Great Meetings: Turn and Talk

Sometimes I ask people, "What's a large group to you?" Some people say "Six people." Others might say, "Over 500 feels big to me." We all have different comfort levels where group size is concerned, and too often meeting facilitators or managers don't acknowledge that.

The tip I'm going to offer today, "Turn and Talk," makes the group feel a little smaller and brings people's best thinking to the surface. 

Before you introduce a topic for discussion (I hope there's discussion happening in your meetings, not just announcements!), give participants a chance to talk in pairs.  Let's say your project team is meeting and you're about to discuss whether or not to push a deadline back. Before jumping in, you can say something like, "Turn to the person next to you and talk to them about how this project is going for you. Do you need more time? What do you think is best for our customer?" Give the pairs 5-10 minutes to talk (depending on the complexity of the question), then bring them back together. You can either let people jump in with what they heard and learned, or you can do something more structured like have participants share with the group what they heard from their partner.

"Turn and Talk" Advantages:

  • The comments made in the larger group will be more articulate and more scripted
  • Everyone will have had a chance to "warm up," to wrap their brains around the issue
  • Conversations will happen that might not have otherwise
  • Participants who generally talk a lot will have been forced to listen for a few minutes
  • Participants who tend to be quieter will have had more airtime
  • You will almost certainly have an easier time making a final decision

P.S. I've been doing some form of this technique for years, but stole this term from my son's kindergarten teacher.  She used "Turn and Talk" to great effect with five-year olds that were reluctant to interact. If it can happen in that kindergarten class, I'm positive you can have some success with it at work!

Great Meetings: Open Warmly

I'm betting this is a familiar scene to many of you:

You arrive to a meeting at work. People straggle in, and everyone's already feeling like time has been lost by the time you start. There's shuffling papers, maybe some technology problems, people turning off their PDA's (or worse, not turning them off!).

So it would seem like a ridiculous waste of time to spend the beginning of the meeting talking about personal things, right? And, if you ask people how they're doing, you might get a lot more than you bargained for. So the safest route is to dive right into the agenda and get things done.

Don't do it! I have a better way! And it's easy! It's called "check-in." 

"Check-in" is a method to:

  • Build context for your meeting
  • Give the introverts at least one chance to say something
  • Be human with each other
  • Actually be MORE productive in your time together

It's not an "icebreaker." And it's most definitely not something that requires people to be uber-transparent, like a most-embarassing-moment story. It goes like this:

  • Tell your group you're going to start with a "check-in." If you get groans, ask them to agree to try it for a month and then evaluate.
  • Each person gets a chance to say "A word or a sentence about what's up for you today."
  • As the facilitator, model brevity. Something like, "I'm happy to be here" or "I had a great weekend with my family." (Notice that people can be as disclosing or non-disclosing as they want.)
  • There's no crosstalk allowed--no comments or questions on others' check-in's, just listening.
  • Go around the circle, and anyone can pass.
  • Start your meeting.

Clearly, this wouldn't be feasible for a 100-person meeting, but I've used it with 40 people and only cut 5 minutes into the agenda.  Spending a few minutes connecting to one another is never a waste of time.  Be brave and try it!

Great Meetings: They are Possible!

When my kids ask what I do for a living, I tell them I help people get along.

And go to a lot of meetings. Unlike lots of folks, I actually like meetings (partly because they're always in someone else's workplace!).  I find the dynamics fascinating. Edgar Schein, a pioneering voice in studies of organizational culture, says that if you want to understand a particular organizational culture, go to a meeting. Does the meeting start on time? Who talks first? Does it seem like people want to be there? Are people making decisions together or staring at a powerpoint presentation, eyes half-closed?

I'm going to do a little series here on effective and engaging meetings--a few observations and tips that might help you in whatever meeting you're dreading at the moment. 

