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The Balance between Results and Relationship in Meetings

results in meetings

Some people experience a tension between achieving results and building relationships in a meeting. They see these as two competing – and possibly mutually exclusive goals.

For me this is a false dichotomy. Good meeting outcomes are reached by people working together. Sharing ideas, working through differences and reaching agreement require human interaction. Meeting participants do not need to be best friends, but they do need to listen and learn from each other.

As facilitators, we need to consider both results and relations when planning a meeting or other group process. Here are four questions that every meeting facilitator should consider:

  • Do the participants know each other? If not, you must invest time at the beginning of the session to create enough trust and safety for the group to be able to communicate and collaborate. Even a simple check-in round or a request that people introduce themselves to someone they do not know can help establish a human connection.
    Key concept: Make sure that every person´s voice is heard by at least one other member of the group in the first few minutes of the event.
  • Is everyone clear about the purpose of the meeting? Sadly, many meeting organizers are not very explicit about why the group needs to gather. This lack of clarity creates a breeding ground for boredom and frustration and can be interpreted as a lack of respect for the participants’ time.
    Key concept: Help the convener define the purpose and expected outcomes from the meeting. This will give the participants a common cause and motivation to relate to each other.
  • Does the agenda include time for working in pairs or small groups? Long meetings in which all discussion occurs in plenary are a recipe for isolation. The extroverts talk a lot while the timid sit in silence and the rest are surreptitiously checking their email.
    Key concept: Create a results-oriented process that stimulates interaction among the group members.
  • Do group members collaborate between meetings? Not everything can or should be accomplished in meetings of the whole group.
    Key concept: Committees and other small work groups are an excellent way to both make progress on important tasks and for people to get to know one another better.

In short, every meeting has two priorities: attending to the (clearly stated) business at hand AND building the relationships that transform a group into a team.

Need help finding the balance of your skills as a facilitator? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

The Facilitator’s Tightrope

The Facilitator Tightrope

Inserting a facilitator into a group´s existing power dynamics is a risky business.

Often a facilitator’s help is requested because dysfunctional behaviors are inhibiting the group´s effectiveness. The client allegedly wants the facilitator to transform the way the group works together, generating miracles in the form of more participation, creative thinking, team collaboration and decisions that get implemented.

But do the conditions exist that would allow such profound changes to occur? Is the leadership really on board? Will the group accept intervention from an “outsider”? Is the facilitator skilled enough to deliver the desired results?

In the face of such uncertainty, the facilitator´s first step is to establish a healthy, collaborative relationship with the leadership team. Remember, they are taking a risk in hiring us. If we fail, they will look bad. We need the leaders to be very clear about the role of facilitator and the rationale for the participatory processes we propose. Without their understanding and support, our transformative mission is almost sure to fail.

Our next challenge is to earn the trust of the meeting participants. We cannot assume that just because we have reached an agreement with the leader, our presence will be welcomed by all. Many are likely to be skeptical or suspicious about our presence. Everything that we do (or say) will be subject to scrutiny and judgment. Everyone is watching.

We walk a tightrope on which we must set clear expectations about the group´s task at hand and also adjust to emerging ambiguities. We need to emanate confidence, but not arrogance, be respectful but not servile. We need to find ways for the traditionally silent or excluded to be heard, and apply strategies to prevent the habitually verbose from dominating the discussion.

And as we negotiate these competing demands, we must remember why we climbed up on that tightrope in the first place: to help the group achieve its highest aspirations. We are in service, not in charge. We have a responsibility to the group and those who hired us, and no authority to control the final outcomes.

So to walk the facilitator’s tightrope we need courage, poise, daring – and humility. As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, s said, “The leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Need help making the best use of time spent in meetings? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

Hidden Agendas in Meetings

hidden agendas

When you hear the words “hidden agendas,” what comes to mind? Clandestine plots? Power games? Conspiracies lurking in the meeting room?

What if, in the planning phase of a meeting, the group leader tells you that some participants have a hidden agenda and intend to manipulate the meeting outcome to serve their personal interests?

Even though these concerns may arise from the leader´s own insecurities rather from a real threat from within the group, facilitators need to be prepared to detect and deal with hidden agendas. Fortunately, we have the perfect tool: THE FACILITATOR´S FLASHLIGHT!

