How to Make Your Meetings Interesting AND Productive.

 “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much,” Walter Lippman once said. We tend to see the absence of conflict as a sign of good workplace culture. But often the absence of conflict belies a larger problem. It could be a sign that people don’t feel comfortable speaking out and engaging in constructive disagreement.

After all, the question isn’t whether your business has problems. It does. The question is whether you’re identifying and dealing with them or ignoring them in the hopes that they’ll go away. William Ellery Channing said it well: “Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.”

Our workdays are full of meetings. Yet few of them focus on debating and resolving the problems facing our teams. Despite having no shortage of problems, we insist on using this tool to collect status and share updates — functions better served by email.

It’s unfortunate because (a) those are much more interesting meetings to attend, and (b) healthy organizations know that their success is dependent on their ability to productively discuss and resolve divergent viewpoints. By discouraging conflict, we turn meetings into echo chambers. And the quickest path to an obsolete future is disengaged management that doesn’t understand the reality occurring around them.

One of my key rules is that if I feel uncomfortable bringing up a (work) topic in a meeting, it’s a sign that I need to pursue it. It’s a sign that I’m ignoring a problem and need to bring it into the open for debate. Not only does this help underlying issues, but it also makes for much more interesting meetings.

To start, it’s important to…

Step 1: Redefine Debate as Progress

The constructive debate also creates an opportunity to understand how people think about different issues. What are their priorities? What do they see as the underlying causes? How are they worried about the consequences of both action and inaction? The more open this dialogue, the better you can understand people’s motivations and decision-making. It also helps create a broader picture of the issue based on a wider range of perspectives.

It’s the role of the leader to show people that debate is positive. It starts with gracefully hearing opposing views and thanking people when they voice their concerns. When the leader can demonstrate this open-mindedness, it makes it easier for everyone else to feel safe while sharing their ideas.

The better you can make it safe for people to share their perspectives, the better you can focus their attention on solving problems. But first, you should…

Step 2: Define a Clear Problem Statement.

Before asking people to debate an issue, it’s important to clarify the purpose and stick to it. Give people a clear problem statement and keep the discussion focused on that area. As W. Edwards Deming said, “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”

Be specific. What’s the problem? What’s the pain that you need to resolve?

Specifying the problem statement and reminding others about that purpose keeps the focus on what the group is trying to achieve. It lets you cut off tangential discussions, minimize distractions, and keep everyone focused on the topic at hand. It also lets you push for broader input across the team so that you can…

Step 3: Invite multiple perspectives and interpretations.

Pay attention to who’s speaking and invite others to share. We often hesitate to call on people, worried that we’re putting them on the spot. But it’s not a pop quiz. You’re not testing their knowledge of literary trivia. You’re asking for their opinion on a topic relevant to their work. And almost everyone’s already given this some thought.

Our biggest misunderstandings tend to occur when we settle for a single interpretation of an issue. Inviting other people to share their perspectives and ideas broadens everyone’s understanding of the situation. More comprehensive input leads to more comprehensive solutions.

Of course, encouraging broader participation becomes much easier when you can…

Step 4. Encourage Assertive Inquiry

In Playing to Winthe book that’s framed my approach to strategy more than any other, A.G. Lafley describes how this level of dialogue was holding Procter & Gamble back. Instead of everyone advocating for their ideas, he needed to foster assertive inquiry — blending individual positions (advocacy) with a genuine exploration of the thinking of others (inquiry). As Lafley wrote, “The stance we tried to instill at P&G was a reasonably straightforward but traditionally underused one: ‘I have a view worth hearing, but I may be missing something.’”

It sounds simple, but it can dynamically transform how you discuss conflicts. If people approach a debate with the express purpose of showing everyone that they’re right, they see it as an argument to be won. That naturally leads them to attack the logic of opposing views, causing people to become entrenched and more extreme in their positions.

It’s the role of the leader to communicate these expectations and lead by example. After advocating your views, ask for others to explain where they see things differently. Listen carefully and ask questions to better understand the opposing side. Reinforce with everyone that the point isn’t to choose one view over another, it’s to develop a stronger solution based on the collective input.

Because of course, the whole point is to…

Step 5: Propose a Solution

Problems without solutions are a major source of stress in most organizations. People become frustrated if they think they’re just repeating the same arguments over and over. That path leads to unhealthy conflict as the debate tends to become more personal than focused on a specific issue.

Remember that your debates need to focus on solving problems and moving forward. That means solutions and assigned actions, not just venting sessions. Every debate should end with one simple question: What’s the next action? And hopefully, it’s not another meeting.

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Happy World Hippo Day!

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