation to other people. You can also learn to use the capabilities of every style. To use the compass metaphor, you can orient from any direction on the Compass, depending upon what a particular work situation calls for.

Tracking where you are on the Learning Cycle
Kolb is asking us to be explorers, noticing ourselves as both the subject of our experiences and an intriguing object of study. Understanding your learning style immediately helps you recognize the way you habitually operate. Once you notice how you operate, you can, following the the Learning Cycle, see and make better choices.

Nellie’s preferred style (called “Imagining”) accounts for the ease with which she thinks of possibilities and opportunities in almost every kind of situation. In a coaching session, Nellie uses her style to explore a frequent work challenge: When she faces a high stakes decision in her work as Director of Development, she easily imagines a hundred possible paths, and then has trouble deciding and acting. In my coaching sessions with Nellie, we co-create ways for her to practice deciding and acting.

Making intentional choices about where on the Cycle to move to

When Atul’s KLSI shows that he prefers quick and sure decision making (called the “Deciding” style), he understands why he gets so impatient when, as he tells me, “a meeting has too much process.” As teammates on an IT project, COO Nellie and Atul learn that they prefer styles that are exactly opposite. Now they see why they get impatient with each other in meetings. Acknowledging that there are times when he knows his decisions are rash, Atul gets curious about Nellie’s strong suit– Imagining. As for Nellie, she realizes she could use Atul as a resource when she gets stuck in a popcorn popper of possibilities.

Use the Learning Cycle and learning styles to help people take charge of their work. Doing so will energize them and expand the power of work–throughout your organization.

For Sustainability, Develop People

shutterstock_282591626“Stark underinvestment in leadership development undermines nonprofit leaders” and weakens their organizations, a new report by Third Sector New England warns.


The over 1,000 leaders and board members surveyed strongly support the need for sustained professional development for staff.

  • Leaders “who do invest in professional development were significantly more likely to think their organizations have enough bench strength” for sustainability and leadership transitions.
  • But staff professional development is a budgeted line item in just over half the organizations surveyed in New England.
  • Although acknowledging the value of coaching, just over half of leaders have invested in coaching.

What can you do in your organization? Here are some approaches I use.

  • Create a culture based on learning, embedding learning in every work process. The Learning Compass, based on David Kolb’s Learning Cycle and the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory 4.0, provides an excellent basis because you can use the Compass in business process improvement, problem solving, decision making, innovation, planning, team development, and communication.
  • Create a performance management system based upon facilitating growth, not evaluating or “appraising.” Teach managers to approach supervision as coaches. Of course, all managers need a firm understanding of what a coaching approach is and is not, and they must be supported with skill development.
  • Build bench strength by targeting rising leaders for formal mentoring and coaching. Peer problem solving, using methods such as the tuning protocol (adapted for using in the business sector) or the GROW coaching model, teaches coaching skills and fosters creative solutions to day-to-day work challenges. These problem-solving processes are especially powerful when facilitated by a certified coach who helps the group deepen its awareness and be more intentional about skill-building.

The Third Sector (TSNE) report points out that with baby boomer Executive Directors retiring, nonprofits’ lack of succession planning is a serious problem.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the 877 internal leaders surveyed said they intend to leave the organization in one to five years.
  • Almost two thirds (64%) do not believe there is an internal leader who can succeed them.
  • The report calls for preparing for leaders’ departures by developing “deep sustainability,” including strong leadership systems. No organization should be dependent upon individual leaders.

Here are steps to strengthen your leadership system.

  • Imagine what would you be missing if the Executive Director or CEO were to leave next month? What if your top four or five leaders were to suddenly leave? This exercise will focus your attention on the need to identify the capabilities and skills that your organization must have in order to thrive. You and your board will likely also experience a sense of urgency about developing people and creating systems that are not individual-dependent.
  • Create a plan for developing leaders. It is all right if it is not a comprehensive plan. When change is complex, sometimes more incremental approaches are even preferable (Senge et al, 1999).

These examples may help you see what I mean.

  • Recognizing that she would leave before long, one CEO worked with her senior staff to consensually re-configure job responsibilities so that one team member became COO. Over the next year, that person grew in her ability to lead all aspects of the organization. In addition, all senior team members identified and trained direct reports to step into new responsibilities.
  • Another organization created distributed leadership by first training about 10% of staff, including some supervisors, some managers and two senior leaders, in Culture of Quality Improvement (CQI) methods. Once these folks became certified, they further “seeded” shared leadership by heading up CQI project teams with manager and non-manager members, some of whom became the next cohort to receive training in CQI.

