I’m reading the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High”.  It’s absolutely excellent.  And not just for conversations when the stakes are high – but also when the stakes are rather more mundane, such as your typical day-to-day business meeting.  I’ve been consciously trying to apply the principles from the book for a while now, and I’ve found that meetings seem much more enjoyable.

The key principle of the book is that conversations work best when everyone is able to “add their meaning to the pool”.  I.e. to share what’s on their mind.  Conversely, conversations work poorly when people withhold information and viewpoints:

When people purposefully withhold meaning from one another, individually smart people can do collectively stupid things.

Therefore, successful dialog depends on two learnable skills: (a) helping other people to share what’s on their mind, and (b) being able to share what’s on your mind even in difficult situations.  I’d like to share a recent example of the latter…

Our (excellent) manager was describing a change to our processes.  I hated the idea. It seemed bureaucratic, time-consuming and just plain wrong.  As he said how much “we need to do it”, I found myself giving up.  My instinct was to withdraw from the conversation.  If he was so sure, what point was there in discussing it?  He wasn’t actually asking for our opinions.  And besides, everyone else seemed to agree.  At least, they were sitting there nodding. 

But just in that moment of giving up, I caught myself. Sharing meaning is good, right?  Yes!  And even fun?  Yes, as I have discovered. So in that moment I decided to take the enjoyable, productive route, instead of the grumpy silent one. I said something like this:

I feel a bit concerned about the cost of doing this.  On <project X> we deliberately avoided gathering this data, and it was fine.  We used high-level figures, instead of the detailed breakdown we’re talking about here, and …”  I went on to briefly expand on our experience on <project X>.

Instead of giving up, I had managed to share “my meaning” with the group.  It wasn’t so hard.  It didn’t seem like I’d offended anybody, and I felt much better within myself for having shared. 

(Incidentally, talking along the lines of “I feel concerned about…” is a useful collaboration technique that I’ve picked up along the way.  It works much better, and is more honest and more informative, than bluntly saying “I don’t like that”.    Another handy technique is to talk in terms of concrete stories, as I did about <project X>.  Both these techniques deserve blog posts of their own one day…)

So did it work?  Did adding my meaning to the pool actually advance the discussion?  Yes it did.  The boss replied with a clarification of his underlying goals.  Which was great, because then we were able to think about all possible ways to meet that goal – instead of just debating between his original plan and my suggested alternative.  We haven’t finalised the decision yet, but it looks like we’re going to end up with something better than either of us had imagined.

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