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 Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- First Aid for Painful Meetings
- The foundation of any team meeting is its agenda. A crisply focused agenda can make the difference between
a long, painful affair and finishing early. If you're the meeting organizer, develop and manage the
agenda for maximum effectiveness.
- Trips to Abilene
- When a group decides to take an action that nobody agrees with, but which no one is willing to question,
we say that they're taking a trip to Abilene. Here are some tips for noticing and preventing trips to Abilene.
- 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
- Virtual Blowhards
- Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present
next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics
for dealing with virtual blowhards.
- Effects of Shared Information Bias: I
- Shared information bias is the tendency for group discussions to emphasize what everyone already knows.
It's widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But it can do much more damage than that.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
- Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
- And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
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