Are “meeting” and “conversation” synonymous?

Quick answer: No.

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 ingrained. 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.