An oft-repeated refrain in meetings is "Let's take a ten-minute break." The number of minutes varies, as does the reason for taking a break. The most common reason I've found for taking a break is suppressing toxic conflict. When the discussion gets heated enough, taking a break can seem like the only way to avoid even higher temperatures, and sometimes it actually works.
A less-often seen reason for taking a break is the need to think — a form of break I call a "working break." A working break is a useful choice when, for example, the meeting participants are working a problem, and a complicated but intriguing proposal has hit a snag. If several ideas seem to be capable of unsnagging the proposal, taking a working break can provide some quiet time to sort through those ideas to produce a workable solution.
Guidelines for working breaks
Because A working break is a useful choice when,
for example, the meeting participants
are working a problem, and a complicated
but intriguing proposal has hit a snagthe structure of a working break can affect its outcome, it's helpful to agree in advance how to use working breaks before you actually try one. Here are some tips for making working breaks productive.
- Identify a small group of specialists
- If the meeting as a whole (the "whole") hasn't resolved the issue, part of the problem might be that there are too many voices trying to help. Reducing the contributors to those who have special knowledge — a smaller group of specialists — might be the key to resolving the issue. To use this approach, consider conducting the specialist discussion privately, and then reporting results to the whole when the meeting reconvenes.
- Give the specialists a flexible time limit
- A time limit is useful for enabling those not selected as specialists to relax, or work on another task. A time limit also directs the specialists in selecting their path to a resolution. If they can't resolve the issue in the time allotted, they can report this to the whole to enable the meeting participants to extend the time or adjust the roster of specialists, or try a different approach.
- Consider partial resolution a success
- A partial resolution can be a partial success that leads to a complete resolution. When the specialists report back to the whole what they've been able to do, others in the meeting might then be able to see what the next steps might be. That clarity of vision might have been unavailable before.
- Exploit parallelism if possible
- In some cases, several snags might be preventing progress on the matter at hand. Dealing with them serially might work, but when the serial approach fails, consider parallelism, because the path around one snag might not be visible until the path around another is clear. And two snags might conspire to prevent resolution of either one. Clearing both snags might happen more quickly if two teams of specialists work in parallel.
When working breaks facilitate forward progress, they can prevent eruptions of toxic conflict. But they risk creating toxic conflict and personal competition by delegating problem resolution to small teams of specialists. When this delegation amounts to a reassignment of responsibility, the original bearers of that responsibility can experience a sense of rejection or being criticized. To mitigate this risk, include the original bearers of the responsibility in the specialist teams in a way that honors their contributions while recognizing the benefits of "fresh eyes." Top
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
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- If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few
tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
- Take Any Seat: I
- When you attend a meeting, how do you choose your seat? Whether you chair or not, where you sit helps
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your seat strategically.
- How to Make Meetings Worth Attending
- Many of us spend seemingly endless hours in meetings that seem dull, ineffective, or even counterproductive.
Here are some insights to keep in mind that might help make meetings more worthwhile — and maybe
- The Solving Lamp Is Lit
- We waste a lot of time finding solutions before we understand the problem. And sometimes, we start solving
before everyone is even aware of the problem. Here's how to prevent premature solution.
- Preventing Meeting Hijacking
- Meeting leads, meeting chairs, and facilitators must be prepared to deal with meeting hijackers. Hesitation,
or any ineffectual action, enhances the hijacker's chances of success. Here are suggestions for preventing
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
- Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
- And on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
- Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.
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