Here's some basics:

  • Meetings are inherently social. A presentation does not equal a meeting! Presentations can certainly be part of a meeting, but don't call everyone together unless you plan to engage them.
  • Workplace meetings should have a facilitator. A facilitator is someone who "makes things happen with ease." They're not necessarily the content expert or the person with authority. They're the one who watches out for process.
  • Have a plan. Meetings without agendas can be a scary waste of time. You can even build your agenda together at the start of a meeting.
  • A participatory, well-run meeting is almost always worth the work. I've had lots of chances to collaborate lately, and am always pleased that what we come up with together is so much better than what I would have done on my own.

 What tips do you have for effective and engaging meetings?

Tears at Work

No one I know likes to cry at work. Awful! Everyone sees your vulnerability, you feel out-of-control. Maybe you worry about losing the respect ofyour colleagues. And you probably feel just plain stupid.

I've got some practical tips for people in both camps--the criers, and the ones who fall apart when they experience someone else crying.

First, here's my quick take on the phenomenon. As much as we might understand the merits of having good boundaries at work, we can't check our full, human selves at the door. In fact, doing that would make our workplaces less fulfilling and productive. For some of us, this means some tears sneak out from time-to-time. Maybe it was a taboo in the 1950's. It's not anymore.

One of the tricks to being a good leader or co-worker, though, it to maintain a non-anxious presence in times of change. That doesn't mean you never cry, but that you don't let your emotions--anger, sadness, frustration--set the tone for everyone around you. That takes maturity. 

If you're a crier:

  • Pre-empt the awkwardness. Make sure your inner circle at work hears something like, "I sometimes cry when I'm feeling things really deeply. I don't want that to bring things to a screeching halt or for everything to be organized around me. It's just how I express myself sometimes."
  • Find some strategies. Especially if you're in a position of executive leadership, you might consider some coaching around how your emotions come out at work. This doesn't mean you become wooden, but that you strategize around how to tighten up your boundaries.
  • Look deeper. Check in with yourself to make sure that your tears don't point to something else: Are you fundamentally unhappy at work? Are you exhausted? Are you fearful?

 If seeing others cry makes you squirm:

  • Resist the urge to fix. Know that someone else's tears do not require a solution from you. 
  • Resist the urge to interpret. Recognize that their crying probably doesn't mean the same thing as it might if you were to cry. 
  • Give your co-worker time. Let them say what they want to say or feel what they're feeling.
  • Later, give your co-worker feedback if appropriate. If this is happening dramatically or too frequently, let them know how it affects you.

The trick is to bring our regulated, authentic selves to the workplace. All of us are a work in progress on this front, I suspect. 

Becoming Seasoned

In my other life, I'm a cook. In that life, it's all about my new wok lately. A carbon steel wok costs around $30, and doesn't look like much when you bring it home. It looks pretty flimsy, actually. But then the work begins. The work of "opening" and seasoning your wok until it develops a black patina, a natural nonstick surface that will last for years and get better over time.

I can't help but think of all the metaphors embedded here. One of the prescriptions for seasoning a new wok is that it needs to be used every day on high heat--woks left in the cupboard might rust, and they definitely won't develop the coveted patina.  I've been lucky enough lately to do coaching work with a few folks who are serious about this seasoning business, serious about becoming more mature, about getting out there and making mistakes, using what they know and opening to the world.  

Here are a few things I'm noticing about "seasoned" people and what it's like to be around them:

  • They take their work very seriously without taking themselves too seriously.
  • They are focused on excellence, even if it means some of their decisions might be unpopular.
  • They aren't in danger of rusting from disuse. They're out there--engaging, making mistakes, paying attention.
  • They have often experienced deep loss in their lives and grown from it. 
  • They don't feel sorry for themselves, but they're not shy about expressing frustration if they need to.
  • They are intentional about creative pursuits and outlets in their lives.
  • They have a high ratio of questions to statements.
  • They take risks and know how to be spontaneous, but they've befriended structure and discipline.
  • They are deeply kind.

