The Meeting for Discussion

“A real discussion clearly requires a good blend of different perspectives. You want to pick people who can look at a topic in a way that will challenge the blind spots, prejudices, and supposings.” – David Pearl

In The Reasons Why People Meet, I introduced seven different types of meeting. In this post, we take a deeper dive into discussion meetings.

A discussion meeting lets you hear everyone’s voice, everyone’s opinion, and to maintain social cohesion, all in the pursuit of updating the organization’s understanding of some subject.

But getting a discussion meeting just right can be tricky, and takes some awareness and planning.

pexels-discussion

David Pearl explains discussion meetings in detail from pages 179 to 185 of Will There Be Donuts?; this post borrows/adapts heavily from those pages, but is certainly not meant to be a replacement – and all credit to Pearl for his keen insights and useful advice.

The table below outlines “the why” and “the who” of discussion meetings.

I’ll take a moment to stress that last point, about getting outside your usual bubble, because it resonates very strongly with my own experience: the best – and by “best” I mean “most effective” – discussions always happen when there are outsider perspectives being proposed.

In practice, whenever I want to discuss a topic (whether in a meeting or via some other channel), I always explore my contact list to identify a few folks who could offer very different contributions – and the ensuing discussion is all the richer for it.

The Why
The Who
  • to find out what we really think about things by exploring suppositions, assumptions, stale thinking
  • to update our understanding
A real, genuine discussion requires a blend of different perspectives; pick people who can look at a topic in a way that will challenge the blind spots, prejudices, suppositions.

In practice, this often means extending the invite beyond the usual circle – you need to get outside your bubble.

Pearl advises us that, “It takes meeting leadership to ensure a discussion is allowed the time it needs and also to conclude it when the time comes.”

In other words, real discussions take time, but you can’t let them drag on forever.

Real discussions take time, but you can’t let them drag on forever.

The meeting leader also needs to watch out for one or a few participants dominating the ‘discussion’. This phenomenon is particularly likely if a discussion spans organizational hierarchies or if it’s about a subject for which a few participants are recognized as experts. In both cases, the group can have a tendency to defer, and the few might feel the weight of expectations upon them.

Additionally, Pearl stresses that we need to remind people that real discussions are not:

  • saying what you think others want to hear
  • holding back what you really think until after the meeting
  • the same as argument
  • a perfunctory rubber-stamping of ideas you know the boss has already decided upon

In fact, I’m going to strive to open discussion meetings with a message along those lines, just so people really understand the genuine nature of the occasion and the expectations I have of their participation.

As a final tidbit that I’ll pass along from Will There Be Donuts?, Pearl suggests that to encourage a real, honest-to-goodness discussion, it’s worthwhile to choose a location/setting that supports that goal.

So, maybe a stuffy boardroom isn’t the best choice.

When it comes to discussions, we can also apply lessons from cognitive science to maximize our results. For instance, Thinking, Fast and Slow tells us that:

“The principle of independent judgments (and decorrelated errors) has immediate applications for the conduct of meetings, an activity in which executive in organizations spend a great deal of their working days. A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members of the committee should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position. This procedure makes good use of the value of the diversity of knowledge and opinion in the group. The standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them.” (p85)

Wanna learn about the other meeting types? Check out The Reasons Why People Meet.

“A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members of the committee should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position. The standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them.” (Thinking, Fast and Slow)

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Posted in Leadership, Management
2 comments on “The Meeting for Discussion

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