Meetings at your company aren’t going away. If anything, that much-maligned beast is growing in prominence, thanks to the remnants of the surge of video meetings created by the pandemic. Meeting attendance ranges from a weekly average of 15% when spread across all job types, to upwards of 70% of an executive’s week. So, yeah. Meetings are a thing. And if you run meetings, it’s your job to make sure they’re as effective as possible.
The Post-Pandemic State of Meetings at Work
Let’s get real; it’s an uphill battle to get anybody to love a meeting. The latest research says that there are 55 million meetings held each week in the United States and employees claim that 71% of those confabs are not productive. Ouch. So many of us have suffered through poorly run meetings that seemed designed as torture devices rather than as a means to get to get work done. It’s only natural to want to eradicate something which causes such grief and is so unproductive.
Before we move ahead, let’s operate on two assumptions:
- The meeting you’re about to lead is necessary.
- You already run your meetings using best practices such as using an agenda, and the getting the right players are in the room and so on.
Now it’s time for you to up your game with a nuanced understanding of conversational dynamics that will help you lead meetings that people actually don’t mind attending. And know this: 64% of employees are more likely to be enthused about a well-planned meeting, so it is to your advantage to invest time beyond the bare basics of good meeting management.
A Secret of Smart Meeting Management: Conversational Flow
As a former corporate trainer whose main role was to facilitate the flow of conversation, I offer this observation: One of the reasons meetings fail is because the meeting leaders don’t manage the dynamics of conversational flow.
To reverse the death-by-meeting trend, start with this question: Do you want the meeting participants to expand possibilities or to come to closure? Your answer will dictate which conversational path to follow. Most meetings will require a discussion that uses both expansion and contraction; it’s important for the person running the meeting to communicate the expectations so meeting participants can properly contribute.
How to Use the Two Types of Conversation When You Lead Meetings
Here’s how to sort out the two differing conversational paths and use them to improve the meetings you lead.
Divergent Conversational Flow. If the primary purpose of the meeting (or agenda item) is to expand possibilities, the conversational flow will be “divergent” in nature. Divergent conversation employs a fluid, dynamic vibe. If expansion is your goal, the discussion should be designed to explore opinions, share ideas, gather data and/or brainstorm. You may have noticed that some meeting participants are wired to expand possibilities until the cows come home. These personality types love to spitball ideas and create “what if?” scenarios. The benefit of divergent conversation is that it allows for the free exploration of ideas that lead to breakthroughs. If that’s what you need during your meeting, let people know that’s what you’re looking for. If not managed properly, divergent conversations can lead to meetings that meander. This creates frustration for attendees who think the meeting objective is to move a process forward.
Convergent Conversational Flow. Meetings also present excellent opportunities to make decisions, and the biggest part of decision-making is coming to closure. If the main role of the meeting (or agenda item) is to come to closure, you are leading a “convergent” conversation. Convergent discussions are built around consensus-building, narrowing of choices and decision-making because they create focus and bring ideas together. Just as some people are wired to create endless possibilities, others strive to boil it down to the bottom line. These “get it done” types are constantly striving to come to closure, often to the detriment of exploratory conversation. They have a much lower threshold of tolerance for “blue sky” conversation and may blunt the creative process in their rush to conclusion. When people with an affinity for closure drive too hard for decisions, those who enjoy the creative process feel shut down and devalued.
Think back on the most productive meetings you attend. What was the balance of divergent and convergent conversation? Effective meeting leaders state upfront the type of conversation they’re looking for with statements such as, “Today, we’re going to focus on gathering lots of ideas. Then, next week, we’ll narrow down our options” or “We’ve already invested a few weeks brainstorming options, so for today’s meeting we’re going to work on narrowing the list down.”
Meetings, when well-run, do have a valid place in organizational life. They can even be invigorating, if properly led. It takes a skilled meeting leader—one aware not only of how to organize a meeting, but also about the ebb and flow of human interaction—to create a successful gathering of the minds.
A modified version of this article first appeared in the SmartBrief on Leadership Originals series.