Better Listening, Better Meetings

Last year in Portland when an air pollution scandal broke, concerned neighbors gathered weekly. The discussions ranged all over the map: how to protest, how to test your kids, who to rely on, what to say in our next press release, who would work on the website, on our exploding Facebook page…

We quickly learned, to accomplish anything we first had to organize our discussions. 

Today, in this one SE Portland neighborhood, toxic emissions have been cut by 98% – there’s more to do, but we succeeded here, where the movement began. 

Cleveland High School, Feb 2016

New city, same problem

I’m in a new city now with a new focus – what’s stayed the same? 

I find myself in meetings where everyone wants to contribute, but our collective listening skills make the issue at hand even harder to resolve. 

The side effects are apparent to anyone who looks beyond the topic du jour – the meetings take longer, they seldom yield collaborative discussions and I for one, go home feeling frustrated.

As time went on the group shrunk in size, but not in its accomplishments

After one such recent meeting I complained to my wife, “We spent more time talking about Porta-Potty rentals than we did on the executive director’s annual compensation review.” There’s room for improvement.

If our meetings became more productive and our solutions more innovative then we’re bound to feel better about our process and our fellow meeting participants. But how do we go about becoming better listeners? 

There are no easy answers.

As I Google for inspiration I find many references to interpersonal relationships, like how husbands can be better listeners, but that’s intimate warfare they’re talking about. What do experts recommend for better business meetings?

Wall Street bad habits

In my case, I had to first un-learn my meeting participation style. I often say I “grew up on Wall Street” and it’s more than just poor listening skills I’ve had to overcome. I participated in too many meetings where the smartest guy in the room was the one who could over-power everyone else and command attention to his point of view. Let me off the hook by saying that maybe that was appropriate then, but that style is an impediment to good discussions at this point in my career.

Old school techniques

In our Portland meetings we started a simple process with a commitment to assure everyone’s participation.

Like in grammar school, when we learned to raise our hands to be recognized – when a new topic had 2, 3 or more of us clamoring for attention, we’d create an ad hoc queue: “Jennifer, Jody, then Frank.” Interrupting was discouraged and we wouldn’t move on to a new topic until everyone had their say on the topic at hand. We became more productive.

Meeting math: Streamline the agenda

Is a one-hour meeting more productive than a two-hour meeting? Maybe you can argue either way, but I know which one I want to attend.

Some meetings have lots of agenda items, but does every single item need to be called out? Consider a consent calendar, like municipalities use, to aggregate items that everyone should know about, like an upcoming meeting date and venue, but you can bang the gavel once and clear several items, leaving more time for discussion-worthy topics.

What techniques do you find work well as it relates to productive meetings?

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