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Why Are We Having This Meeting?

It’s not so unusual for people in a meeting not to be sure where they are going or how they’re going to get there. Here are two considerations that we should make sure are clear.

06-02 San Antonio River Walk Staircase

What are the next steps? Where do they lead?

1. Why are we talking about this?

I used to go to meetings where the agenda consisted of a list of topics—and it was generally a mystery what we were trying to accomplish with each one. If the facilitator had only made it clear which of these we were doing:

  • Explore. In this case, some people wanted to explore issues related to the next steps of a project.
  • Decide. Others were ready to make a decision.

These two approaches are completely different, and a certain amount of meeting craziness can ensue when participants try to do both of these things at once.

To Start. Setting up the conversation: We’re here to…

  1. Develop shared meaning about how to go forward. We’ll do this by making sure that we are all on the same page. Let’s see what we can learn about these issues by talking through what we each know and building a more complete understanding.
  2. Decide between the following alternatives…

To End. At the end of the conversation: We’ve agreed to…

  1. A characterization of the issue (and possibly, a list of likely alternatives)
  2. Do X.

2. Are we making a decision?

Let’s imagine we’re in a meeting to discuss the next steps for a project.

  • Just Do It. One person expects the ideas she shares to be implemented immediately. She stated her position during the meeting. Nobody pushed back. Therefore, she thinks, everyone agrees.
  • We’ll Think About It. Others are writing down her ideas as suggestions, which they are thinking that they may incorporate into the project (or not), after giving them due consideration.

You can see how it can be a problem if people are approaching the meeting with these two different points of view at once. It’s useful to explain or decide on an approach both at the beginning and at the end of the meeting.

To Start. Let’s start by making sure everyone is in agreement (or at least informed) about whether and how we’re going to make decisions. Setting up the conversation: We’re here to…

  1. Listen to everyone’s point of view (and to make decisions later), or
  2. Decide (in this meeting) what the next steps will be.

To End. At the end of the conversation: We’ve agreed to…

  1. Consider the input we’ve received and then later suggest how to proceed (or explain our decisions, or just make what seem to us to be the best changes), or
  2. Do this, this, and this, as we’ve just decided in this meeting.

These approaches to working together are not mutually exclusive within a given meeting. Of course we can explore an issue and then make decisions. But if we try to do both things at once, that’s when communications can break down in a big way.

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