Like cockroaches, hidden agendas tend to scatter when exposed to light. And if a participant´s resistance to a proposal is based not on a conspiracy but rather on a lack of information or a simple misunderstanding about the issue, then light may dissolve their opposition.

Here are opportunities to use your flashlight.

1. At the beginning of the meeting. Clarify the purpose and expected results of the session. For example, “Our primary focus today is on the site for the upcoming staff retreat. By the end of this meeting we will have established criteria for the site selection and generated a list of possible locations. Are there any questions about our task? “

If a meeting participant believes that the group should not have a staff retreat or that some other issue is more important to discuss, you have provided an opportunity for him/her to express their difference of opinion. Even if the person says nothing at this this moment, you have established a clear point of reference that can help maintain the focus if later in the session someone tries to drive the conversation in a different direction.

On the other hand, leaving participants in the dark about the purpose of a meeting creates uncertainty, breeds mistrust and practically invites people to insert their own agendas.

2. Set ground rules. The nine ground rules for effective groups described by Roger Schwarz in The Skilled Facilitator are excellent examples of agreements that, properly used, can serve as powerful tools to shine light on hidden agendas. Imagine the possibilities for transparency and mutual understanding that agreements like these can promote:

  • Test assumptions and inferences
  • Share all relevant information
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
  • Explain your reasoning and intent

Do you propose ground rules that have the strength to illuminate power dynamics and improve communication in meetings?

3. Have a personal conversation. Find a time outside of the meeting to talk with the person suspected of having a hidden agenda. Share the behaviors you observed in the meeting and your assumptions about the meaning of those actions. Ask the person if he/she has a different interpretation about what happened. Be genuinely curious, not accusatory. You may be surprised by what you learn!

Need help dealing with hidden agendas in your group? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

How long should a meeting last?

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When someone asks me “How long should a meeting last?” the underlying question often is “How can we avoid meetings that drag on with no apparent end in sight?”

The short answer to the first question is: as long as it takes to complete the stated purpose of the meeting. (Skip to the end of this article if you want a specific time estimate.)

The short answer to the second question is: by clearly stating the purpose and expected outcome at the beginning of the meeting and ending when that result had been achieved.

Too often, meetings are called without the team leader or meeting convener having completed this crucial sentence: “By the end of this meeting we will have….”

Here are some examples of outcomes for three different meetings focused on the same issue.

“By the end of this meeting we will have…

  1. …analyzed options for improving our security system and decided on steps needed in order to make a decision at our next meeting.”
  2. …decided on the priority improvements in the security system and selected a service provider.”
  3. …reviewed the results of the changes made in the security system and decided whether additional measures need to be taken.”

Given this kind of clarity about the purpose of these meetings, the convener knows exactly who to invite (i.e., those with a direct responsibility or specialized knowledge about the issue.) And those participants arrive at the meetings fully aware of the task before them. Ideally, they have received and reviewed relevant background information ahead of time and the leader or facilitator has designed an orderly process for discussing, deciding and clarifying next steps.

And then when the objective has been achieved, the meeting is adjourned.

Unless of course someone suggests additional items for the group to address. The justification for this is usually something like, “Well, now that we are here, let´s also talk about…”

RESIST THIS TEMPATION!

If these new issues were really urgent, they should have been included in the original agenda. Make note of them and agree to address them in a future meeting BUT NOT NOW. Do not trap the participants, who after all, have completed the task they were called to do, in a longer meeting. Everyone in the room has other things to do. Let them go, with thanks for a job well done.

While the exact duration of a meeting depends on the complexity of the issues and degree of controversy around them, as well as the effectiveness of the agenda design and the facilitation skill of the meeting leader, here is a rough estimate, based on the frequency of the meeting and the kinds of issues addressed. Download a summary of four kinds of meetings, what they might include and how long they typically last.

