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Trash your meeting agenda (and have a good conversation)

I love agendas. They make me feel safe. Agendas let me enter into that “vacation state of mind” in which I can be oblivious to the most important things going on around me, while attending—sometimes obsessively—to some of the least important things. Like how well we are sticking to the agenda.

Agendas help me make insightful contributions to the group, like “we’re running over our allotted time, folks,” and “that’s not on the agenda.”

With every topic and every minute accounted for, the world is orderly and predictable. And when we cover everything on the agenda…well it’s almost as if I’m getting real work done. As if I’m actually earning my pay.

They don’t just deliver benefits during the meeting though. Planning the agenda is also satisfying. Like a cross between playing god and being a TV weather anchor. This is a guess, cause I’ve never been a TV weather anchor.

But here are the three very best things about agendas and the dogged attempt to stick to them, no matter what:

  1. Agendas help the group avoid addressing what it doesn’t want to address.
  2. Agendas help the group avoid addressing what it knows it should address but doesn’t know how to address without somebody freaking out. This is especially useful when the leader is the one who tends to freak out. So agendas can also serve as “binkies” for the boss. (Note: My son is now 18 so it’s been a while since we’ve deployed a real binkie. According to the online Urban Dictionary, some of the synonyms for binkie include: binky, nipple (duh), aardvark (?), Arthur (??), cock, stink, buster, nook, LSD (huh?)… And all that time we thought we were just pacifying our son.)
  3. Agendas help the group avoid addressing things it doesn’t know it needs to address (because there is never time in the agenda to speculate together about what those things might even be).

With all of these “benefits” you may be wondering why I titled this piece “Trash your meeting agenda…”

Seriously, here’s why: Because agendas don’t improve performance. They can’t. Only people can. And we do that through conversation. Improve our conversations and we improve our organization’s performance.

To be fair, the agenda isn’t really the problem. Agendas can help us have better conversations, but too often they end up limiting topics to what people are comfortable talking about and lulling groups into believing that they are having good conversations just because they’re following the agenda.

But having good conversations isn’t always easy.

The real problem is that many groups and individuals simply don’t know how to have good conversations, especially with other human beings. Part of the problems is that those pesky humans each have their own peculiar ways of seeing things. And their own particular values, interests, aspirations. This can make conversations confusing, frustrating, even scary. (I single “human beings” out here because this is definitely NOT the case with my dog Bella, with whom I have some of my very best conversations, at least when she listens to me.)

Having good conversations about important things—especially when the issues are complex and/or emotionally charged, requires some conversational chops. Many individuals and groups simply haven’t learned how to do it. It also often requires courage. So we turn to our agendas to do the work—which doesn’t work.

What can you do? Here are some possibilities…

  • You could just toss the agenda in the trash at your next meeting, and let ‘er rip. (May feel risky, but could encourage some interesting conversation.)
  • You could invite your group to submit topics that you’ve never talked about together that might be important to talk about, and then add one or more of these topics to your next agenda. (Only do this if you’re actually willing to talk about some of these things.)
  • You could add to your next agenda a conversation about the group’s own conversations—How well are we raising real issues? How well are we learning from one another? How well are we really listening and understanding each other? How well are we keeping our commitments to one another and to others? (Could feel a bit weird at first for folks who aren’t used to reflecting on their own behavior in a group setting, but very good things can come of this.)

The point is this—don’t be the victim of your agenda any more. Don’t let agendas run your meeting, your team, your organization. It’s fine to have an agenda, but the purpose of any meeting is to have a good conversation. Make sure you are talking about what’s really important, even if it’s “not on the agenda.” As your conversations improve, so will your group’s performance.

The Tell-Fest

We’ve all been there. A leadership team meeting, board meeting, project team meeting, it could be any meeting in any organization, almost anywhere on the planet.  Sometimes you know its coming and you just wait it out. Other times it sneaks up on you.  Or perhaps you’re the one who starts the party and you just keep on partying.

It’s the tell-fest—that meeting or conversation that consists mostly (or sometimes entirely) of people talking at each other. Telling each other what they know, what they think, how they feel, what others should know, think, feel…

You don’t need many people to get a tell-fest going. All it takes is one or two people dominating the conversational airspace and you’re there. But sometimes the whole room is caught up in the festivities and you’ve got a tell-fest royale.

