Dear Meeting Guru,

"Are there rules that you can set so that people behave better at meetings? Strident confrontational meetings are the norm and I'm trying to change this. Any suggestions?"

San Francisco, CA

Blessed Meeter,

Let's say your meeting is deteriorating into little squabbles, people are locking horns and the discussion is going in circles. You need to alter the climate of the meeting… and fast! In a situation like this, try using the ideas I've outlined below:

Tell participants that you have watched the meeting deteriorate in the last several minutes and you want to try something to see whether it will help them.

Explain that you would like to have everyone abide by a stringent ground rule for the next ten minutes. Let them know it's designed to change the way meeting participants are interacting with one another, then ask participants if they will agree to do it.

Select one or more of the following rule changes:
As each person speaks, he must first paraphrase what the previous speaker said. This ground rule will force participants to focus on views other than their own.
Each speaker must take personal responsibility for what he says. This means the speaker can only voice opinions for himself and must insert "in my opinion" or "here's what I think" before speaking.
Each participant will be given a quota of turns to speak. Give out a small quantity of objects (tickets, paper clips, coins) to each participant. One item must be relinquished every time a turn is taken. When his supply is exhausted, the person can only listen. This will stop certain participants from dominating the meeting discussion.
Only questions are allowed. All participants listen to the questions on each others' minds. No responses can be given until every participant has had a chance to express one question.
Participants must say what they like about another's idea before giving any criticism. Or they must use the phrase "This could work if…" This keeps everyone in the positive and helps avoid unhealthy criticism.

You can use these techniques when conflict is starting to brew or when it's already apparent. However, it's likely you'll have to sell the techniques as ways to move forward. Try to remember what Confucius once said, "Only the most wise and the most foolish do not change." In other words, if you make an effort to implement these techniques and make it clear to the group why you're doing this, it's likely they'll attempt to change their behavior. Progress may not be immediate, but tell the group that if it meets this challenge, it can accomplish anything.

Until next time…may good meeting karma always be with you!




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