Disciplined Conversations


What proportion of your day do you spend in meetings?

People talk about having meetings “back-to-back” or “wall-to-wall,” but how much of that time feels well-spent, helping you make progress on your objectives?  In some organisations it’s become normal to spend meetings catching up on email, with people physically present but mentally absent, waiting for the one part of the meeting that feels relevant.

While all sorts of things have evolved in organisational life – the way we use office space or the tools we use to communicate – very little has changed in the way we run meetings. We think there are some straightforward ways to have better meetings, so that we can have more concise conversations that reach a conclusion.

Collaborative Conversations

Collaborative conversations can be good for divergent thinking – exchanging a breadth of ideas, looking at things from different perspectives, bringing different experiences and insights. But that diversity of perspective can pull the conversation away from a resolution. Views are shared, opinions aired, but little moves forward, and teams find themselves revisiting issues again and again.

So how can we have more disciplined conversations?

For us, having a disciplined conversation means:

Agreeing ownership – making sure each agenda item has an owner, who clarifies what they want from the time spent. What will you have at the end of the discussion that you don’t have now?

Tracking the conversation - using a whiteboard or flipchart to create a mindmap that captures the progress of the discussion, so that points don’t get lost.

Agreeing terms - before having the discussion making sure you have a shared understanding of terms that you’re using. For example, when making a decision about a course of action, what criteria will different people be using to make their decision?

Reviewing the process - pausing the conversation to check what’s helping, what isn’t, is the group on track, is everyone feeling able to participate?

Accountability - agreeing who will be accountable for carrying out actions you’ve decided on.

Practising good conversational behaviours – asking more questions of each other to check you fully understand each other’s point of view, being clearer about the assumptions behind your positions, and taking time to explore differences of perspective.

Practicalities of meetings

We also suggest reviewing the who, what, where, and when of meetings. For example, how many people are included? One director told us he deletes from his diary any meeting with more than ten attendees – larger meetings mean that his contribution is unlikely to be useful. How long do you meet for? One organisation told us they limit meetings to 45 minutes – attention span in meetings is estimated to be between 35 and 55 minutes, and as little as 25 minutes for conference calls. Where do you meet? How conducive are the rooms you meet in for having good conversations? What about the layout – a long rectangular table may well stifle the flow of conversation.

How can you run more productive meetings?

If you’d like a meetings MOT to help you run more effective meetings, take a few minutes to get in touch.

contact us now to find out how we can help

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