You can’t help but hear the antagonistic tone of so much communication these days. I know I am not party to every conversation that is happening but through social and traditional media I am witnessing an unwholesome pattern of communication where, when someone airs a view which we disagree with, the almost normal response is to attack their view – and, too often, the person. I do think that our political system and traditions, where two main parties are constantly vying to be the next government irrespective of where we are in the cycle of elections, only reinforces this – but that’s not my topic for now!

When this happens in business – in the form of employees doggedly disagreeing with one another’s perspective – it has a very real impact on the culture and the performance of the business.

I recently facilitated a team build and strategy session for a senior leadership team. In their own words, they were a dysfunctional team! They recognised that they needed to break out of bad communication habits which could hijack important decision-making meetings. They are intelligent and experienced business-people. Individually, they are interesting, considerate and passionate about their part of the business. They needed to unite around a common goal and recognise their individual roles in achieving that goal. Crucially, they needed to put into practice collaborative communication – words and behaviours which acknowledged others views and differences but which moved conversations forward.

The astonishing thing was how quickly small changes in language and behaviour impacted the tone of the meeting and the speed of decision-making. The feeling of collaboration was palpable.

How do you change the tone of your teams meeting and create collaboration?

The team I have alluded to are not unusual – and will remain anonymous! When I think of how many teams meet in similar ways every day in businesses across the country the scale of potential lost opportunities is staggering. Subtle changes can make measurable differences to business results.

These mechanics are tried, tested and proven. They are a mix of simple procedures and habits to be developed. Commitment and consistency are key. Once you start to implement them with your teams, keep going.

Define and agree the objectives for each meeting.

Too many meetings are organised purely around an agenda without an agreed view of what success would look like. Consequently, input is often unstructured and potentially irrelevant, meetings overrun and still there is no clear outcome or agreement.

Setting explicit objectives gets to the heart of this issue. You might have one objective for the whole meeting or individual objectives for sessions within the meeting. Examples of objectives include:

  • To gain buy-in to a plan
  • To bring attendees up to date on a project
  • To identify concerns relating to a project – and how to assuage them
  • To identify the most cost-effective ideas for improvement
  • To get commitment to resources from different teams
  • To excite and motivate

Agreed clear ‘rules’ for meetings, for example:

  • One conversation at a time
  • Fair share of voice
  • Build on ideas rather than repeat
  • Joint responsibility for timekeeping at breaks and sessions within the meeting
  • Phones, laptops and other devices used only in the meeting if needed for the meeting

Language:

Look to build on others’ ideas, for example:

  • Using ‘and’ rather than ‘but’,
  • Rephrasing ‘The problem with that idea is…’ as ‘What could be even more effective is…’ 
  • Replacing ‘We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work then!’ with, ‘Although we have tried similar things in the past, if we were to (insert useful suggestion here) I think we could (be more successful/ overcome the main challenges….. )

Focus on commonalities.

When we acknowledge the points where we agree before addressing the points of dis-agreement we are indicating that we are on the same side. This strengthens rapport and creates an atmosphere that’s more conducive to collaboration.

Acknowledge others concerns.

The safer bet might seem to be ignore others concerns.  We might worry that, once they are out in the open, we won’t know what to do about them, that their presence, hanging in the air, will derail the meeting.

Ignore them at your peril! They don’t go away simply by being ignored.  Take time out to understand where the concern comes from. It might need respectful coaxing or a simple question,

‘Help me understand your concerns.’

‘I want you to be comfortable with the plan, what are your main concerns?  What needs to happen to address these?

Or, if there are broader concerns from a significant number of people in the meeting, then a facilitated session to draw these out and come up with ideas on how to address them would be valuable. This doesn’t need to take long and is most effective if the ideas for solutions involve the people with the concerns.

Acknowledge others input.

The rules that we talked about above – and there are many others that would be effective in your own specific scenarios – can be pulled into the meeting at any time to help. For example, share of voice can be used to involve others with something relevant to say but who might be struggling to be heard. Dominant characters can often steal a disproportionate amount of airtime without contributing an equivalent amount of value!

The behaviour of acknowledging others specific input creates a responsibility amongst those in the meeting to listen – rather than simply wait for their turn. It also helps to avoid good ideas being lost in the volume of information discussed.

Communication is fascinating. It’s subtle and powerful. Let’s keep working on it to get better outcomes – everywhere!

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