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
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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