There’s plenty of information out there about meeting angst and agenda guidelines. It’s the main focus for meeting tech tools and content resources.
What about what happens in the actual meeting? There’s usually a decision that needs to be made, and there’s always a group conversation. These two skills are important for meetings and nearly every aspect of life.
Here’s how to improve these critical elements.
The most meticulous agenda paired with a fully adopted system of meeting bylaws will not help with the crucial element of decision making. Meeting software tools produce loads of training and educational content with the goal of addressing this skill.
Google executives famously rely on data to make decisions. Former VP Melissa Mayer discouraged the word “like” in meetings and instead encouraged people to use data-backed compliments or critiques. This can be a double-edged sword. Google over-engineered this idea to the point where they were testing 41 shades of blue to see which one performed better, which irked some designers. Despite this, being deliberate about your decision making process and criteria is a must.
Leaning on data for decision making is a popular option because it’s the opposite of an emotional approach. Emotional decision-making is usually involved with our biggest regrets. But it’s also true that the emotional side of reasoning can’t be buried entirely.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio documented cases where patients suffer brain damage that removes their ability to use emotion when making decisions. Their lives are ruined despite their IQ and other brain functions being completely normal because they’re not able to make decisions. This demonstrates the importance of considering people’s moods, emotions and maintaining a positive atmosphere within every meeting room.
Further, relying entirely on logic (or data) leads to analysis paralysis if logic doesn’t indicate a clear winner. For example, if logo design options have divided support amongst the team and comparative A/B test results.
Whether it’s data, an executive to serve as final tiebreaker, an algorithm, etc. it’s important to have something in place to make decisions when a stalemate is hurting productivity. Also, facilitating friendly conversation and boosting morale will have an actual impact on your decision making.
You can have time to prepare, set the right agenda, use meeting bylaws and it can all still go wrong. What actually happens when you physically or digitally get together is often overlooked, at least by so-called thought leaders on the topic.
While much of the advice about meetings is experience-driven, opinion-based and more art than science, guidance for facilitating conversation is more objective. It’s an easier topic to study and thus provides more conclusions.
There are several techniques for managers (or any meeting leader).
Create a welcoming environment - If employees don’t feel like they have permission to share, complain or ask hard questions, they’re likely not going to share important details about a project gone wrong. You can do this by asking permission before questioning, and asking questions like:
- What do you think I need to know?
- Where are you struggling?
- What are you proud of?
Be aware of questioning sequence - With that said, you should pay attention to how your questions are sequenced. In “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman explained how questioning sequence can alter a respondents answers entirely.
Students were asked how their life was going, followed by a question about their dating life. The answers were independent and not related. Flip the question sequence, and suddenly they felt worse about their life if they had a negative response on the dating question (which was asked first).
This can apply to 1-on-1 meetings or status review meetings. If someone shares a negative sentiment on the initial question, the follow up question will likely be more of the same. Counteract this by focusing on the initial answer. Understand the why and how behind the reaction, before moving forward.
Think like a negotiator - Hostage negotiators apply a simple, but effective 5-step process.
- Active Listening
- Behavioral Change
What happens in many meetings is people go directly to step four (influence), or skip one of the first three steps. It’s not enough to just listen, express empathy and demonstrate rapport to influence behavior or get people to listen and take whatever action is required after the meeting.
There are also techniques for meeting participants.
Mimic Appropriately - People are influenced by our movements and nonverbal reactions. MIT professor Sandy Pentland published an entire book dedicated to this topic. In one study, a presenter who purposely mimicked the movements of listeners was found to be 20 percent more effective. This isn’t something you would want to forcefully do, but understanding the movements and reactions of your teammates during a meeting will lead to more listening and togetherness.
Active and Constructive Responses - Practice active and constructive responses whenever responding to someone. This means you are active with your body language i.e. maintaining eye contact. And constructive with language i.e. repeating part of their statement, then building on it.
Compliment and encourage - If you want to be heard and listened to during a meeting, make other people feel good. Research shows that flattery is effective even when it’s obviously insincere. Being insincere isn’t the best habit to pick up, but find ways to compliment team members.
Check out our other meeting-focused content to learn more about issues, solutions and how Topple fits in.