How to improve the conversation in the room

by | Oct 1, 2018 | Blog | 0 comments

Are you experiencing this too in your meetings and other face-to-face events?

Groups of 12 to 18 individuals who convene face-to-face are speaking up, pushing back, and staying together.

Over the past six months, about half a dozen of in-person groups I’ve encountered, either as a facilitator or a participant, have voted with their chairs.

They’ve declared that they’re staying put and talking together. They’re not going to break up in smaller groups for timed discussions.

Why this resolute point of view about process? When I ask, either in the moment or later during a break, here’s what I hear.

It’s a little bit of FOMA – fear of missing out what others may say in smaller groups.

However, it’s more of an expression of autonomy – the power of the group to set its direction, its agenda, and most importantly, to talk with as minimal constraints as possible.

Genuine face-to-face conversations are rare these days.

Instead, people “talk” on the phone or through their computers or other devices using their fingers on real or digital keyboards. People communicate through email, Slack, Basecamp, private Facebook or LinkedIn groups, instant messaging or other social media platforms.

These communication methods function well for day-to-day transactional work, but are not nearly as effective for group discussions.

And even for those who are out of practice taking part in consequential conversations, the breakout sessions seem too forced. They feel more like a photo opportunity, timed speed-dating event, or drive-by hallway interchange.

By contrast, people want to be seen, heard and make connections with one another in real time, maybe not totally raw but at least spontaneous and unrehearsed. That means having an open dialogue with one another.

To ensure that individuals can participate in the substantive conversations they crave, we should be willing to adapt and improvise our process to meet the group’s needs.

(Last week, when I suggested that we ditch the carefully-crafted agenda I had prepared after the conversation had taken a different turn, the group became almost gleeful. Throughout the rest of the meeting, they claimed responsibility for changing the direction of the meeting. Since everyone participated with great energy and enthusiasm and took ownership for the results, I was pleased with them declaring victory.)

Here are three things I’m doing to support multi-person unscripted, open and sincere conversations.

  1. Facilitate loosely. Recognize that individuals want to talk directly with each other, so let them do so. And assume that means everyone in the room. However, if one or two voices start to dominate, I will step in and ask others if they want to share their perspective. They generally do. And if domination also evolves into bullying, whether real or possibly perceived, I’ll also intervene and suggest a break or an appeal to manners.
  1. Make post-it notes or note cards available as well as pens. Hand out paper and pens so individuals can write things down that they want to remember, possibly to share during the conversation or to reflect on later. Jotting down ideas, especially on a sticky note, is less disruptive to others than pulling out an electronic device and either typing or recording a message to yourself.
  1. Take notes on the themes of the conversation to share later. From my recent experience to date, the participants who have been most enthusiastic about having unstructured conversations have been newly formed groups or existing groups with many new members, such as a task force welcoming new participants. The individuals are either just getting to know one another or starting work on a new task. As a result, their initial conversations have been exploratory in nature; they’re on a set course but they’re not yet driving hard to make decisions. Capturing the themes of the conversation helps them reflect on what they discussed and the implications for what they want to do next. The notes also help jumpstart future conversations, which may be several weeks later.

What are you doing as a facilitator or as a participant to encourage people to be seen, heard and connect with others?

Please share your meeting tips for improving the conversation in the room.


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