Ideas & Inspiration

Hunting the elephant in the room

“The fights are always vicious when the stakes are really low.”
But the big issues fester silently…
It is easy to debate the small stuff. Where there is no real money on the line, and no one has anything to lose. This kind of problem plagues nonprofits and other creative organizations. But it is tougher for groups to address larger, unspoken problems. Ones that involve serious discussion, thinking harder about creative solutions, or compromising on ideals we have long held. Few people want to open up that can of worms. Before you charge forward and try to tackle the elephant, consider a few key pieces of advice:

1. There is a time and place for everything

– Is there enough time left to discuss the issue? Bringing up difficult topics at the end of a meeting just leaves everybody with a bad feeling and a sense of foreboding for what comes next. Thorny topics are best addressed at the beginning of the meeting, when people have the mental energy to tackle them and generate solutions.

2. Have a clear target

– Picking fights on intangible topics is asking for trouble. Open-ended questions (e.g. “What is our mission?”) with no clear answer go nowhere but down. It is best to break these questions down into concrete segments that might be answered with a yes or no. “Which projects are worth going over budget?” could help clarify the mission for the organization.

3. Do not make it personal

– Dealing with difficult members of the group can be extremely dangerous. Humans have fragile emotions and bringing up issues without careful consideration can damage the dynamics of a group—permanently. Be sure to consult someone with experience in this area—not least a lawyer—in case the issue goes from the frying pan to the fire. Addressing bad behavior or problematic members are best done in writing, so that there is a clear paper trail of who said what.

So when you are in the jungle of debate, don’t be afraid to go after the wild things…but be prepared!

For more strategies and resources for dealing with difficult topics, check out the Service and Solutions page at Boardroom Buddha.

Meeting Monster #2 The Drama Queen

Lights, Camera, Drama!

When the Drama Queen starts to speak, it’s a mixture of fear and fascination. It’s a performance. And you are a captive audience. They have you exactly where they want.

These people wear their heart on their sleeve, which they use to wipe aware the tears that flow every time they open their mouth. The goal of the Drama Queen is to get a reaction from the audience. They will talk endlessly until they feel like they have “connected” with the audience.

They will also seek validation by adding or creating drama to an issue. The results are either more conflict at the meeting—or more likely—leaving the audience speechless from fatigue. Either way, the Drama Queen steals the spotlight from the discussion.

Exit Stage Right…

  • The real audience for the Drama Queen is themselves. These people are unsure of their opinions, and Drama Queens crave external validation. Don’t give it to them. Without any applause or feedback, they will learn that their performance doesn’t get them anywhere. They have to learn to trust themselves.
  • Asking a Drama Queen for their opinion is asking for trouble. Don’t give them a stage. They will create their own drama – try to avoid adding to it. Thank them plainly for their input and move on.
  • Drama Queens are often unaware of anything but themselves and least of all the time. They often rely on others to steer them. Don’t hesitate to tell them bluntly that time has run out...even if it’s a few seconds early.
  • The internal spotlight of the Drama Queens blinds them to the needs of others around them. Reminding them that “It’s important that we hear from other people” is their cue to exit the stage.
  • Drama Queens naturally take direction. When they learn to give up the tears and theatrics and present ideas – give them a big round of applause. Reward the ideas not the performance.

Sound familiar?

Meeting monsters haunting your meetings and making everyone afraid to talk? There is help. Contact me for a path into the light

Meeting Monster #1: The Cynic

Problem: These folks have heard it all before. Or maybe not. Either way, they are not interested in listening, much less supporting whatever is being discussed.

Cynics radiate negativity that can infect other meeting members and stifle discussion.

Nothing is worth it. Nothing will work out. Nothing is ever good enough.

That’s because they don’t actually trust their own ideas – and dismissing other people’s ideas justifies their own insecurity.

Solution: Laughter is the best medicine here. “We all have dumb ideas – what’s your dumb idea?” This levels the playing field and makes it easier for the cynic to express ideas. Make it clear that the entire group is in this together. Sometimes we have winning ideas and sometimes we have losing ideas – but it is our duty to try to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Sound familiar?

