Getting Into the Conversation
by Rick Brenner
In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation can be challenging for some.
Two barnacles affixed to the shell of a green mussel. Barnacles adhere permanently to substrates by means of a cement they secrete. In some substrates, such as stainless steel, they etch the surface before cementing themselves to it.
The barnacle's preparing of surfaces in this way before it attempts to adhere to them is analogous to what people sometimes must do to gain access to a conversation. Instead of trying directly to contribute, we must at times first prepare the group for our entry. We can offer support for what another has said, or ask for examples or other illumination. After a series of these supportive actions, the group might become more receptive to a contribution that is independent of what others have offered so far.
Photo by Buck Albert courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.
Professional facilitators try to ensure that participants have opportunities to contribute. But many meetings are run by team leads, managers, and project managers, whose focus is often the content of the conversation, rather than the form it takes. Some meetings, especially smaller meetings, aren't facilitated at all. When groups make no attempt — or try but fail — to ensure that all those who want to contribute can actually contribute, two results occur with some frequency. First, these groups miss out on the contributions and perspectives that are suppressed. And second, the participants who can't participate can become frustrated and withdrawn.
The consequences can be severe for small groups, because of the significance of the loss of access to the thinking and energy of even a single member. If you're a member of a small group or team, or if you attend small meetings that aren't professionally facilitated, what techniques can you use to break into the conversation? Here are some possibilities.
- Know thyself
- Knowing your own feelings is a first step. Given your status, your areas of responsibility, and the topics and issues at hand, do you feel that you're getting a fair share of time in the conversation? Suppressing or denying your feelings elevates the probability of anger and outburst. Acknowledge what you feel. See "Ethical Influence: Part I," Point Lookout for July 4, 2007, for more.
- Check for rules
- Some of us carry Because everyone has unique
responsibilities, and because
meeting topics do vary, equal
time isn't an appropriate
standard of fairness
in most meetingsaround over-generalized rules that we adopted unquestioningly as children. For example, one such rule is, "I must never interrupt others." It's usually a good rule to live by, except when others don't feel obliged to return the courtesy. Either find a way to propagate courtesy, or transform your rule to something like, "I must treat others as courteously as I can reasonably expect them to treat me." See "Heavy Burdens: Should, Always, Must, and Never," Point Lookout for February 27, 2002, for more.
- Know the situation
- Because everyone has unique responsibilities, and because meeting topics do vary, equal time isn't an appropriate standard of fairness in most meetings. The time allocated to each individual depends on the situation. Objectively determining what is an appropriate share is difficult. Deciding that there is a problem requires careful consideration.
- Know the competition
- When some people have difficulty getting into the conversation, competition for time is often a contributing cause. If some participants insist on time out of proportion to their ability to contribute, wait for a particularly egregious incident. Then raise the issue. You're more likely to be successful if you raise the issue in the team's interest, by demonstrating that someone other than yourself has been unable to contribute.
- Ask questions
- In a competitive atmosphere, questions are more likely to be welcome than are assertions, because they're less threatening. And the social credit earned by asking a brilliant question can be just as significant as making the equivalent assertion. See "Asking Brilliant Questions," Point Lookout for November 22, 2006, for more.
Many other tactics also work. Send me your favorites and I'll spread them around. Top Next Issue
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See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
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