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:
- 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.