While they can be boring or annoying, there are other reasons why tell-fests are problematic, namely that they…

  • Sap the energy out of the group, because few people like to be talked at incessantly, even by super smart folks.
  • Limit the opportunity to test hypotheses, question underlying assumptions and explore dissenting views, all of which are essential for teams to learn and respond well to changing conditions. It turns decision making like hitting the piñata with a blindfold on—fun to do at a party, but not great business practice. It doesn’t lead to good decisions. Good decisions require good learning, which means ample listening, asking thoughtful questions, and questioning assumptions and opinions.
  • Weaken commitment. Strong commitment generally comes from feeling personally engaged in a conversation, project or some shared future with others. But when the conversation dominated by telling, there is little chance to fully engage. What could be a shared future becomes a collection of “private futures,” where siloed thinking is the norm.

Put simply, Tell-fests are not so much conversations as serial monologues.

An alternative to the tell-fest

If tell-fest is monologue, an alternative is dialogue—the free exchange of ideas, perspectives, assumptions, feelings, judgments. A conversation in which people not only attempt to influence others, but also let themselves be influenced by one another. While this kind of conversation sounds great—and it is—getting to dialogue can be challenging for many individuals and teams, especially when they’re used to life in the tell-fest lane. Many teams never actually experience real dialogue together. They don’t even know its possible.

If the tell-fest is primarily about telling others what you see, think, feel, want—telling them whatever—then shifting out of that mode means moving to more listening and inquiry. It means becoming curious about how other people are seeing things, how they’re understanding what you’re trying to say, and how you may be understanding what they are trying to say. Becoming curious about how the world looks from perspectives other than your own.

Of course, this requires that you actually do value the others’ perspectives, otherwise why would you bother! (Better off just continuing to state (and listen to) you own views, continuing the monologue.) Which brings us to an interesting point, which is that when most of the conversations a team has known together have been some form of tell-fest, it’s very possible that you don’t really know how interesting or informative others on your team may actually be, especially those who aren’t the doing most of the telling.

(In future article, we’ll explore some thoughts that might make it easier to become more curious if you’re not currently predisposed to that.)

For now, let’s assume that you’re prepared to at least give curiosity a chance. Here are five things you can do to begin moving away from the tell-fest:

  1. Become more aware. Start to notice when the tell-fest is happening in your conversations or meetings. Keep a log for a week to record all of the times you notice an overabundance of telling in any conversation. Chances are, except for intentional “downloads” or one-way presentations, there will also be a shortage of real collaborative exchange, reflection and learning when there is a lot of telling going on. As you pay attention to these conversations, also notice your own interest level, energy, and curiosity. You’re propably not the only person in the room who may be experiencing boredom, frustration or impatience.
  1. Engage in more inquiry yourself. Ask real questions that aim to better understand what people are saying, thinking and feeling. You might give yourself a goal of asking at least two questions in your next meeting. Although it will feel contrived at first, once you do it a few times, it will probably start to feel more natural. And it’s likely you’ll learn some things about the other people that you might not have known before. Which will make it easier for you to keep asking more questions. (A funny thing may start to happen as you ask more questions: Some of those people who have always dominated the conversation before may begin to ease back on the advocacy throttle as they begin to feel better listened to, more understood.)
  1. Name it. Bring it to the group’s attention when you think a tell-fest is happening. You might raise your hand to get people’s attention silently, and then ask the group whether there is enough inquiry and listening in the room. Sometimes just asking this question is enough to shift the group towards more inquiry and listening.
  1. Make a request. Ask the group if everyone would agree to do just a little less telling and do more listening, ask more clarifying questions and even allow some “white space” between comments. (I think the judicious use of white space—silence—is like a magic elixir for conversations. All sorts of unexpected and valuable things can start to happen in conversations when people allow just a little more white space in between the sentences and paragraphs.)
  1. Solicit input. If you’re more comfortable with an indirect approach, consider soliciting input from others who are not contributing as much in the conversation. Ask for those who haven’t spoken much to weigh in, or perhaps suggest you go around the room, round-robin fashion, to hear from everybody. This way everybody has a chance to contribute to the conversation, whether or not they always take advantage of it.

If you make just one of these moves in your next tell-fest, you’ll be doing the team a favor. It may feel a bit awkward at first, especially if the team is accustomed (or even addicted) to lots of telling and little inquiry. The more you do it, though, the easier it will be and it will likely start to spread.

You’ll know things are changing when others begin asking more questions spontaneously, taking a little more time between responses, or just talking at each other a little less. And as your conversations begin to improve, so will your team’s performance, because organizational performance lives in its conversations. (hyperlink to other article)