The TSNE report decries “the paucity of resources to support the success of nonprofits” in the Northeast and throughout the country. It challenges the long-held belief that low overhead for nonprofits is good management. Starving leadership development is, in fact, shortsighted, inefficient, and ineffective. In order to serve others, you have to take care of yourself and your staff.

Speed Limits and Slow Living

railbed_1893My town recently lowered speed limits from thirty to twenty-five. Adjusting to a slower pace set me thinking about habits, change and slow living.

At first, driving more slowly was an unwanted constraint. Over time, my experience shifted. I brought the shift into clearer focus by reframing, a skill that is useful in coaching and conflict management. To reframe, we put a new frame around an experience in order to shift perception and try on a new reality. For the new speed limit, my new frame is, “I drive more thoughtfully.”

Reframing a negative experience may take effort and seem artificial. This time, however, reframing arose spontaneously from a new internal experience. I noticed myself paying closer attention to driving. As I drove along, I also noticed that spring was coming on, kids were walking to school and the street sweeper had wiped away the winter detritus. I enjoyed being part of the scene instead of racing by it.

Learning #1. Speed is limiting. Like you, I have projects and deadlines that make me speed. Oops, notice how the phrase “make me speed” attributes my behavior to external causes? I bet I have more choice about varying my pace, and I imagine you do, too. How can we deliberately and thoughtfully vary our pace throughout the day and work week?

Learning #2. Only after the town speed limit changed did I notice that driving fast was a habit. By circumventing choice-making, some habits helpfully guide our behavior and simplify life. Habitually pushing the speed limit is not this kind of habit. Pushing the speed limit took me away from being present to safety, responding to the weather, noticing my internal “weather conditions” and much else around and inside me.

Learning #3. Watch the rush: rushing to get there quickly, cover ground and get work done. “Watch the rush” suggests noticing any internal “high” like, “Wow, what a lot I did today!” “Good for me, I beat that deadline!” or even, “Aren’t I valuable. Look at all I do!”

Learning #4. Don’t rush to change. I am inviting us to heighten awareness before making any change. When we rush to change, in this case, hurrying to slow down, we miss information. We rush past “ah-hah’s” that would suggest new behavior to try on. The “ah-hahs” are also valuable because they propel and sustain motivation to change. This “notice more and don’t change anything” dynamic (called the paradoxical theory of change) is a way of thinking about change that is key in my coaching practice.

Learning #5. Learning takes practice. On a recent vacation to Lisbon, I noticed myself rushing around (again.) Over many days, I slowly slowed down. On the last day, I ambled along the riverfront watching fishermen catch blowfish. Even on vacation, I confuse accelerated output with quality results.

I learned to slow down my driving. When I went on vacation, I went back to my speeding habit. I need more practice. So, some tips for you and me.

  • Notice what rushing is like. How and where is the breathing? What is happening in muscles, head, trunk and limbs? Track thoughts. Try exaggerating any one thing, for example, shallow breathing, a tight jaw or a pattern of thought. What is that experience like?
  • Vary the pace of the work day. Take short breaks to get up and stretch.  Breathe slowly for a full minute, focusing only on the breath or on a pleasant experience or loved one.
  • Practice saying no. Start with oneself, saying no to the inner perfectionist or achiever who tempts us to agree to unrealistic tasks and deadlines. Negotiate with these inner drivers.

Board leadership

Non profit boards are great proving grounds for leadership. And, many board leaders and CEO’s agree, boards have lots of opportunity for improvement. Four such opportunities stand out in BoardSource’s latest scan of over 800 non profit boards. Boards can:

  • Spend more energy on learning how to be excellent.
  • Take more responsibility for community outreach and help with fundraising.
  • Become more diverse and inclusive.
  • Give more support to the CEO.

Here are resources and suggestions for leading your board to excellence.

Ongoing learning—the path to excellence

  • Make ongoing board development part of your strategic plan. That way, excellence becomes a whole-board priority with specific actions that advance this goal.
  • Consider using a consent agenda, which groups routine board business items together so they are “consented to” in one motion. Consent agendas free up board time for learning and generative conversations.
  • Do regular board evaluations, evaluating every meeting and assessing the board annually in a board member survey.

See this governance practice guide for more suggestions.

Active ambassadors
Be clear with prospective board members that community outreach and fundraising help are part of the job. To be effective ambassadors, board members do not need to be public relations or fundraising experts or have a lot of money. I recently guided a board retreat where we asked board members to think of people they would be willing to talk to about the organization’s strategic priorities. The board learned that, guided by staff who would recommend specific “asks,” every board member can open doors.