Need help making the best use of time spent in meetings? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

Imagine meetings that surprise and delight

Visualize your meetings

Imagine that the participants at your meetings arrive full of curiosity about the discussion to come and leave feeling energized by the work they accomplished together.
Imagine that the conversation during the meeting is focused, dynamic and leads to new insights, clear next steps and wise decisions.
Imagine that the decisions taken are skillfully implemented and also carefully monitored and adjusted as needed.
Imagine that people want to join your team in part because the meetings are so interesting and productive.
Imagine that your meetings set a new standard of excellence that others in the organization begin to emulate.
Imagine that the organization begins to thrive in new and surprising ways because of the quality of the team leadership and collaboration displayed in its meetings.

As John Lennon reminds us, you are not the only one dreaming of these transformations. Meeting participants everywhere are acutely aware of and frustrated by the 10,000 ways their time is wasted in meetings. But too few meeting leaders dare to imagine a different reality and take the steps needed to create it.

Over the years, I have shared many tips and techniques for creating excellent meetings. (See the published books, free resources and blog posts at www.iifac.org.) Today I am inviting you to take a moment to connect with your heartfelt desires related to how you and your colleagues meet and work together.

Take a deep breath.
Slowly re-read the “Imagine” texts at the beginning of this article.
Breathe.
Read them out loud.
Take another deep breath.
Notice what you feel in your body when you contemplate these possibilities.
What does your heart say?
What other details would you add to the dream?

Want to talk about it? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation about your meeting related hopes, dreams and fears.

When facilitation is not the answer

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Facilitation, understood as designing and leading a participatory group process, can have a transformative effect. In the hands of a skilled professional, a facilitated process can help a group discuss difficult issues, resolve conflicts, make sound decisions and use its time well.

Facilitation is not, however, a panacea. There are circumstances in which even the best facilitator will not be able to function effectively – and others in which it would be unethical to try.

Here are few of those situations.

  • The decision has already been made. If the intention of bringing people together is to get them to “validate” or “buy into” a plan that they had no hand in creating and that they cannot modify or contribute to, a facilitator is not needed. A persuasive salesperson would be a better investment.
  • The only venue is an auditorium. As the same word suggests, an auditorium (from the Latin audire, to hear) is for listening. The fixed seats facing a stage do not permit group members to turn and face each other, form circles, meet in small groups, or otherwise exchange ideas and work together. If there are no other spaces where true participation can occur, a facilitator is not needed. A master of ceremonies will suffice.
  • No clear purpose or desired outcomes for the meeting. A facilitator can help a leader or organizing committee clarify what they hope to accomplish by bringing a group together. This planning is essential to creating an event that justifies the time and attention of those invited to attend. But until this work has been done, it would be better to cancel or postpone the meeting and take everyone out to lunch instead.
  • A miracle is needed – now. Facilitators can help groups achieve amazing breakthroughs, transform long-standing conflicts and/or deal with complex issues, but these kinds of results cannot be delivered “on demand.” Just putting key stakeholders in the same room for an hour or two is seldom sufficient to produce miraculous results. If you cannot give the facilitator time to prepare for a challenging job or give the participants time to work together, prayer may be your best recourse.
Want to know more about why, when and how to hire a facilitator? I recently created an online course that addresses these issues. You can learn more about this information-packed, three-session learning opportunity.

What is your policy for setting the meeting agenda?

When I ask people how the agenda is set for meetings in their organization, too often I receive responses like these:

  • Agenda? What agenda? Most of our meetings do not have an agenda, at least not one that is shared in advance with the participants.
  • The boss sets the agenda – and does most of the talking.
  • I have no idea.

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The agenda, understood as the work plan or road map for a meeting, is an essential tool for clarifying the purpose of the session, prioritizing the topics to be discussed, managing time, focusing discussion and knowing who should be in the room.

The meeting agenda —and the process for creating it— are also an indicator of the leadership style and collaborative values of the group. What may look like an innocent list of topics to discuss can also be a battlefield for power, prestige and control.

Whose agenda is it?

If the group has a formal leader, this person should have an important voice in the creation of the meeting agenda because he/she has assumed responsibility for the overall success of the team. Smart leaders, however, recognize that team meetings are opportunities to address issues that require collaborative effort; therefore, they involve the group in the development of the agenda.

The more horizontal the group’s structure, the more likely it is that the group members will expect to have a say in the creation of the agendas for their meetings. But even in these “leaderless” groups, there is usually a small cadre who step forward to develop the agenda.

