Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 13;   April 1, 2009: Discussion Distractions: Part I

Discussion Distractions: Part I

by

Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is Part I of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.

Most of us hate meetings. Even telephone meetings. Common complaints: endless, irrelevant chatter; boring; nothing to do with me; ego wars; could have been done in email; and on and on. Luckily, many of the irritants are avoidable distractions, if we know what to avoid. Here are some guidelines for identifying avoidable distractions. In this Part I, I'll focus on toxic conflict.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine

Senator Susan Collins of Maine. In September, 2004, Sen. Collins introduced a bill called the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004. It was understandably controversial, and many of the objections to it were of the form here called "road blocking." Sen. Collins attempted to deal with these objections in multiple ways, including a press release you can read for yourself. The challenges of dealing with road blocking in a public arena are much more difficult than what we find in meetings, but the content of effective responses is no different. Read her approach for some valuable guidance. Photo courtesy United States Senate.

In the descriptions below, I'll occasionally use names for the people doing the distracting: Dennis or Denise.

Diversion
When the discussion turns in a direction that could be uncomfortable to Dennis, he might raise a ruckus, display anger, inject irrelevant points, or otherwise distract the group. People then lose the original thread, which prevents the discussion from entering Dennis's discomfort zone.
Road blocking
When the discussion seems to be converging on a conclusion that Denise dislikes, she'll often raise issues that are irresolvable at this meeting. She wants to buy time for private lobbying, or to allow alternatives to gather strength. Examples of road blocking: "We need more information," "We should check whether this would be OK with them," or "We should investigate this (cheaper, faster, whatever) alternative for compatibility with Marigold."
Attacking the method
When Dennis opposes the indicated conclusion of the discussion, instead of criticizing the conclusion, he might criticize the method used to reach the conclusion. Questioning reasoning, assumptions, or data can be legitimate, but he might also attack the process: it was too hurried, it was unfair, the right people weren't involved, and so on.
Target in absentia
Here the group falls into discussing the human frailties, deficiencies, or motives of anyone not present. Although this might provide some relief to participants, it's politically dangerous and environmentally toxic.
Defending against one's own perceptions
Suppose someone describes a historical situation or sequence of events, as a way of informing the group of a potentially risk-generating situation. Denise, perceiving this comment as criticism of her proposal or prior contribution, defends against her own perception.
Self-exculpation
Toxic conflict can be much reduced
if we bar the tactics of
toxic conflict from meetings
Anticipating potential future blame, at this meeting or in some as yet undetermined venue, Dennis offers information not relevant to the immediate issue, except insofar as it might be self-exculpatory, or possibly deflective onto another party. This tactic is often called "CYA."
Indirect mud slinging
Slinging mud indirectly, Denise contributes something she believes will degrade the group's opinion of another of its members, without mentioning the target by name. She can therefore claim that her comment wasn't personal. And since understanding the insult requires background information, newer members of the group rarely recognize that anyone has been insulted.

If we avoided these items in our meetings, our meetings would be much shorter. But other distractions would remain. We'll describe them next time. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Discussion Distractions: Part II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEnlnAWrFXjBIWBjcner@ChactXuKLuTCrxJkIdqToCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A sleeping dogRecovering Time: Part I
Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring your working day in larger chunks.
USS Lexington, an early aircraft carrierTroublesome Terminology
The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnnoyance to Asset
Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
The wreckage of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio RiverHyper-Super-Overwork
The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
Illustrating the concept of local maximumFalse Summits: Part II
When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternComing June 1: Workplace Anti-Patterns
We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life, including the workplace. Why? What are their features? Available here and by RSS on June 1.
An outstanding example of the Utility Pole anti-patternAnd on June 8: The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: Part I
Organizational processes can get so complicated that nobody actually knows how they work. If getting something done takes too long, the organization can't lead its markets, or even catch up to the leaders. Why does this happen? Available here and by RSS on June 8.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenudytZqaNrdkeFmlmner@ChacqYWoqPfzjQfGdcVJoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Managing in Fluid Environments
Most Managing in Fluid Environmentspeople now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know whats coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Sudoku Solutions, INK: A Simulation of a Project-Oriented Organization
In thCross-Functional Teams: How Organizations Actually Workis workshop, we simulate a company that solves Sudoku puzzles for its customers. Each puzzle is a project, solved by a project team led by a project manager. Team members hail from different parts of the organization, such as QA or the Department of Threes. Puzzles have different values, and the company must strive to meet revenue goals. The metaphor is uncanny. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsLearn how to spot troubled projects before they get out of control.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.