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? rbrenpBrpjVjmRsiDkkQOner@ChacqTgcOoCCaEbnTvUfoCanyon.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 Mastodon skeletonLearn from the Mastodon
Not long ago, Mastodons roamed North America in large numbers. Cousins to the elephant, they thrived in the cool, sub-glacial climate. But the climate warmed, and human hunters arrived. The Mastodon couldn't adapt, and now it's extinct. Change is now coming to your profession. Can you adapt?
A forest fireOrganizational Firefighting
Sometimes companies or projects get into trouble, and "fires" erupt one after another. When this happens, we say we're in "firefighting" mode. But it's more than a metaphor — we have a lot to learn from wildland firefighters.
Dogs Fighting in a Wooded Clearing, by Frans SnydersMudfights
When we steer the discussion away from issues to attack the credibility, motives, or character of our debate partners, we often resort to a technique known as the ad hominem attack. It's unfair, it's unethical, and it leads to bad, expensive decisions that we'll probably regret.
A pair of adult trumpeter swansFinding Work in Tough Times: Marketing
We aren't accustomed to thinking of finding work in tough times as a marketing problem, but it helps. Here are some suggestions for applying marketing principles to finding work in tough times.
A fancy diagram of the kind that often accompanies management fadsWhy Do Business Fads Form?
The rise of a business fad is due to the actions of both its advocates and adopters. Understanding the interplay between them is essential for successful resistance.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An actual bandwagon in a circus paradeComing July 6: Cognitive Biases and Influence: Part I
The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support. Available here and by RSS on July 6.
Prof. Jack Brehm, who developed the theory of psychological reactanceAnd on July 13: Cognitive Biases and Influence: Part II
Most advice about influencing others offers intentional tactics. Yet, the techniques we actually use are often unintentional, and we're therefore unaware of them. Among these are tactics exploiting cognitive biases. Available here and by RSS on July 13.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenqPHOhVZAsUcClcUCner@ChacnIJxrbIYbsnANUTKoCanyon.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 are some upcoming dates for this program:

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. 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.