Meeting monsters haunting your meetings and making everyone afraid to talk? There is help. Contact me for a path into the light.

Silent thoughts are golden

There’s a popular saying, “Never assume that Loud is strong and Quiet is weak.” Quiet people eschew the spotlight and are often able to view an issue without their ego blocking their view. But it can take extra effort to get the quiet people to come forward and express themselves.

Humans by nature prefer consensus, which provides reassurance and a sense of belonging. But loud opinions can lead to “false consensus”, which is only designed to drown out dissent.

The role of the meeting leader is to ensure that everyone not only has equal time to speak, but also feels safe to express their true thoughts on an issue. Follow these tips to bring out the best in everyone:

• Let the loudest go last

If you already know who the dominating voices are in the room, you can schedule their comments last. Simply suggesting, “Perhaps we start the debate with another voice this time” is entirely appropriate and hard to argue. Or simply call for an opposing viewpoint. It’s a signal to everyone in the room that they don’t have to accept the prevailing winds of thought.

• Force out first thoughts or feelings

Be prepared to put people on the spot. Instead of allowing the discussion to be dominated by the same person, call on one of the quieter people in the room. Push them for the first thought or feeling that comes to their mind. Anger? Fear? Quiet people are just afraid that their ideas or feelings will get rejected by the group. Acknowledging those feelings teaches them that their feelings and thoughts are as equal as any others.

• Remember Round Robin

If you want to be more discrete in breaking the hold of dominating voices or calling out the quiet thinkers, organize debate around a round robin. But choose carefully where to start. Quiet people at the end of the round robin will need extra effort to stop the wave of consensus. Don’t allow dominators to “pass”, so they can go last and lay waste to other opinions.

• Put pen to paper

A great way to avoid Group Think is to give everyone a minute to jot down their thoughts about a particular proposal. This forces everyone to formulate their ideas free of other interfering voices. The meeting leader can then ask people to read what they wrote or even have them submit their slips of paper, whereby the leader can read them out randomly and discuss.

Never assume that Loud is strong and Quiet is weak. Anonymous

The Magic Behind Closed Doors

Meetings are magic. Even when facing clear facts, our decisions are ultimately based on myriad emotions, opinions and rationales, the result of shifting conditions and circumstances.

For all the discussion in advance–in person or online–you never know what will happen when when the doors close, and everyone comes together face-to-face to make a decision. New insights or old grudges can surface and transform the debate.

Issues predicted to fail can stage a last minute “Hail-Mary pass” – and pass. Other decisions considered a “slam dunk” – land right on the garbage heap of failure.

That’s because the decision itself and the debate behind it does not belong to any single person. Once a proposal has been put forward for discussion by the group, it belongs to the group. And once the proposal passes or fails, it is the entire group that must take responsibility.

So, make sure you look before you leap forward with a proposal:

  1. Are you reinventing the wheel? Was this idea already addressed? This is particularly important for for newcomers. Rehashing old issues can create unnecessary drama…leading to disappointment.
  2. Does your proposal have a tangible benefit? The fights are always vicious when the stakes are low. Trivial matters can trigger everyone’s ego…and defenses when there’s nothing to lose.
  3. Can you clearly articulate your idea? Half-baked proposals usually wind up in the trash. They are also often an open-call for endless amendments…leaving you far from your starting point.
  4. Is this your ego talking? It’s easy to get attached to an idea. Make sure that you are prepared to accept being on the losing side.

With these tips in mind, you might not be able to count your chickens before they hatch, but you can avoid the worst cockfights!

Knowing what you don’t know

There’s a saying, “People prefer simple answers to complex problems, even when they are wrong.”

But leaders understand the value of tolerating complexity and ambiguity.

Few things in life are fixed…except birth and death. All the rest is dependent on the circumstances around us. Each time we try to control those circumstances or draw a line in the sand, the sand can often blow back in our eyes.