A new DonorPath report is full of good suggestions for growing effective board ambassadors.

Diversity and inclusion
Boards should ask themselves what array of people will make effective board leaders at this point in the organization’s life. Will recipients of the organization’s services have helpful perspectives? What subject matter expertise will help the organization? What age spread will help with board leadership succession? As you know, these are only three of many kinds of diversity.

Having a diverse board does not guarantee inclusion, which results from every member having access to and a voice at the table. You ensure such access and equity through specific practices like providing regular training in understanding board financial statements.

My BoardSource research report on diversity and inclusion contains case studies and recommendations.

double rainbow

More support for CEO’s
Become a stronger partner in two ways:

  • Support your CEO’s leadership growth.
  • Commit to the board’s becoming a more effective “thought partner.”

Even non profits with modest budgets can usually underwrite the CEO’s ongoing work with an Executive coach. In this way, your CEO works on real challenges, learns to “live into” his/her potential and learns to use organizational development frameworks, processes and tools as need arises.

At the same time, the board should deepen its understanding of the organization’s programs and strategic environment in order to become a better CEO thought partner. How?

Begin by deciding what kind of board you want to be. Governance as Leadership describes three kinds of boards: fiduciary, strategic and generative. A board that primarily focuses on oversight is a fiduciary board. Further along a continuum are two more kinds of boards. Strategic boards ask questions like, what are strategic drivers and what priorities increase impact? The third kind of board learns to do “generative governance.” Generative boards seek out thought leaders across sectors and constantly consider “what if…” questions and scenarios. How could you move your board further along this continuum?

Leadership IS Learning

Each of us can boost our leadership by making learning a way of being. As Peter Vaill said in his book by that title, when learning is a way of being, “leadership is not learned;” leadership IS learning.

Start by trying on the notion that everything you do at work is a platform for learning. When you make a decision, face a challenge, wonder how to work with an employee, create something new or solve a problem, you can learn something new. Ask questions like,

  • What do I notice about the work experience I just had? What do I notice in myself? In others?
  • What choices did I make—whether or not I saw them as choices at the time? Did I get stuck? If so, how?
  • What were the results of my actions and thought patterns?
  • What could I do more of, less of or differently?
  • What will I do now?

tiki_questions2Reread my blog post on the Learning Compass (c) and you’ll notice that these questions take you around the learning cycle: experience; reflect; analyze by finding the significance of what just happened; think of choices; make choices that lead to action.

I recently read Sonali Deraniyagala‘s memoir Wave, which is about losing her family to a tsunami. Sonali decided to write about her loss as learning. No, there are no lessons; to distill lessons from the tragedy would have cheapened it. Instead, as she experiences waves of grief, she learns a process. She slows herself down, asking how the grief shows up in body, mind, emotions and spirit. Then she reflects, observing herself from inside and outside. By “outside,” I mean she sees herself in relation to her context– colleagues, community and the family she lost.  Gradually, over a period of years and in the reflective, analytical and active practice of writing, Sonali literally remakes herself.

We could follow a similar process both to learn about specific experiences and to learn how to learn better. Try this experiment. A couple of times during your work day:

  1. Look up from your desk. Take several long, slow breaths.
  2. Notice your thoughts, feelings and your body. You are gathering information, like a researcher or artist.
  3. What contextual things are influencing your work and your experience of it right now? Examples might be deadlines, physical surroundings, the technology you are using and the time of day.

Notice that this little exercise does not take much time. You are creating awareness as a step in learning. Without trying to change anything, notice whether there are shifts just because you are paying attention.

More on learning as a way of being in future posts.  Meanwhile, let’s all breathe.

Take Time to Save Time

Where does all the time go? Not enough of it, too much good work to do, and the pace of change is fast.

shutterstock_207716527With such challenges, can we make space for “think time” so we learn from successes and missteps? Here’s the thing: if we DON’T make this space, we risk working in the same worn grooves and getting stuck in the same ruts.

A paradox: take time to save time

My experience is that making a space for reflection can actually SAVE time. How? Well, first of all, reflecting and analyzing are a practice, like doing yoga or playing an instrument. We get better when we have a disciplined approach.

My colleague Kay Peterson and I teach a framework that helps people:

  • Understand day-to-day work dilemmas, successes, and missteps.
  • Get perspective on one’s actions by seeing how we get stuck, find new choices, and move toward action.
  • Do things better next time–and continually learning over time.

Use a compass to navigate

We use a new version of David and Alice Kolb’s Learning Cycle (2011). We call the Cycle the Learning Compass because it helps us navigate. The Compass helps us quickly locate where we are, on-the-spot, experience by experience. Then it helps us decide which direction to move toward without either idling or racing our motors.

