Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Change People's Preconceptions and Prejudice into Powerful Learning Activities in Your Toughest Meetings

Dread!  That is the word that describes my feeling about attending some meeting. Recently I was asked to facilitate a meeting between IT and a business unit to discuss a how to modernize a development network. The two departments have a long history of strife, frustration, finger pointing and verbal sniping.  You could easily say that this meeting was one to dread.

In this article I'll address you how to turn dread on it’s head and sew the seeds of cooperation. Applying the third step of Better Meeting Magic, Bias Check, will create a more collaborative interaction among antagonistic teams or really any group of participants that have a history of discord.

For further context on Better Meeting Magic, see the articles on “Planning” and “Opening.”

This article is focused on Step 3: Bias Check

Why Do I Need a Bias Check?

  1. People need to vent their emotions.  Venting emotions in a meeting setting usually creates discord because the venting usually has a target person or audience which is personified as the Bad Guy or a the source of the trouble.
  2. People come to meetings with a fixed mindset about a topic.  Humans have a tradition of coming up with ideas and getting attached to those ideas.  So when you put a few humans in a meeting room and they are all attached to their ideas, it can be difficult to come to a consensus

Tip #1: Try to encourage silent exercises that involve writing or physical movement

If individuals come into a meeting with a lot of charged emotion, the last thing you want them to do is start talking out-loud. The talking part is not so bad, but the unfiltered words that come out can create early emotional damage and set the meeting on a precarious edge.

A good strategy for starting this meeting might be to have individuals agree on a set of meeting rules (how they will behave) and then pepper the meeting with writing and physical activities right from the start. These type of activities keep a person’s 'executive' brain involved instead of their more primitive 'mid' brain.

Once you get people THINKING they can usually stay on track and avoid EMOTING.

Tip #2: Use “Hopes” and “Fears” exercise

With this exercise, you gather will important personal perspectives from the participants and those perspectives will be shared with everyone in a non-threatening way.

SIDE NOTE: You must have large sticky notes. Basically every exercise I use requires 8”x6” sticky notes. And you need participants to use markers not pens or pencils.  I MEAN IT. Don’t scrimp on this because if you choose small sticky notes or pens, then no one can read the material and you will just frustrate everyone.  If someone starts writing with pen, I always interject and require they use markers. And I always bring an ample supply of large stickies and markers to meeting. 

  1. On a couple of sticky notes or a whiteboard write two headings: “HOPES” and “FEARS.”
  2. Give a small stack of 8”x 6”sticky notes and a marker to each participant.
  3. Instruct the participants to write at least one sticky note (only one idea per sticky) for each heading and post it on the wall or whiteboard.  Participants can write more than one, but they at least need to write one HOPE and one FEAR.
  4. Once all the notes are posted go to the wall, walk through every sticky note and allow the person who posted the note to add a couple sentences of clarification so there is universal understanding about the posted thought.  This might sound time consuming, but compared to an uncontrolled heated discussion it’s very small.  And it typically cuts to the heart of an issue and  help you and others guide the rest of meeting in productive ways.

What Does this Achieve

  • Everyone’s got to vent.  It’s important and people want to say their piece and be heard. 
  • Writing on paper encourages thinking vs. emotion.  Because the instructions included writing before talking, individuals think about their hopes and fears before expressing them and in doing so they tend to use good filters instead of a gushing unfiltered emotional responses.
  • Understanding is increased. Very quickly everyone in the room becomes aware of how people are thinking and where they are coming from.  And it happened without drama.

Tip #3: Use “Walk the Line” exercise

For topics with diametrically opposing views, this exercise is fantastic to allow people to express their view without getting into a long debate.

This exercise requires several feet of linear floor space and some blue painters tape. 

  1. Place a strip of blue painter’s tape in a straight line on the floor (minimum about 10’ long and probably no more than 20’ long depending on the number of participants).
  2. Using your prepared questions, ask each participant to stand on the line where they think they agree with either point of view.

  3. a.     Sample: “The far end of the line represents the statement, “company culture dictates how meetings operate.”  The near end of the line represents that statement, “company culture has no impact on how meetings are run.” Please stand on position of the tape line representing where it represents your belief within these two perspectives.  Some of you might say this question is a no brainer.
          I used this recently in training session and the results were very revealing.  Many people who I expected to stand on one end of the line, where very solidly on the opposite end of the line. Sometimes the learning that you can achieve with this exercise will surprise you.
    b.     Sample: “The far end of the line represents the statement, “teams work best with a strong single leader.”  The near end of the line represents the statement, “teams work best when self-directed.” Stand on the line where it represents your perspective.

  4. After each person has picked their spot on the line, ask each person to describe their perspective.

What Does this Achieve

  • Everyone want to be understood. It’s important and people want to know that others can appreciate their perspective.
  • Requires people think through their perspectives before they express their opinions.  This exercise helps people evaluate themselves and take a moment to consider their motives.  It’s not a counselling session, but just a few moments can help people become less emotionally and more contemplative. 
No one is inclined to check their bias at the door, but these simple activities will keep meeting participants thinking and sharing.

What was the most difficult meeting you’ve ever attended?  What went wrong?  Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.