Ideas & Inspiration

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.

Tips for surviving as leader

  1. The job is one of ego management, and the most important ego to manage is your own.
  2. Don’t be fooled into thinking the association will last forever. Lots of organizations fold due to poor choices by the board.
  3. The staff have seen a lot. Respect their knowledge and experience.
  4. Guard your time off preciously. Remember that being President is only a small part of your much larger life.
  5. Being President is like being mayor of a small town. Don’t assume that everyone in town has the same opinion.
  6. There is no “right” way to run or organize the Association. Focus on what works.
  7. Sometimes the right thing to do is to do nothing. Tolerating ambiguity is a valuable leadership skill.
  8. Have a plan for when the ride is over.
  9. Human beings love to complain. It’s not about the content, it’s more about the activity. Don’t take it personally.  
  10. If in doubt – don’t. Step back and review items 1-9.

Dealing with difficult people

There is one in every group of people. Yet it can be difficult to define exactly what we mean by “difficult people”. Regardless of whether you have issues with a particular person’s personality or one of your colleagues does, these tips can be used to help resolve personality conflicts that can impair board functioning.

Who are the difficult people?

They go by different names but they all have the same effect: shutting down debate.

“The Narcissist” – this person prioritizes their own perspective over everything. They are unable and unwilling to see any other side or compromise. Their inflated sense of ego can lead them to exaggerate or even falsify information.

“The Grandstander” – this person loves the sound of their own voice. They dominate discussion by making a mountain out of a mole hole. For all their talk, they may not provide any substantive input but they shut down discussion by wearing everybody else out.

“The Bully” – this is the most toxic person of all. They love a fight, but there is no predicting which one they will pick. They can be hostile in person at a meeting and even more aggressive behind the scenes. Their goal is to intimidate everyone and shut down debate to get their way, even if they are not sure what that is.

Protect yourself

The key is to identify these types of people and acknowledge your inner triggers. Knowing what is going on inside of you will make it a lot easier to interact to difficult people. Grandstanders may irritate your preference for pragmatism. Narcissists may challenge your innate modesty. Bullies trigger your defensiveness. The problem is not always entirely about the other person. It is about your interaction with them. It is critical to manage your own reactions so that you do not act defensively or come from a place of anger. Only engage with this person when you feel that you have full mastery over your emotions. In that case, it can be wise to set a time limit to the interaction and to debrief afterwards with a close colleague if you can.

Do not fuel the fire

Sticking to the facts is the best way to interact with these people. Facts are usually not debatable, but opinions are. However, too many facts can prompt a person to pick apart the details. Short and sweet answers that are grounded in verifiable facts. The less you say the better. In a face-to-face confrontation, try to remain calm and simply listen to the person without replying. You can reflect respect by simply listening and not providing a counterargument. Simply acknowledge the emotion that both of you may be feeling. “Thanks for sharing your input with me. This is obviously an issue you feel passionate about.” is more than enough.

Focus on commonalities

We were all children once. Even the most difficult person in the room. Everybody wants to feel good about themselves. Problematic personalities are often based on some unresolved need or fear. Can you determine what this person’s need or fear is? Do you share that need or fear to some extent? What can you learn from your interactions with this person? What other common interests may you share? Do they have children? Do they enjoy travel or other activities? All of this will help you relate to the other person as a human being and remove any reactivity to the person. This can help you to interact with them more calmly. If you are able, arrange to meet with the person in a neutral space, such as lunch or over coffee, and chat about these shared interests. Avoid trigger topics. This can be the basis of eventually healing the rift between you. However, in some cases it may not be possible to interact calmly with this person. It is wisest to simply keep your distance and move on. Trust your judgment in the case.

Find a different forum

If you are a leader in the group and there is no hope of resolution with this person, the next best thing is to find a different forum for them. If you understand their interests and have been able to hear their complaints, you will be in a better position to help steer them toward a different venue or to focus on a less confrontational issue. “You seem to be very knowledgeable on this issue, have you ever considered sharing your expertise with the ___ association?” Or “You seem really passionate about this issue, have you ever considered the related issue of ___ ?” Most people with these type of combative personalities are very self-focused, so it can be relatively easy to encourage them to take their fight elsewhere.

Board work involves people. And people involve egos. Ego management is the biggest part of working in a board or for an association. Hopefully these tips will provide a way to manage both your own ego and that of your colleagues.