HYCS #16 – This Entering Meeting Wouldn’t End

HYCS #15 – This Entering Meeting Wouldn’t End

Have you ever been still in the entering meeting and halfway through the project at the same time?  Me too.

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Word Count: 1078

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Assignment Time: No additional time

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Recently, I had an entering meeting that lasted several days.  It lasted so long that I was simultaneously entering, contracting and doing.  Normally, I can get to the goals of the initial client meeting  (learning all about the client’s situation and goals; establishing a partnership) in our first conversation, even with multiple clients.

Not this time.

I use my first meeting with a client to discover what my clients real interests are, separate from the position he is taking.  If I’m successful, we’ll have a partnership and I’m confident about the path we’re taking.  If I’m not successful, the entering meeting can go on for days.

The harder my client holds on to his initial demand – his position – the more suspicious I am that he is hiding what is most important to him behind his position.

In this case, the task was straightforward:  Design and facilitate and annual goal-setting meeting.  I’ve done it many times before in many companies.  I’d done it twice for this client.   And still, the entering meeting would not end.

My client – I’ll call him the boss – was asking his managers to use a goal template spelled out in a redundant and confusing 20-page document.  Mangers were to “cut and paste” the content of their team’s goals into this complicated document.  Worse, we we’re to use this document during the meeting to help the teams get clear.   But the document was mostly corporate gibberish, and the farthest from clear you could be.

One of my client’s direct reports is near tears with frustration:  How can she use this with her group when she doesn’t understand it.  As they talk, disagree, then argue, I see the boss harden his position.

Which makes me suspect what the boss is asking for is not what he really wants.


Here’s my evidence:

1.  Over-functioning:  It doesn’t take 20 pages to ask for what you want or need.  It takes a simple sentence:  I’m thirsty; May I have some water?  I’m tired; I’d like to sit down.  Simple, short, clear.  What’s all the clutter in this document protecting?

2. Under-functioning:  The direct report is brilliant, and a stellar performer.  She could organize the second coming asleep.  She normally has no trouble translating corporate gibberish into plain language.  Something is fogging her brain.

3.  Hiding in plain sight:  There is a 5-step process is written at least 50 times in the 20-page document.  Might those 5 words be the crux of the matter?

4. Furious agreement:  They are arguing about how to do right by their teams and their organizations.  They both want the same thing.   It fuels their argument like gasoline fuels a fire.

I have 3 goals:

1. Maintain the self-esteem of all parties.  This is jargon for naming the good in both of them and expressing confidence that, although it seems impossible now, we are close to breaking through.

2. Support the boss and his direct report in expressing their real interests.

3. Get a clear agenda, documents and process that will work for our upcoming daylong meeting in 8 days

I start with the boss:

“It looks to me like you need everyone in your area to use the same 5-step process so you can see what’s going on in your department and speak about it to your boss.”

He nods so hard I think his head may come off.  “Exactly!”

“A common work process can be a tough corner to turn, especially with engineers.  It can seem unobtainable at first.  I imagine you need this in order to do your job properly, right?”

Is it possible that he is nodding harder than before?  Can the human body endure this level of physical agreement?   He practically erupts:  “I can’t help them without knowing what’s going on.  I can’t argue for resources or more time or show how they contribute without this.”

There it is:  His real interest.

That 20-page document is collaboration kryptonite.  It will derail us unless I can defuse its power to divide.  I decide to tell the boss a true story:

“I publish 1500 words a week, and it the hardest work I’ve ever done.  I thought it would get easier over time, but it hasn’t.  It’s so clear in my mind, but when I sit down to write, it get’s all complicated and confusing.  I think writing is nature’s way of showing us how unclear our thinking is.  For me, making my writing clear and concise is a painful process, and I’m not always successful.  But I know it when I get it and so does everyone else.  It’s unmistakable.”

I lock eyes with the boss and say:  “For the goals-setting meeting, we need a simple visual so clear it needs no explanation.”

The nodding is slower and more thoughtful now.

*   *   *

We’re meeting again on Monday, which is cutting it close for getting the agenda settled and giving the managers time to prepare.

Right at the beginning of this meeting, the boss leaps up and scribbles a big circle on the whiteboard with 4 smaller circles orbiting it.   Pointing the big circle, he says:

“This is the engineering process I want everyone to use.  The 4 outer circles are the categories our work falls into.”

I say, “The big circle is how you want people to work, and the 4 outer circles are what they work on?”


The entering meeting was finally over.

With a clear statement of the one thing the boss really wanted, we knocked out the agenda in no time.  The boss became instantly flexible about the template and the frustrated direct report tailored it for her team.

For me, it’s worth risking failure to get to what my client wants, but may be afraid to admit to.


1. Start noticing the difference between what your client’s are insisting on and what interests they are hoping to satisfy.

2. Write down their positions/demands and what you think are their interests.

3. What questions would you ask to uncover the interests they are protecting?  How would you “drop the needle?”

So often, the position they seem wedded to will not help them achieve what they are secretly hoping for.  It is a mission of mercy  to help them uncover and believe they can do it, a step at a time.  It’s a privilege to support their progress.

It’s pretty terrifying to want something you don’t think you can achieve.   “Unobtainium” is what a friend calls it.  In the face of that, we all reach for the chocolates instead of the broccoli, the 20-page report instead of the simple diagram.