In both formal and informal groups, however, the leaders tend to lament that most of the group members do not take the initiative to propose issues to discuss at the meetings. They obediently attend the sessions, but do not feel “empowered” to bring their concerns and proposals to the table.

Verbal encouragement is not enough

Tepid requests for suggestions are unlikely to transform passive meeting attendees into proactive contributors to the development of meeting agendas. Here are some suggestions that can add muscle to the good intention to make your meetings more participatory.

  1. Create a procedure that specifies when and how suggestions for agenda items can be made.
  2. Provide a standard format for the proposals that includes information about why the issue is important for the whole group to address.
  3. Define who will make the selection for each meeting and expect them to be prepared to explain the reasoning behind their choices.
  4. Publicly recognize the issues that were proposed but not included in the meeting agenda and suggest when and how they might be addressed.
  5. Treat every agenda as a proposal to be modified and accepted by the group at the beginning of the meeting.

Having a clear intention to involve group members in the creation of the agenda and procedures for submitting and selecting topics to be included can result in more productive meetings and more effective teams.

Want coaching from Beatrice for planning or facilitating your meetings?

What to do about “conflictive” people?

In a recent workshop, “Excellent meetings at work,” this question came up: Is it valid not to invite someone because we believe s/he is conflictive or will create conflict?

The main reason to invite someone to a work meeting is that their contribution to the issue under discussion is important.

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Question for the meeting organizers: Are we willing to listen and consider the “conflictive” people’s points of view?

If the honest reply is “no” then it is better not to invite them – and be prepared to explain the reason behind this decision. Besides, we should recognize that without their participation, the group might make wrong decisions due to not having considered the interests of these people. In addition, those decisions might spark resistance, rebelliousness, or attacks from the people who were excluded from the discussion.

Question for the organizers: Is it possible that “conflictive” people could have concerns that should be considered?

Following are a few examples of dealing with “conflictive” persons in work meetings. Each example includes a question with the intention of inviting the event organizers to reflect.

Example 1. The “conflictive” person always presents the same argument in each meeting, whether it is pertinent or not. S/he takes advantage of having an audience to express their beliefs. The conflict arises when the group gets tired of listening to the same “issue” time and again, especially when it seems to be irrelevant to the points under discussion.

Question for the organizers: Have you talked to that person apart from the meeting to find out what their intention is by repeating their message – that apparently has little or nothing to do with the purpose of the meeting – and to explain why you ask they do not?

Example 2. The group itself, and/or its leaders, are afraid of conflict and they do not know what to do when it arises. Instead of embracing different opinions and exploring them with curiosity, they tend to not allow those who bring up conflict to speak.

Question for the organizers: Have you got the tools to face conflicts calmly, confidently, and creatively?

The following five steps help cool down emotions and allow group members to listen to each other:

  1. Recognize there are opposing points of view.
  2. Remind the group what the issue under discussion is, and the expected outcome of the meeting (i.e., collecting ideas, prioritizing options, making a decision, etc.).
  3. Summarize the issues that are not controversial.
  4. Point out the issues yet to be resolved.
  5. Jointly find a process to work those issues out.

There are many options for dealing with point 5, but if you cannot come up with one at the moment, you can always ask the group for suggestions, saying, “So what should we do? What are the next steps to explore these different opinions?”

IIFAC offers coaching to help facilitators cover the challenges of working with groups. Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs.

Are “meeting” and “conversation” synonymous?

Quick answer: No.

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Here are some typical distinctions between these two formats for human interaction.

Meeting Conversation
Formal Informal
Set time and place Spontaneous
Conference table Kitchen table
Protocol-driven Arise from shared interests
Organizational Personal
Obligatory attendance Voluntary attendance
Hierarchical Horizontal
Planned agenda Free flow of ideas
Written summary of results and next steps No written record-keeping

Note: Not every meeting or conversation exactly matches this list and sometimes the same characteristic can be found in both formats.

What might happen if we transformed meetings into what our colleague Larry Dressler calls “high quality conversations?” Could this shift improve the way we engage in group conversations, deliberation, and decision-making?

Another quick answer: Yes.