These aren't the sorts of things you can wake up on Monday morning and do. They say a wok takes 4 or 5 years to become fully seasoned. What?! That seems like forever to this impatient chef. But I have a feeling it's worth it.

How to Schedule a Hard Conversation

Here's a conundrumyou might relate to:

1) You have hard feedback to give to a co-worker
2) You keep waiting for the "right time," which never rolls around
3) You don't want to schedule a negative appointment and leave them worrying for the next week

First of all, if this describes you, give yourself a pat on the back for the courage and honesty it takes to give hard feedback and the fact you're willing to do it. That's half the battle.

And it's true--the right time will likely never present itself. Someone else might be around, or you can tell your co-worker's already had a bad day. Or maybe you're having a bad day, and you don't trust yourself to be at your best.

Here's what I do:

Me: Dan, are you available to talk for a few minutes right now? [This is the best option]
Dan: No, I'm just headed into a meeting.
Me: Okay. I'd like to find some time to talk as soon as possible.
Dan: What's up?
Me: Dan, I don't want you to worry, but I've been thinking about what how our meeting went last week, and I have some more thoughts about it. I think our conversation might be a little hard, but it's important to me that we have it. When can we meet?

Giving a quick "heads-up" like this certainly doesn't prevent me or Dan from worrying about the upcoming conversation, but at least he'll have some idea what it's about when he's lying in bed scripting it. If you don't tell people what the story is, they'll make one up, and usually it's the worst version. 

How to actually have the hard conversation is a topic for many more blog entries. Stay tuned!

The Power of the Request

These days, I'm big on what I call "The power of the request." Meaning, if you want something, ask for it! Don't wait for someone to read your mind. Don't get resentful because you're not getting what you need. Don't ask for things in a veiled, circuitous way and then be upset when you don't get them.

I have a client who wants to become a better manager. She already has the trust and esteem of her staff and colleagues, but there are some things she wants to get better at. So she knocked on the CEO's door with a proposal for hiring me as her coach. And what do you think happened? Her CEO said yes! 

The power of the request works for leaders, too. I've seen leaders facilitate whole meetings when they want to get a point across to one person. They'll hold forth on "Having a better attitude when we answer the phone," and cross their fingers that the offending person got the point. How much better it would be to sit down with that employee and say, "I've noticed you've been short with some customers on the phone. I'm worried about what effect that's having on our reputation for good customer service. Will you work on that?"

And many of us could stand to ask for help more often, whether it's at work or in our personal lives. I've discovered I have lots of people in my life who are actually waiting to be asked. When I've made requests of them, our relationship has gotten stronger and more reciprocal.

If you're drumming up the courage to make a request at work, here's a few questions to think about:

1) What's my reason for making this request? What are my motives?
2) What exactly do I plan to say? How can I make my request simply, confidently, and in a personable way?
3) What will I do if I hear no? How will I maintain a good relationship with that person?
4) What will happen if I don't make this request?

Happy Asking! Drop me a line and let me know how it goes.


Confusion and Renewal

The "Four Room Apartment" comes from Marvin Weisbord's Productive Workplaces, and he got it from the Swedish social psychologist Claes Janssen. It's a tool for visualizing where the potential energy is in a person, group, or organization. How much energy we have for change depends on which room we're in. And we're in different rooms depending on health, mood, external forces, or aspirations. No one room is "better" than another, but not all endeavors work in every room.  

In Contentment, we like the status quo. We're calm and satisfied. Any change--a merger, reorganization, new leader, market crisis--can move us into Denial, where we're perceived as unaware or afraid of change. That moves us through the door into Confusion. It's here that we muck around, make some mistakes, maybe feel a lot of emotion, do the hard work of sorting things out. And we eventually open the door to Renewal, feeling open, sincere, willing to risk.

