by Rick Brenner
Most people don't mind going to meetings. They don't even mind coming back from them. It's being in meetings that can be so exasperating. What can we do about this?
A foxhunt in Virginia. Historically, foxhunts have been an activity of the wealthy. They're inherently expensive, because of the horses, hounds, and costumes, but they also require access rights to large tracts of countryside. Metaphors associated with activities of exclusive social groups are especially useful to those who wish to use them not to illuminate, but to obscure concepts.
Photo by Carol Highsmith, "Fox hunt in Virginia." Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Exasperation is annoyance that brings with it hopelessness and depletion — a sense that you can't tolerate any more of whatever that was, and you can't do anything to prevent the inevitable future repetitions. An exasperation generator is a behavior, concept, or situation that fairly reliably causes exasperation in many of the members of a group. Examples include condescension, bragging, initiatives announced by top management, software user guides, new policies adopted enterprise-wide, and procedures for appealing performance reviews.
Sometimes we can do something about exasperation generators that effectively inhibits them. If you can do something, do it. But if you truly are powerless to prevent recurrences, what then? Let's restrict ourselves to an exasperation generator common in meetings — opaque metaphors.
Metaphors often clarify. When asked why it will take two weeks to complete a task, someone might respond, "Well, it'll take us a week to bring the new consultant up to speed." Here, "up to speed" is a metaphor — we won't actually be accelerating the consultant. We mean only to brief or orient the consultant.
But metaphors can be opaque if they're poorly chosen or if they're expressed in arcane terms. In response to the same question about schedule, someone might say, "Well, it'll take us a week to find a hound that can follow the scent of a fox." Umm, OK, a hound and a fox. Oh, the speaker is saying that finding a capable consultant will take a week. The metaphor is opaque. It obstructs the explanation.
When a regular attendee of a meeting (I'll call him Oscar) frequently uses opaque metaphors, some listeners experience exasperation. If we can't ban Oscar from future meetings, what can we do?
- Educate everyone about opaque metaphors
- Not everyone Not everyone knows what
a metaphor is. Make
sure they do.knows what a metaphor is. Make sure they do. Then explain that an opaque metaphor is one that raises new questions about its relation to the concept it supposedly clarifies.
- Understand that opacity is often deliberate
- Opacity could be intended to cause confusion. Ambiguity can provide a shield by postponing specificity. And it can compel others to ask for clarification, which can make Oscar seem superior, giving him a chance to condescend.
- Verify that an opaque metaphor incident has occurred
- We must verify the opacity of the metaphor. Poll the attendees, possibly privately, asking, "Were you also confused by the hounds-and-foxes metaphor?"
- Log the incidents
- Don't rely on memory. If more than a third of the attendees agree that the metaphor incident was exasperating, log it.
When you have enough entries in your log to qualify this issue as a performance issue, have a private conversation with Oscar. If that doesn't work, ask his supervisor for assistance. If that doesn't work, ask your own supervisor to deal with Oscar's supervisor. If that doesn't work, improvement depends on the behavior of the rest of the group. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- What Haven't I Told You?
- When a project team hits a speed bump, it often learns that it had all the information it needed to avoid the problem, sometimes months in advance of uncovering it. Here's a technique for discovering this kind of knowledge more systematically.
- Working Lunches
- To save time, or to find a time everyone has free, we sometimes meet during lunch. It seems like a good idea, but there are some hidden costs.
- Exploiting Failed Ideas
- When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
- Virtual Meetings: Dealing with Inattention
- There is much we can do to reduce the incidence of inattention in virtual meetings. Cooperation is required.
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
See also Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 2: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
- And on September 9: Holding Back: Part I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.
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