Ending the Deja Vu Meeting Syndrome, Part 1

I’ve never forgotten reading about the architect who waited to pave the walkways in an office park until he saw where people walked. He simply paved the paths they created, figuring that they’d choose the most efficient route. And that they’d walk there anyway. I can’t remember his name, but the fact of it made quite an impression on me. I thought the idea of legitimizing where people walked was genius – and much more effective than trying to control their moevments through sidewalks. Now, whenever I see those little footpaths that get worn in the grass, often at the end of a paved pathway, I remember.

I’m reminded of it again everytime a group gets off the agenda and starts arguing about something, passionately, and with fire. I can either wrest them back on to the walkway, I’ve planned, or find a way to put a sidewalk right under their feet which will legitimize their passion and their disagreement. When I have the wit to choose the latter, I’ve got 2 ways to go: The first is to invite everyone to structure their dissent, which I’ll address here; the second involves the skill of resolving impasses, which I’ll cover next week.

Structure the Dissent

This is best used when the whole group is bubbling with dissenting points of view. Your group is ripe for this when several people are straining to speak, and are not building on each other ideas. In fact, they may not be hearing each other at all. Tension is beginning to build and some people are openly frustrated. Here’s what you do:

1. Stop the conversation and say: “Several of you have strong opinions about (your group’s issue goes here). So we can hear what each of you has to say, let’s structure our dissent. Take 60 seconds to gather your thoughts, then we’ll go around the room and hear from each of you in turn. You’ll each have 2 minutes to make the strongest possible case for your point of view, without holding back. The rest of you will be listening. Responding to someone else’s point of view during your 2 minutes is out of bounds. There is no interrupting and no arguing – either advocate your point of view or listen. What questions do you have about this?”

2. Time the preparation period and each of the speakers. Do not allow speakers to go over. Only one person speaks at a time. There is no cross-talk. Do not allow speakers to attack another’s point of view. This is a time for them to advocate their position on it’s merits.

3. At the end of this first round, summarize the areas of agreement. Ask if anyone has been swayed by anything they’ve heard. If not, restate the issue and ask participants to do another round of structured discussion. Time and manage it as before.

4. Again summarize the agreements you heard and ask if anyone has changed their mind as a result of what they’ve heard. Restate the issue/problem and conduct another round.

5. Summarize the points of agreement. By this time, one of two things will have happened. Either they’ll have come to an agreement or a very thoughtful open discussion will erupt and lead naturally to an agreement.

Why does it work?

Open discussion is the default process for most meetings. Unfortunately, in open discussion, the discussion happens before all the information has been revealed, and usually involves the extroverts in the room and those higher on the org. chart. Conflicts become ritualized and stay unexplored and unresolved as everyone seeks to not offend. This is the kind of process that leads to the the deja vu meeting syndrome: because the issues are not surfaced, explored and resolved, you will get to have this meeting again. And again. And again…

A better practice is to get all points of view heard and clearly delineated before discussing them. It’s a lot like eating the peanuts before you chew the gum rather than chewing both at the same time. Structured discussion separates the peanuts from the gum. It encourages listening, rather than simply waiting to talk. It legitimizes and makes welcome stridently different points of view. And, nothing sparks creativity like sharply divergent points of view.

Because of this, structured discussion much more efficient than open discussion, and will get your group to agreement quickly and cleanly, like a hot knife through butter. Even better, the agreement will be solid, well-informed and owned by everyone. Why doesn’t everyone use this, you ask?

I have no idea.

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