There is an famous Zen saying, “Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.” Everything is changing all the time. Our bodies. Our minds. Our opinions. How do we keep it together?
One word: 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 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, respect, selflessness, generosity, compassion 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.
If we want to live in a civil society then we need to respect the rules of debate and the values that underlie them. Without fair rules – there is no respect – just empty words.
“Decorum” has the same root as the word “decoration”: the frills and fixtures that make a room a pleasant place to be. In a meeting, decorum is what keeps the discussion polite and respectful. It includes not only what is said but also the way things are said. The order, the subject and the tone of discussion are all guided by rules of decorum. A debate without decorum is not “democracy” — it’s a disaster.
Don’t make it personal
The key to civilized discussion is to keep the the views and opinions on the issues at hand – not the people who hold those views and opinions. No matter how odious they may be. Meetings are filled with people with personalities that are based on the causes and conditions that create their own unique history of experience. And there isn’t much they can do about that. Some issues are going to be more relevant to some people than others. Blaming people for their experience with an issue, or lack thereof, is not only unhelpful, it’s also unfair.
Don’t question motives
This is related to the prohibition on making the debate personal. Assuming that someone is holding a specific view on an issue for a specific reason is very difficult to prove. Our reasons for holding our opinions can change like the winds based on what other people in the room may say or the stream of thoughts running through our head. Questioning the motives of your colleagues only opens the door for them to question your own motives.
Keep the language clean
Profanity is like a match that gets tossed into a volatile atmosphere. Some profanity ignites an immediate reaction that can quickly escalate and end up blowing up in your face. Other types of profanity are like a slow burn that leaves a lingering stench in the room. The bottom line is that if you think your language might possibly be too harsh – it definitely is. Always err on the side of caution and just watch your language.
Wait your turn
In addition to what you say, when you say something is also important. A good meeting leader will have a strategy to decide who gets to talk when. Hopefully, it will be structured allow all member and sides to equally address the issue. That is why it is important to avoid speaking out of turn, which may through off the balance of the debate.
Who gets to decide?
The speaker gets to set the tone of debate. They are the person who decides which comments constitute personal attacks, which words are profanity and who gets to speak when. A ruling by the speaker may be appealed by another member of the group, which usually ends up being put to a vote by all of the members of the assembly. The outcome of that vote ultimately has to be respected. That is the most important rule of all.
You know they are out there. They are like snipers sitting around the table. Ready to open fire with no warning. The moment they think that any rule might possibly have been broken. The price of their vigilance is intimidation. A nitpicker in the group can effectively shut down debate, as people prefer to say nothing than risk making a “mistake”.
Prioritizes process over substance
Monitoring the process of the meeting is the role of the group facilitator or chairperson. That leaves the other members in the group to focus on the content or topics being debated. But nitpickers can act like a second meeting leader and are often self-appointed. And while the extra pair of eyes and ears enforcing the rules can be helpful – nitpickers can bog down the meeting with debates on the rules instead of the issues. The nitpicker prioritizes process over substance.
Nitpickers lack a sense of subtilty and tend to see things in back and white. A wise leader understands that rules are not there for their own sake. They are there to ensure efficiency and fairness in the debate. To help guide the group to a decision. Sometime rules may need to be adapted for the greater good, e.g. speedy meetings or equal access for participants.
Hidden agendas and fears
Nitpickers may try to use the rules to shut down other opinions as a way to push through their agenda. A good group leader will enforce their authority as a neutral party to ensure fairness and trust in the system and defuse any emotion from the debate.
Nitpickers also use the rules as a screen to hide their own insecurities. Participants who are afraid to be on the “wrong” side of a debate will focus on the rules rather than make an actual decision. So, it can be a wise decision to strategically and purposefully call on them to express their opinion during the discussion – or after they pick a nit a bit too far.
This will bring their head out of the rulebook and get them more engaged in the substance of the debate. This can be a difficult position for them, particularly if they are on the “losing” side of a debate. Sometimes it is easier to engage them toward the end of the debate, when they have a better sense of the “winning” side. Calling on them a little earlier the next time will help to teach them to take greater risks at expressing themselves.
Do you have any nitpickers in your group? How do you handle them? Comment below!
“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 theService and Solutionspage at Boardroom Buddha.
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.
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? Tell us!
Meeting monsters haunting your meetings and making everyone afraid to talk? Let us know below. We can help!
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.