Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Team Meeting Series: Facilitating Conversation

Actions to take: Actively facilitate your meetings. This means curtailing the people who talk too much and drawing out the people who talk too little. You must step in and do these things even though it feels a little socially improper at first.

This is a post in a short series about running your team meetings, i.e. the regularly scheduled meeting with all of your direct reports in attendance. Many of the lessons apply to other meetings, but team meetings are the focus.

Facilitating conversation goes beyond simply encouraging more conversation. The average boss's team meetings are such an unengaging affair that the boss counts any amount of participation as a win. That is not enough. For us, facilitating conversation means encouraging effective conversation. We are going to create and moderate an environment where we don't just encourage participation, we guide that participation toward behaviors that make the best use of our time.

Meeting attendees generally either talk too much or talk too little. There are those special few who pitch in their ideas just often enough with just enough words to make their point, but they are rare. With the tactics from this post, your employees will get closer to this rare breed of meeting attendee.

People who talk too much do so for a lot of reasons. They like to think out loud (are are blissfully unaware that others don't enjoy watching the grinding of their gears). They don't know how to make their point, so they verbally wander around. They like their opinion too much. Whenever someone makes another point, even one that doesn't contradict theirs, they feel the need to reiterate whatever they said a few minutes ago. They are doing it politically. If they are speaking half the time in a 10-person meeting, then their ideas are on the table far more often than anyone else's. 

As meeting facilitator, you must rein in the talkers. We avoid doing this because it feels rude to cut someone off. But your unwillingness to bend a social norm is making everyone suffer. Here are a few ways you can do it with some grace:

  • Scan the crowd for someone else who wants to speak: "Carl, I'm sorry to cut you off there, but Jevin has been bursting to contribute their point. Jevin, what have you got?"
  • Invoke the agenda: "Carl, we've only got about 3 minutes left on this agenda item. Can you come to your point in the next 60 seconds or so? Then I'll see if others have thoughts before we move on."
  • Respond yourself, say something vaguely positive, and move on: "Oh, you just mentioned [blank]. That's a very good point! Let's explore that idea more in a one-on-one. Now [next agenda item]."
To the extent that you can, say these things honestly. If it is perfectly obvious that you are just trying to make them stop talking, you will offend. In that case, it is better to simply say, "Carl, you've taken up too much time making your point. Let's give the floor to someone else." (Frankly, plenty of people will respect that comment)

There is one other reason talkers do so much talking: they feel if they don't, no one will. Your silent employees are equal contributors to this problem. Quiet folks have just as many reasons for not voicing their opinions as the talkers do for talking too much. There are the "humbly quiet" people. They have thoughts and opinions; they just assume you'll ask if you want them. There are the "hostilely quiet" people. You better believe they have opinions! Then there are the people who stay quiet because they are afraid of getting steamrolled by a talker—they have opinions, but they aren't up for arguing about it. Finally, you've got the people who are quiet because they are disengaged. 

For every one of the motivations above, the solution is the same: ask them their opinion. Most quiet people will have something to say when you pass the conversation to them. You will be surprised to realize how many important thoughts have been left unsaid in the past. Have a plan prepared to give them an out if they don't have anything to say. It could look like this: 

  • "Jevin, what do you think?" 
  • [Jevin gives you a blank stare] 
  • "We'll give you a minute to put your thoughts together. Carl, you look like you have something to say." 
  • Then, you can either return to Jevin or not. Either way, Jevin will be more prepared in the future. 

Ground Rules make the whole facilitation process much easier. If you start calling on people out of the blue, they are going to feel like you are playing gotcha. They will feel like you are trying to embarrass them or put them on the spot or draw them into an argument they don't want to have. However, if you have ground rules that say things like "Promote equal voice" and "Participate fully" with descriptions of what that looks like, no one can plead ignorance. They will expect and accept that you require some level of engagement during meetings (The same applies to cutting off the talkers, btw). 

Now, the smart boss will still respect individual differences. Let the people who like to talk do more of the talking, and let the quiet people do less. It is a matter of balancing things, not making everyone clones of each other. 

The vast majority of meetings are totally unfacilitated. The person running the meeting is often entirely unaware that they are supposed to be doing anything at all to promote effective conversation. This post is not nearly everything there is to facilitation, but it is a start. The advice here will put your meetings head and shoulders above others. You will soon get a reputation for keeping meetings on track and running meetings where meaningful discussion takes place. 

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