Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 39;   September 27, 2023: On Working Breaks in Meetings

On Working Breaks in Meetings


When we convene a meeting to work a problem, we sometimes find that progress is stalled. Taking a break to allow a subgroup to work part of the problem can be key to finding simple, elegant solutions rapidly. Choosing the subgroup is only the first step.
A meeting of meerkats

A meeting of meerkats. Image by Mike courtesy Pixabay.

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 snag
the 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.

Last words

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." Go to top Top  Next issue: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I  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!

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This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

Jigsaw puzzle piecesFirst 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.
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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.
A computer mouse, the tool we use so often to hijack our own mindsPreventing 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 hijacking.
Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionVirtual 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.
A set of wrenches from a toolkitEffects 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.

See also Effective Meetings and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

What a videoconference looks like when all participants have their cameras offComing 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.
Lifeboats on board the FS Scandinavia, May 2006And 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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