I find this model very useful--especially the idea that Confusion can lead to Renewal. The metaphor I often use is that of a home remodel. You've moved out of denial ("Okay. We really do need a bigger kitchen") and you start gutting the place--pulling sheetrock out, ripping up the floors. It feels pretty horrible and chaotic, but you can't cook in your beautiful new kitchen until things have been torn apart. Things get worse before they get better. That's the assurance I was trying to give my team the other night.

As a consultant, my job is to be with people during change. Weisbord says much of organizational development (OD) work fails because we're focusing excellent methods on people living in Contentment or Denial. He says, "The seeds of success are sown in Confusion and sprout in Renewal. That's where people welcome flip charts, models, and OD techniques." And I love his advice about how I can be with my clients in each of the four rooms:

Contentment: Leave people alone (unless the building's on fire).
Denial: Ask questions. Give support. Raise awareness. NO advice.
Confusion: Focus on future. Structure tasks. Get people together.
Renewal: Offer help for implementation.

Much of my job in helping organizations grow toward wholeness is to recognize which room my clients are in and how I can be most useful to them there. What room are you in? What about your workplace? 

Know what your Empoyees Do

Larry, the President and COO of Waste Management (WM), oversees 45,000 employees in 50 states. He went undercover for a week as part of the CBS show Undercover Boss. He pumped outhouses, picked up trash from the roadside, sorted recyclables, and did a neighborhood garbage route with a driver. He was woefully incompetent at many of the tasks, often due to the efficiency standards WM imposes. He just couldn’t keep up. At the end of the day, he was sore and in awe of employees that did these jobs every day.

Joseph, CEO of 7-11 convenience stores, oversees 28,000 locations on 5 continents. During his undercover week, he mopped bathrooms, made coffee, worked the night shift with a delivery driver, and restocked sub sandwiches. At one store, he wanted to understand the secret behind sales of 2,500 cups of coffee a day. Was it the location? Was the coffee there particularly good? Turns out, it all had to do with Delores, a woman who’d been making coffee in the morning for 19 years. She knew everybody’s names, and was pleasant and speedy despite the 2 days of dialysis she endures every week. 

Larry and Joseph could have asked for spreadsheets about productivity. They could have hired consultants to give them a report and recommend changes. But then they wouldn’t have met Delores. There’s a much-touted management principle called “Management by Walking Around.” Of course, there’s a lot more to good management than that. But there is no substitution for getting out there, doing everything you can to really understand what your employees’ jobs are like. Who’s the Delores in your workplace that needs to be noticed?

Everything Depends on It

"Ming," a child welfare worker, was talking to me recently about one of her cases, a family being investigated for neglect and abuse of their baby. She said something I’ve been thinking of constantly — “The biggest problems I’ve had in this situation have been when my boss and I have tried to communicate about this. We misunderstand each other, things get lost in translation. I know we’re both trying to do our best, but this situation is so complicated. At my agency, we go to so many trainings about how to work with our clients — everything you can think of.  But we don’t have anything that teaches us how to communicate with each other when the stakes are so high.

Many workplaces could use tools for better communication. But organizations whose mission is to help people in crisis are dealing with extra stress--the stress of witnessing their clients' trauma. This takes a toll on individuals, but also on the whole system.  

There are lots of solutions to be had — maybe it’s more flex time. Maybe it’s more regular meetings with supervisors, or mentoring from someone who knows the ropes.  Groups come to these solutions if they have time and good facilitation.  Even more than that, though, I’ve experienced that simply naming what they're experiencing--Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) --is powerful. The fatigue, lack of creativity, or high incidents of conflict in caregiving organizations aren’t because they’re “dysfunctional,” or because “non-profits just don’t have it together.” Working in crisis situations takes a toll — not just on individuals, but on whole groups. It shows up in how employees interact with one another, what norms crop up around the office, or how long people stay in their jobs.

Ming and her co-workers go home at night with a different kind of tiredness than a landscaper or a machinist might. Amazingly, Ming and her coworkers might not even know that — crisis is just the air they breathe. I want them to breathe easier, to come together and stay strong. Everything depends on it.