The defects and dysfunctions of most meetings are well documented (too long, too boring, too unproductive, etc.). These bad habits are deeply engrained. Fortunately, most of us have experienced the satisfactions of thought-provoking, inspiring, motivating conversations. We just do not expect them to happen in the context of a meeting. Given the opportunity to contribute to a high-quality conversation, however, we can bloom like flowers in the desert!

To bring the benefits of conversations into your next meeting, try making these changes:

  • Break the routine. Vary the meeting time and place.
  • Change the venue. Move to a more physically comfortable space that offers flexible seating arrangements, natural light and no interruptions.
  • One powerful question. Ask one important, thought-provoking question to focus the conversation (and eliminate the laundry list of other topics).
  • Explore the question from all points of view. Stay open to doubt, dissent and new ideas. Do not rush to a premature decision.
  • Avoid “false consensus”. Before making the final decision, verify the individual levels of commitment to the emerging proposal. Do not assume (or require) that everyone be equally convinced or enthusiastic about the pending decision. Taking the time to do a reality check on the degree of support for the proposal —and, if necessary, to further modify it— will improve the odds that the decision will be implemented.
  • No observers. Invite only those who have something to contribute to the conversation, especially those who will need to implement any decisions taken.

In essence, making meetings more conversational means making them more participatory which, done properly, in turn leads to a better return on the investment in bringing people together.

Need help planning your meeting agendas? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

How to be inclusive without being boring?

With the good intention of “being inclusive”, meeting organizers sometimes propose dynamics that are more boring than productive.

Some typical examples of these mistaken practices include:

  • A round of introductions in which each of the 100 participants say their names and what they expect from the event (one hour or more in total).
  • Discussions in which one participant after another is asked to express their opinion on a subject, even though many repeat what others already have said.(If there are 20 people, this could go on for 30-45 minutes.)
  • Each one of 35 experts is given five minutes to make a PowerPoint presentation in plenary (almost 3 hours in total), with no time for discussion or questions.

The error in these examples lies in the belief that requiring everyone to speak, one by one, IN PLENARY, is a show of respect that will create a feeling of belonging to the large group.

The truth is that after the first few interventions, participants stop paying attention. Although they remain seated in their places, they do not take in new information. They do not remember what colleagues have said. They get distracted and endure the situation until the seemingly interminable activity comes to an end.

As group facilitators, we have the opportunity —and the responsibility— to question these practices and propose alternatives.

Here are some options:

Introductory rounds in groups with more than 12 people

  • Introduce and integrate. Ask that only new members introduce themselves in plenary and then integrate them into small, mixed groups (veterans and new arrivals) for a discussion of a burning question to which they all contribute.
  • Move! Propose a dynamic that is performed standing, preferably with motion. For example, play music with the instruction that everyone walks randomly. When the music stops, each participant introduces himself or herself to the person who is standing closest.

Sharing opinions

  • Listen, pause, summarize. Give the floor to 4-5 people and then pause and summarize. Then ask if anyone has a different perspective from those already expressed. Repeat until no new ideas emerge. Identify the areas where there is apparent agreement and where there are divergent points of view. Work with the group to decide on the next steps.
  • Non-verbal survey of preferences. Write all the ideas under discussion in legible print on flip chart sheets. Then give participants one or more sticky dots, and ask them to affix the dot(s) next to the option(s) that they like most. (This may be done also drawing a ? instead of using the sticky dots.) Review the results in plenary and work with the group to decide the next steps.
  • Work in small groups. Ask groups of 3-6 participants to share ideas and then emit a collective opinion.

Presentations from many experts

  • Breakout session. Group the experts by topic and ask that they share their knowledge with each other and with other interested attendees in a breakout session.
  • Art Gallery. Ask the experts to prepare a summary of the main concepts they want to share (preferably with pictures) and mount them on 50 x 70 cm posters. Then the experts stand next to their posters and answer questions from the rest of the participants who tour the exhibits as if they were in an art gallery.

In summary, do not oblige participants to suffer through long, plenary sessions in which their principal contribution is to listen. A much more inclusive and productive strategy is to give people the opportunity to express their opinions in small groups, working on a subject of common interest and then merge those contributions in plenary.

Uncertain about how to eliminate boredom in your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.
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