How to Achieve Participant Friendly Meetings

By Dr. James Dittmar

Have you ever left a meeting at work or elsewhere feeling as though you have been through a ten-round boxing match? Usually someone presents a proposal and during the course of the meeting refuses to budge. Name calling and personal attacks ensue, resulting in a lack of consensus and frustration among those present.

Authors David Garvin and Michael Roberto recommend a different approach. Instead of advocacy, in which participants view the meeting as a contest, argue passionately their position and stand strong no matter the opposition— what happens in a typical meeting like the one I described above—they recommend an approach called inquiry.

Using an inquiry approach, participants consider a variety of proposals and positions in order to find the best solution. How can this happen? First, the inquiry process is not about convincing others to adopt my position—that’s advocacy. With inquiry, those in the meeting collaborate with others to find the best answers, and create a climate in which creative thinking takes place rather than suppressing new ideas.

Secondly, in an inquiry-based meeting, people can handle conflict because it’s about the concept not the person. Instead of attacking the individual (“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard”), members question the concept (“Tell me more about your proposal, I don’t fully understand it.”).   Those with a position or proposal to share give balanced arguments, are receptive to other possibilities, and accept constructive criticism. Those with opposing views are respected and appreciated, not personally attacked for disagreeing.

The key to all of this is with the leader of the meeting. The leader must establish “rules” and processes that encourage inquiry and not advocacy, constructive conflict and not personal attack, and strive for an outcome that everyone can support and own. Work on developing this approach and the next time you leave a meeting you may believe that something important was accomplished rather that feeling as though you were beat up.


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