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Why you shouldn’t confuse meetings with collaborations

Meetings aren’t likely to go away, so rather than view them as a waste of time, spend time planning and strategising to realise their collaborative intent.

Meetings, meetings and more meetings. The meeting culture in most organisations is still pervasive, and during the pandemic, this organisational habit increased.

A Harvard study found people attended 13 per cent more meetings, and the number of people attending each meeting increased, although meetings on average were 20 per cent shorter.

I would regularly spend my entire day in back-to-back meetings in my corporate days. I’d rush from meeting to meeting and feel a spark of joy when a meeting was cancelled. ‘Hooray, some time back in my day’, I would say.

How many times have you felt like that? That feeling would be different if meetings were an effective and good use of time.

Failing to meet the mark

Meetings frequently fail to miss the mark. They are supposedly an opportunity to connect, collaborate, debate, decide and learn. Sadly, the meeting’s intent is often missing or neglected, and many people dread them for many reasons.

For example:

  • They rarely start and finish on time – some people arrive late, others leave early, and some people don’t turn up
  • There’s often no clear purpose or plan, and so there are varying levels of preparation
  • The meeting isn’t well chaired, and so the conversation wanders and is dominated by a few loud voices
  • You can often leave a meeting having achieved little and then think that it was a waste of time

Facilitation is absent

What is often missing from a meeting is facilitation.

A great facilitator knows how to draw out the ideas and thoughts of others and balance competing and diverse perspectives. They pay attention to what is happening around them – both the ‘saids’ and ‘unsaids’. They can ensure that everyone involved feels heard and valued.

They work with the participants to genuinely bring out the best in each other and therefore surface the best ideas, which is the ultimate benefit of collaboration.

Facilitators know they don’t have all the answers. Instead, the wisdom is in the room, and it’s their role to guide conversations and help surface and share the participants’ responses, thoughts, and perspectives.

As Sam Kaner wrote in the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making: “The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best thinking. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding, and cultivates shared responsibility”.

Takes thoughtful planning

Taking a facilitator approach to running meetings takes thought and planning.

The session’s agenda may be fluid, which means while you outline the session in advance, you accept that elements of the agenda are open to being shifted and shaped by the participants on the day. This approach helps secure buy-in and shared accountability for the session’s outcomes.

As the facilitator, you focus on understanding and connection by devoting time at the start to checking in and uncovering participants’ hopes and expectations from the session. You also ensure there is a range of ways people can share ideas and provide feedback, thereby accounting for different communication styles and comfort levels in speaking up in a large group format.

In your planning, you also determine when sessions require the support of an independent facilitator. Having an independent facilitator is particularly helpful for team sessions and when the topics for discussion are complex and potentially contentious. An independent facilitator does not have a stake in the conversation’s outcome and isn’t holding unstated agendas or objectives.

Psychological safety is paramount

For an approach of this nature to succeed, psychological safety needs to be in place. You create a safe space for participants to share, debate, and contribute to the day’s content and do not shut down dissenting opinions. Instead, people are curious about all ideas presented.

As well, the facilitator is adept at seeing and sensing what is being said and unsaid in the room and actively seeks to surface ideas, insights and concerns. By doing this, everyone who attends feels like they have had the chance to participate and contribute.

Meetings aren’t likely to go away, so rather than view them as a waste of time, spend time planning and strategising so you can realise their collaborative intent and secure the desired outcomes.

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the award-winning author of three books. Her latest book is ‘Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one’.

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