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"Thursday Thinking"

©2019 by Weaving Futures. 

  • Carolyn Stuart

Amplifying the impact of meetings

Don’t you just hate those times when you get caught in a meeting with people who are more interested in being heard than hearing what others have to say? I know I do. Although if truth is to be told, there is something I hate even more, and that is when I become that person clamouring to be heard instead of listening deeply to what others have to say.

So why does this happen? What causes meetings to be about being heard rather than hearing, to become the forum for a few dominant voices in the room, instead of a place where minds meet to create awesome futures?

"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand;

they listen with the intent to reply.” - Stephen Covey

Oddly enough it is insecurity that often drives both the dominating voices and the passive participants in a meeting. For the dominant voices it can be a belief that the only way to get an idea across is to be confident and assertive so people will see its value. Those who sit back either believe that they do not have anything of value to contribute, or that the value they do bring will be smothered by the loud voices, so there is no point in trying to speak out. Sometimes the effort of trying to be heard is too great and people zone out, praying that the meeting will soon be over and they can get on with their real work.

A way to address this insecurity-driven behaviour is to provide a safety net so all participants can effectively contribute. The best way to do this is to develop a covenant around how people speak and listen within your organisation. Things included in these agreements might be a commitment to ‘listen to understand’ and ‘listen without interrupting’. A word of caution though, if you decide to go down the track of developing a dialogue covenant, give as much priority to embedding it across your organisation, as you do to creating it. Failure to do this risks the covenant being weaponised by those who will resent their meeting dominance being curtailed.

Needing to think before responding is another reason people may not contribute to meetings. Historically our workplaces have been biased towards extroverts - those people who can think on their feet and ironically only truly understand what it is they believe about something when they hear the words come out of their mouths! On the other hand, introverts do their thinking on the inside, they need time to internalise their thoughts, compose a response, and then contribute.

Putting ‘descriptive’ agendas out at least 24 hours ahead of meetings ensures that everyone has enough time to think before speaking in a meeting. A descriptive agenda is one that lists both the item to be discussed and either a detailed description or a link to the content underpinning that item including the name of the person who is available to clarify the information before the meeting. I’ll never forget the day one of the introverts on my team expressed her frustration at the meetings I was leading: “I finally figure out what I want to say about two agenda items later and by then the meeting has moved on”. For too long we have missed the gold that comes out of the mouths of those who need time to process their thoughts internally before speaking. A descriptive agenda allows everyone the opportunity to contribute to the meeting.

Fear that a decision is going to be made or the meeting moved onto the next agenda item before you have a chance to be heard is another significant driver for people to turn meetings into competitive talkfests. A great way to combat this is to differentiate between agenda items that are about canvassing thinking and agenda items that are about making decisions.

So what does this agenda differentiation look like? Firstly you need an organisation-wide agreement on how to distinguish between an agenda item that is for the purpose of making a decision and an agenda item that is there to understand people’s thoughts about a situation. An easy way to do this is to have an agreed shorthand you use on agendas. For example:

  • Team Day Format Discussion ( = we are going to make a decision about the format for the day)

  • Team Day Format Dialogue ( = we are going to have a conversation about how we want the day to run)

A quick way to remember this is “Discuss to Decide, Dialogue to Understand”.

It doesn’t really matter what terms you use, as long as everyone across the organisation understands what is the intended outcome for each agenda item. Again and again I have noticed that when you have agenda items marked as dialogue people are comfortable sitting back and listening to others.

One final point: when you are at the stage of having a discussion to decide, and especially if the decision has a wide-reaching impact, be clear about how the decision is going to be made. It could be that you go around the entire group and ask people to tell you what they think the decision should be now that they understand what others think. It might be that you ask people to write down on a piece of paper what they think the decision should be and then you collect them in - this is a particularly good strategy to use if you have dominant people in the room that others might be nervous of disagreeing with. Or it might be that you make it clear that a subset of the meeting will make the decision, but that you go around the group giving everyone the opportunity to have their final say.

If you do decide to use your meetings to deepen understanding, you may find that it takes longer to get to the point where you make a decision. But (and it is a big but) if people really feel they have had input into a decision and that their views have been taken into account you will spend a lot less time getting people to come on board with the decision once it is made. People like to feel ownership and to know that, they have had a significant part to play in any decision that has been made.

Til next time


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