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Creating a flood of ideas and opportunities in meetings

You know how people often sigh and roll their eyes when mentioning meetings. Well there are meetings that I always look forward to and can’t wait to happen. I come away feeling valued and inspired even in these times of zoom fatigue. In this post, I’ll share one aspect of these meetings that works for me. I’ll also share some of the trials and tribulations that I’ve experienced over the years when setting this up.

What makes these meetings different is that they encourage everyone to think independently and share their own thoughts and ideas. We all have diverse backgrounds and experiences and so see things through different lenses. Meetings are an opportunity to come up with new ideas, learn from each other and collaborate on where to go next. This gives us momentum for creativity, change and growth.

One approach to generating this kind of environment is called a “round” which is part of Time To Think facilitation. A key part of this approach is attention. One aspect of attention is that no one interrupts and everyone listens to each other. Sounds simple, right? Just pause and think for a minute. How often are you in a meeting where you can’t get a word in edgeways? Or do you start sharing an idea only to get interrupted? Or do you rush through sharing your idea without pausing for breath just to reduce the odds of being interrupted?

Now imagine something different. Imagine that you know you’ll definitely get a turn and won’t be interrupted. Imagine that you can pause for thought with no one interrupting. This is what the round offers you. Here’s an outline of how it works:

  • The meeting host/facilitator asks the next question on the agenda

  • One person volunteers to answer the question from their perspective

  • When they finish their contribution they ask the person next to them* “what do you think?”

  • The next person gives their answer and asks their neighbour what they think etc

*If it’s a virtual meeting you’ll need to agree to a “virtual table” at the start so you know who’s sitting next to you.

You can go round the table as many times as you have agreed. If you have nothing to add, it’s fine to say “pass”. By asking “what do you think?” it not only triggers a wave of thinking for the next person, it also confirms that you’ve finished and the next person can take their turn. This stops them accidentally interrupting.

When trying this approach with new groups, they are often stunned at the ideas and solutions they, and everyone else, have come up with in one meeting.

Sometimes they identify solutions for problems that were thought unsolvable. There’s often surprise at the quality and volume of ideas that have come from the quieter people who usually don’t get the opportunity to contribute.

So there you go, easy peasy. Well no, although it’s logically simple, it means changing behaviour, and however open-minded you are, this change isn’t always easy. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked when setting up rounds:

How do I stop someone hogging the time?

Typically only 30% of people contribute in a traditional meeting. Whatever the reason for this they are excluding ideas and thoughts from 70% of the group. Typically this effect is reduced when using a round but it can still happen. This can reduce the contribution from others as they don’t then feel like equal thinking peers and are less confident that they’ll be listened to and valued.

In this situation we generally reflect, as a group, and agree to make sure everyone has equal opportunity to contribute. Some of the more dominant people often decide to set themselves a timer when it’s their turn. They’re usually surprised at how quickly the time goes but, if they stick to the time, there’s a real positive effect on the meeting. The quieter people also agree to have more courage and contribute more. Not easy but with everyone being encouraging, attentive and interested in what they’ll say next, quieter people soon start sharing more.

What’s the point in having no interruptions if people aren’t listening to what I’m saying?

Rounds aren’t just about not interrupting, they’re about giving each other your full attention. This means having a genuine interest in what others are saying. Attention is an act of creation. The quality of our attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.

An interruption isn’t just vocal, other examples of interruptions are raising a hand, sending a zoom message and even frowning. In these days of online meetings it’s also an interruption to check your emails or type while someone is speaking.

Think of the times you’ve been in these situations. If I see someone frowning, particularly if they’re senior, it’s really difficult not to think that I’m wrong.

It’s hard to stick to what I was going to say as my wave of thinking has been interrupted. Also part of me still hates being wrong so it’s more comfortable to change direction.

Or I see someone’s eyes moving from left to right in a virtual meeting. I know they’re reading something while it’s my turn. I start wondering if I’m boring or if I’ve missed the point of the topic or if the answer has already been decided. This means I lose focus and the quality of my thinking goes down.

Typically when these things happen I remind everyone about how essential it is to give true, genuine attention. However, I do admit that sometimes when these things happen it’s difficult to fight the urge just to switch off, shut up and leave others to it.

How are we going to find time to listen to everyone?

In my experience rounds work for up to eight people. If there are more than eight we can change the way the meeting is run. For example, we can break into smaller groups at the start to come up with ideas and then reassemble with a representative from each group sharing the ideas.

If the number of people isn’t more than eight, I point out that by getting rid of interruptions and slowing the meeting down we actually speed up thinking. This often seems counterintuitive. If this explanation isn’t accepted I suggest we try it as an experiment and see if it works (it usually does).

These are some of the questions I get asked. Some people are just not comfortable with the approach and that is fine. Everyone has their own way of working and I wish them luck. For those of you who already do rounds, or would like to try them out, I wish you well. If you have questions or things to share please get in touch. I enjoy seeing, and hearing about, people having the opportunity to use their knowledge and skills more and feeling valued.

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