Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 39;   September 26, 2012: Getting Into the Conversation

Getting Into the Conversation

by

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

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 And second, the participants who can't participate can become frustrated and withdrawn.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: 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 meetings
around 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: See No Bully, Hear No Bully  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? rbrengrLGypkzWPQXcdKFner@ChacpmfpkthgbLSUgGOcoCanyon.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 Effective Communication at Work:

One negative outweighs a world of positivesWhen It Really Counts, Be Positive
When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one. We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
A shouting matchCan You Hear Me Now?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
Water bottlesAn Agenda for Agendas
Most of us believe that the foundation of a well-run meeting is a well-formed agenda. What makes a "well-formed" agenda? How can we write and manage agendas to make meetings successful?
The rabbit that went down the rabbit-holeOur Last Meeting Together
You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
Accretion Spins Pulsar to Millisecond RangeBemused Detachment
Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing comity by slowing down.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenOmxAyHQrzZSmCZVener@ChacfmkkYEjZcbwzLNUXoCanyon.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: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers 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, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here are some dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
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.