When controversy is in the air, or the group is large, the flow of discussion in meetings can become confused and tangled. Even when facilitators manage queues of contributors, separations between related contributions grow, threads proliferate, and people forget what they wanted to say as they are overtaken by events.
When the threads of discussion become tangled, the group's decision quality degrades. Reaching decisions becomes a long, painful process. How can we keep threads from tangling, or untangle them when they tangle?
- Use a parking lot
- Sometimes a collection of contributions isn't really essential to the current discussion. Or perhaps it's important, but missing information or absent staff prevent a definitive conclusion.
- Threads of this kind can be profitably deferred using a technique widely known as the parking lot. Deferring the topic by adding it to a parking lot, or issues list, clears the table, making way for the larger discussion to move forward more effectively.
- Identify questions masquerading as assertions
- One common source of controversy is the question masquerading as an assertion. Some contributions are assertions or conjectures that, although possibly correct, are nevertheless unproven. When controversy is in the air, these contributions tend to generate much energy but little light.
- By identifying statements that are actually open questions, the group can focus its discussion on resolving the questions, possibly at a later date, rather than endlessly circling around a loop of assertions and counter-assertions.
- Name and rank the threads
- Once a collection of contributions emerges as a thread, allowing it to continue as a part of the ongoing discussion creates a risk that it will tangle with other threads.
- By giving each thread a name, and setting priorities for each, the group or its facilitator can give focus to a single thread, temporarily setting others aside. This leads to a more orderly discussion.
- Maintain multiple queues
- Once you've named threads, and ranked them, arriving contributions can be queued independently for any threads that aren't currently under discussion. Maintain a separate queue for each thread.
- This scheme is more effective when participants make notes for themselves about the contributions they intend to make to threads that have been temporarily set aside.
- If a single thread, or a
collection of threads, becomes
complex enough, it merits
a discussion of its own
- Spin off independent discussions
- If a single thread, or a collection of threads, becomes complex enough, it merits a discussion of its own. To keep it as part of the discussion that spawned it entails risk of confusion.
- Make it an agenda item, at this meeting or at a future meeting. Accomplishing this might require deleting or postponing other items from the existing agenda.
Even these measures have limits. Large groups engaged in especially controversial conversations might have to break into smaller caucuses, in parallel or in series, to address the most contentious issues. Groups that can't agree on how to manage their discussions probably can't agree on much else. First in this series Top Next Issue
Do 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 welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.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.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Let Me Finish, Please
- We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to
interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly
common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
- Coincidences Do Happen
- When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning
to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?
- Names and Faces
- Most of us feel recognized, respected, and acknowledged when others use our names. And many of us have
difficulty remembering the names of others, especially those we don't know well. How can we get better
at connecting names and faces?
- Recovering Time: I
- Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get
so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring
your working day in larger chunks.
- An Emergency Toolkit
- You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target
of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond,
but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings and Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info