Here are a few tips to see through ambiguity clearly:

  • Don’t be afraid to seek out a second opinion from another person group or expert. Don’t make decisions in a black box.
  • Don’t be afraid to refer the issue entirely to another group or committee to address. That’s what they are their for. It’s a good use of time.
  • Be willing to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. Is the discussion based around hypotheticals instead of experience?
  • Don’t feel rushed to come up with all the answers, either as the leader or as a board. If you are feeling rushed, you likely aren’t thinking as clearly as you think.
  • Be patient. Sometimes the information you need is not yet available. Do you want to do it right or fast?
  • Doing nothing *is* doing something. Often it’s the right thing to do.
  • Something doesn’t necessarily have to be consistent or even logical to be right. It just has to solve the issue and achieve the desired outcome.
  • Flexibility isn’t necessarily inconsistency. What worked in the past doesn’t always work in the future. The world isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Rules are intention not instruction

Round things make up a square

There is an famous Zen saying, “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.” Everything is changing all the time. Our world. Our bodies. Our minds. How do we keep it together?

Rules. Rules are designed to bring order to the chaotic communication that happens in any meeting of fragile, fickle humans. They help take the emotion and the out of the discussion. Rules are a delicate vessel to hold corrosive conflict. Love them or hate them, we all still need them.

But rules can change as well. They are ultimately empty too. Rules are only good if people follow them. And to make sure people follow them, they have to respect the values behind them. Values like: fairness, civility, understanding, selflessness, generosity, openness and duty to the larger group.

Rules aren’t about what you “can” and “cannot” do. They are ultimately about what you “should” and “should not” do to manifest these values. Bending or strictly applying the rules in the interest of one party or the other is not in the interest of the larger group. That’s in the interest of the party only.

If we want to live in a civil society then we need to respect the rules of debate and the open-hearted values that underlie them. Without fair rules – there is no respect – just empty words.

Make Room for Everyone

Half of the art of speaking involves the art of listening. Some people prefer to listen before speaking. And others prefer to speak before listening. The job of the Facilitator is to ensure that Listeners get a chance to speak, and Speakers actually stop to listen. Here’s how:

  • Set time limits for speaking and stick to them
  • Make sure no one speaks twice until everyone has had a chance to speak
  • Vary who gets to speak first by going around the table, starting with different people
  • Call out the quiet ones specifically and prompt them to say what is on their mind. Most of the time, their initial impressions are correct, they are just afraid to express them.

Ego Management 101

The key to successful meetings is managing egos, and the biggest one is often your own…

The world is a messy place and humans are fragile creatures. We like to be in charge, or at least pretend to be. And there is nothing more messy than a bunch of humans are trying to decide something at the meeting.

Whether we like it or not, each of us is driven by an underlying agenda. We have our preferences that we often cannot see. The key to successful meeting is to allow and acknowledge other opinions. Don’t fear conflict. Contain it by shedding light on it. Make it comfortable for people to express opposing views, even if you don’t like it.

This not only includes the people at the meeting, but most importantly the person running the meeting. The discussion and decision doesn’t belong to the leader. It belongs to the entire group. The leader’s job is to help the group reach a decision, not make it for them. Watch out for your own hidden desires and let them go. The outcome will be what it is.

Everyone must put their egos and emotions aside for the greater good. Rules on who speaks when and how do this. Rules are designed to take the emotion and ego out of the equation. Everyone is simply following the rules. Don’t blame the player, blame the game.

The fights are always most vicious when the stakes are low. People are willing to defend their ego to the death, when there is no risk of injury. Don’t assume that “trivial” issues will be easy. Apply the rules equally regardless of the topic.

Civility is the ❤ of civics

Humans might be animals, but we do not need to act like them.

For whatever reason, humans are blessed with an amazing ability to express ourselves, which includes the ability to help or harm other. Insulting opponents might win the battle, but you will lose the war for decency in the long run.

Civil meetings are designed to resolve conflicts through deliberation and cooperation, where each person has something constructive contribute. Do not allow members to denigrate the motivations or contributions of their fellow participants.

In meetings, address communication through a third-party such as the presider or facilitator This will deflect and diffuse any negative energy coming from the person speaking.

Emotions are fuel, and words can shoot sparks. To avoid ignition, condemn any profanity in a meeting immediately. Finding your way out of a inferno of insults and emotions is often impossible…and creates long-lasting damage.