In a recent column for Management.Issues, organizational development consultant Tim Lambert offers this perspective: “Let’s be clear: disagreement and challenge are healthy activities. Without them, teams are denied innovation and progress.”
Wise words, indeed. In the case of business meetings, however, “disagreement and challenge” could become too much of a good thing. Why? Because research tells us a common concern among business people is wasting valuable time in meetings. Arriving at mutual understanding among multiple parties in any setting can take all the time you have, so there’s nothing worse than when a meeting of many is derailed by debate between a few.
The task of keeping discussion on track can be especially challenging with virtual meetings, when all or some attendees participate via audio or video conference. Sensing when an argument—or a participant—has gone too far can be trickier when dealing solely with indirect eye contact and verbal cues.
“Contrary to what your debate coach said, arguments aren’t rational,” Baer writes. “So respect the other person’s perspective, no matter how ridiculous it sounds.”
Baer’s piece focuses on arguments, but the counsel he shares can be extended to a common theme for meeting leaders and attendees alike—reaching consensus. By definition, consensus in a group means achieving “general agreement or concord; harmony.” Building consensus in a meeting arguably would be the best way to avoid wasting time and satisfy all parties involved.
Here’s a digest of guidance from Baer and Lambert, cast in the light of equipping meeting leaders—and participants—to build consensus:
1. Collaborate, Don’t Compete
“Attacking someone’s ideas puts them into fight-or-flight mode. Once they’re on edge, there will be no getting through to them,” Baer cautions. Instead, he recommends “extreme agreement.”
He explains: “Take your conversational partner’s views and advance them to their logical—and perhaps absurd—conclusion.” In either case, discussion is more apt to move beyond dueling viewpoints to some sort of resolution.
2. Turn Talk to “How” not “Why”
Baer cites a 2013 University of Colorado study in which people were asked to explain “why their opinions were right” or “how their ideals could be turned into actual policy.”
Those in the “how” group tended to soften their positions after given the task of articulating the mechanics of implementing their point of view. Perhaps because asking “how” invokes pragmatism while pressing for “why” may engage more emotion.
3. Make Open-Ended Requests
Like focusing on “how,” posing open-ended inquiries can transform competitive interactions into collaborative ones by engaging a person’s creativity and critical thinking. Rather than dismissing or avoiding disputed ideas, encourage a quick exploration by saying “That’s interesting. Tell us how your approach will work.”
For this technique to be effective, the requester must be careful to strike an optimistic tone. Any hint of sarcasm would be counterproductive.
4. Show with the Tell
Baer refers to research from Cornell University that shows people tend to trust scientists. “Thus, doing things that make you appear scientific—like using a graph—makes you more trustworthy,” he says.
Of course, graphic support when participating in a meeting with web or video conferencing may take some extra work. But the impact is worth the effort. Concise points are quickly made. And anyone concerned about the best use of time appreciates a takeaway chart for later reference.
5. Tell Stories Featuring Numbers
Even if you don’t have time to make charts or graphs, you can speak in word pictures, i.e., choose anecdotes that meeting participants can see in their heads. Use numbers when appropriate because they stand out in a sentence.
This technique is easier to demonstrate than describe. For example, don’t say “I performed a verbal survey of our marketing department, and 66% of respondents reported the new brochure is ineffective.” Instead, try “I sat down with all 10 members of the marketing team, and six of them said they saw our new brochure in waste baskets when visiting our customers.”
6. Let Confidence Lead
Studies show people tend to gravitate to those who express positions with conviction. Certainly not surprising in a society that reveres—and fears—the art of public speaking. (For more on this point, see our recent post “3 Pointers for Quelling Public-Speaking Jitters.”)
This technique is related to the bullets about focusing on “how” and using “open-ended” statements. Invite participants with strong ideas—and feelings—to elaborate on their positions. Of course, first let them know how much time is available to them.
7. Flip Your Response
Lambert advocates a simple verbal tactic that some persuasive communication specialists call “Inversion.” Rather than rebut a meeting participant’s opinion by saying “I disagree,” first do the work of explaining your position. Then, conclude with: “That’s why you and I see the situation differently.”
This approach operationalizes Baer’s admonition to “Be Civil.” The emphasis shifts from the person to the details, which, unlike emotions, can be discussed or deferred. Either way—the meeting’s moving forward.
What ways have you found that work to keep your meetings on track? Are there different tactics based on who you’re meeting with our how you’re hosting the meeting? Share your ideas below!