Discussion Distractions: Part I
by Rick Brenner
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. 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.
- 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.
- 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 Top Next Issue
Do 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? rbrenTieOvfMpIYxBfyjiner@ChacyeyTRKNYPAOMGHRYoCanyon.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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Pygmalion Side Effects: Bowling a Strike
- Elise slowly walked back to her office, beaten. Her supervisor, Alton, had just given Elise her performance review — her third consecutive "meets expectations." No point now to her strategy of giving 120% to turn it all around. She is living a part of the Pygmalion Effect, and she's about to experience the Pygmalion Side Effects.
- Double Your Downsizing Damage
- Some people believe that senior management is actually trying to hurt their company by downsizing. If they are they're doing a pretty bad job of it. Here's a handy checklist for evaluating the performance of your company's downsizers.
- Social Distancing for Pandemic Flu
- It's time we all began to take seriously the warning about a possible influenza pandemic. Whether or not your organization has a plan, you can do much to reduce your own chances of infection, and the chances of mass infection, by adopting a set of practices known as social distancing.
- The Solving Lamp Is Lit
- We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- Asking Clarifying Questions
- In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 3: Just Make It Happen
- Many idolize the no-nonsense manager who says, "I don't want to hear excuses, just make it happen." We associate that stance with strong leadership. Sometimes, though, it's little more than abuse motivated by ambition or ignorance — or both. Available here and by RSS on June 3.
- And on June 10: The Perils of Limited Agreement
- When a group member agrees to a proposal, even with conditions, the group can move forward. Such agreement is constructive, but there are risks. What are those risks and what can we do about them? Available here and by RSS on June 10.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenEOFhJOhBAFhUxvULner@ChaclzUGbihQfmcYcyKfoCanyon.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
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's 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 are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Town Center City Club, 222 Central Park Ave., Suite 230, Virginia Beach, VA 23462: June 3, Monthly Meeting, Hampton Roads Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- MITRE, in Bedford, MA: October 20, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN. Register now.