The Learning Compass shows four main directions, North, East, South, and West. These correspond to the four ways we learn, by experiencing reflecting, thinking, and acting. (There are actually nine “styles” or directions embedded in the compass–but that’s for another blog post.)

Compass-4-Modes small image
The Learning Compass

We begin in the North with an experience that is direct and concrete. Moving clockwise to the East, we reflect on this experience, for instance by thinking about our assumptions and how we feel, and noticeing the experience from different perspectives.

When we are ready to use more rational analysis of the experience, we move toward the South. In the southern hemisphere, we form a plan for our next actions. Moving around to the West, we take action, the result of which is a new experience that returns us to the North. A new cycle begins.

How Holly used the Compass

My client Holly recently told me about a perplexing work dilemma. She invited an employee to a planning meeting, and her offer was rebuffed. Because the meeting concerned the employee’s future at the company, Holly wanted to do all she could to lead in the very best way. The Learning Compass gave us a map for working through the situation.

Since the experience with her employee, in the Compass North, Holly had been turning the experience over and over, wondering what to do. She realized that she was getting stuck in the Compass East, in reflection. At the same time, as Holly told her story, I noticed that she kept pushing herself to find a quick solution, in other words, toward action, in the Compass West. Holly knows she is a doer–that’s one of the reasons she’s an effective COO, but in this case she was uncomfortable with the one choice of action she kept coming back to.

I suggested that we move back to the Eastern hemisphere of the Compass, to reflection. She played with looking at her encounter from different perspectives. She got curious about her feelings and indecision. Before long, she began to come up with more choices for what to do. Following her energy, I encouraged Holly to “move South” on the Compass, where she could decide which option made sense. This question resonated: “Going into the next meeting, which choice(s) will give you the greatest satisfaction that you’ve been your best self as a leader?”

Holly decided pretty quickly. She was ready for action, in the Compass West. After trying out this action, Holly can “debrief” the experience on her own because the Compass, with its different ways of learning, is easy to remember and use.

The Simplest Way to Effective Meetings

Do these sound familiar? Your senior team gets bogged down in discussions without clear outcomes. Board members discussing a difficult issue circle around it, avoiding what is hard. A new team treads cautiously while important decisions wait.

For meeting headway, where do you start? Use sturdy group discussion guidelines, which should:

  • Promote deep thought and clear understanding.
  • Keep discussion focused.
  • Encourage healthy disagreement.
  • Yield clear, actionable decisions.
  • State expectations for running on time and evaluating the meeting.

To promote deep thinking and clear understanding, try these four guidelines:

Merryn works with a group 2011

  • Talk about assumptions.
  • Explain the reasons behind what you say and do.
  • Make statements and invite questions.
  • Be specific, using examples and data.

This set comes from Roger Schwarz, who built on what Chris Argyris and other pioneers noticed about how many assumptions lie beneath what we say. We are not trying to hide anything; we simply take our assumptions for granted. These four guidelines invite us to be aware of our patterns of thought and emotion and then tell co-workers where we are coming from.

In a recent meeting, my client–a non profit COO whom I’ll call Karen–used the word “whiners” to describe employees who raise objections to the change she is implementing. During a career in the air force, she explained, she loved the admonition “no whining,” which she thought was a useful norm. By explaining the basis for her thinking, Karen followed the second guideline.

All four group guidelines invited Karen and everybody at the meeting to get curious: What assumptions are underneath the conclusion that people are whining? Do other group members have different views? If so, what is the basis for them? Surfacing such information helped Karen understand what had been her automatic judgement and opened the door to modifying her change strategy.

Meeting guidelines are nothing new. Yet most leadership teams I work with do not use them. Why? The guidelines that have failed them are the wrong kind. Statements like “Respect each other” do not improve meetings because they merely state good intentions.

Instead, guidelines must describe specific, expected behaviors. You cannot directly see respect, which is the result of several behaviors. In addition, people of different cultures, age groups, etc., have different ideas about how to show respect.

Useful guidelines state particular actions that group members can see and hear. That is why there are four guidelines that remind people to be aware of assumptions and reveal their thinking. Here are more examples of guidelines that describe behavior:

  • Avoid “talking over,” interrupting, and side conversations, including texting and sending emails during meetings.
  • Agree on what important words and acronyms mean.

When I lead groups, I use 16 guidelines that invite everybody to monitor and adjust in a continuous learning loop of heightening awareness, speaking up, then making adjustments individually and together. Consistent use of meeting guidelines are a simple way for groups to learn and model mutual accountability.