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In the Workplace: Meetings That Achieve Results

Resource Center - Foundation

(Aug. 24, 2010) Like any healthy relationship, participating in successful meetings with your colleagues requires communication. While it may seem sometimes that meetings are just a necessary evil, expert group facilitator Sam Kaner says effective collaboration can lead to new and truly great ideas. The first trick is to mind your own thoughts and reactions.

Kaner is one of several leading practitioners scheduled to speak at the 5th Annual Nonprofit Management Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., Oct. 5-6, 2010. Early bird registration extended to Sept. 10. Learn more.

Do you go into meetings with a sense of dread, keeping close watch on the clock and falling silent when a seemingly inevitable conflict of personality occurs? Kaner says that is precisely when a potentially successful meeting turns into a dud--not when the conflict or breakdown occurs in the conversation, but rather when you as a participant decide to check out.

Conflict is Inevitable

Collaboration means working together to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution that is stronger than any one participant could imagine on his or her own. To do this you need to incorporate the different stakeholders who come to the problem from their own unique point of view. Conflict of views, then, is not just inevitable, it is necessary. But participants have to make the effort to increase understanding. Don't try to quell the friction that comes from diverse viewpoints, rather help participants to see eye to eye.

One tip is for a participant in a meeting to ask the group to stop for a moment, to explore what is happening that is leading to increased tension. Find out why each of the two "warring" participants are growing frustrated. Likely, in the heat of the moment, they have misperceptions about each other's statements. Collaborating means not just working on the problem to be solved, but working on making the interaction itself more open and constructive.

Working on the frictions at hand, instead of avoiding them, is the essential point. Problems are solved when people understand one another, not when they simply stay quiet long enough for the meeting to end. There are many ways a group leader can increase, rather than stifle, participation of its members. There are also many ways others in the group can foster constructive dialogue.

For example, if someone feels a participant is getting off track and off the subject, they can ask simply, "What's the connection between your statement and the core topic of our discussion?" This is not a rude or inappropriate question to ask. The person speaking may not know that others have grown confused about the connection or the relevance of the statements. As is often said, if you don't understand something, likely others do not as well, so speak up! Proactively provide the links necessary to move the conversation forward.

Listening Skills

Asking someone for clarification of their statement, or paraphrasing what you heard them to be saying, are actually listening skills. See again that it is not a matter of hoping that the participants are all going to work perfectly together, or suppressing frictions you see occurring, but rather minding your own thoughts and reactions and listening and working on the dialogue itself.

Here are a few helpful questions that can enhance the dialogue of your meeting.

  • Can you say more about that?
  • What do you mean by [your statement]?
  • How is that working for you?
  • Tell me more.
  • What matters to you about that?
  • How so?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Is this what you mean?
  • I'm wondering if you're feeling [a specific emotion]?
  • What are you feeling right now?
  • What else should I know about this?

The goal, Kaner explains, is to give the person or persons speaking more space to breathe, rather than trying to pin them down to a conclusion or a bottom line. Listen and stay involved by asking questions. Show the speaker that effort is being made to truly hear what they have to say. If the atmosphere is such that everyone is being listened to, others will be more confident to pitch in their ideas and perspectives. And that is the whole point of the meeting--hearing all the diverse viewpoints!

Strike the right tone internally about the meeting you are going to have, regardless of whether you are the leader or just participating. Allow the atmosphere to remain respectful, supportive and open. You'll be surprised what innovative solutions result.

Sam Kaner, Ph.D., is an expert on consensus decision-making and founder of the consulting firm Community At Work in San Francisco. Kaner is one of several leading practitioners scheduled to speak at the 5th Annual Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford University, Oct. 5-6, 2010, a seminar sponsored by AFP and Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). Get the skills and tools necessary to lead during times of change--early bird deadline extended to Sept. 10! Learn more.

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