Tales of a tomato face

This is what I often look like in meetings.

It’s probably the introvert in me, but I’ve long found speaking up in meetings confronting. Particularly when I’m challenging the discussion or providing a personal thought, idea or insight.

I can feel my cheeks flush even before I utter a word and it’s held me back from contributing countless times.

It makes me wonder:

  • What problems could have been solved if I spoke up?

  • What new opportunities might have come my way if I had of been bolder?

  • Could raising my voice possibly helped someone else find theirs?

  • Why is thinking differently equated to me being ‘wrong’ in my own mind?

I read an interesting blog by the Diversity Institute New Zealand this week that explained ‘we are trained to solve problems from an early age. However, we have not been trained on how to do this effectively in a group of diverse people which is what most work situations require’.

Most meetings have an aim of solving something. Every person in the room has their own thoughts and ideas about what could be done based on their experience, their expertise and their analysis. But very rarely are each of those perspectives fully ventilated in a traditional meeting setting.

The article argues that teams can’t unlock their full problem-solving potential without strong social skills; and not the kind we’ve learned over time. We tend to gravitate to social norms around security and wanting to fit in to the group as well as hierarchical and cultural constraints about who has the right to speak etc.

It’s those social norms that hold us back that need to be deliberately broken; a ‘creative circuit breaker’ if you will.

It’s complex and messy but ultimately failing to break the circuit means:

  • Great ideas and important perspectives aren’t being heard; so

  • Decisions and solutions aren’t as awesome as they could be.

So how can meetings and other group discussions be improved so all participants feel able to speak up and share their perspectives?

Personalise invitations

How often have you been invited to a meeting only to wonder why you’re there at all? These days it’s so easy to just add someone’s name to an email invite it tends to be done without much thought or with the assumption they’ll know why they’re invited.

Specifically stating why someone is being invited can give them context and confidence, for example:

  • You’re so close to our customers we think it would be great to get your thoughts into how these proposed changes will impact them.

  • We’re pulling a cross-functional group together because we want to look at this from every possible angle. Your experience in XYZ is key to that.

  • You know the data so well, it would be so valuable to have you as part of this discussion.

  • I want you to speak up in this meeting. Your experience is so varied that I know you can bring so much to the table on this issue.

You can even use this information to introduce people in the meeting (or have them introduce themselves) so other attendees can see/hear the range of perspectives around the room and the angles that might be taken in the course of the discussion.

This kind of creates a ‘safe space’ where people are prepared for the fact that their views may differ or that they may have totally out of the box ideas and that's ok.

Make conflict comfortable

Grown up tantrums are never ok, but there is such a high level of discomfort around disagreement that it often shuts down really useful discussion.

Preface meetings by saying ‘we aren’t all going to agree, and that’s great! We want to hear a variety of ideas and opinions. But we need to do that respectfully. What that looks like is…

You can create meeting charters or principles that set the behavioural expectations for discussions. That can include how people indicate they wish to speak, if and how interruptions are tolerated, respectful body language etc.

Reassurance in the discussion can also be helpful (especially for a High S relationship lover like me); making statements like ‘I can see this convo is getting tough, but we’re getting to the good stuff. Let’s keep challenging our thinking’ or ‘Let’s take a moment as we’ve hit a tense spot. Everyone is making great contributions and I want you to keep sharing, but let’s take a quick break and come back fresh in 5’ acknowledges the discomfort but is framing it in a positive and problem centred way.

I saw this image last week and loved it:

Use tools

I attended a session on human-centred design earlier this week where they walked us through a problem solving process. It made me wonder why we seem to run meetings the same old boring, uninclusive way every time.

Using tools that encourage (if not force) people to think differently can be a great leveller.

One really simple method I had the opportunity to try in the session was the ‘8 box’; you fold an A4 sheet so it has 8 squares and then get 5 minutes to fill the boxes with ideas on the specific problem. No idea is a bad idea, in fact the wilder the better! We then all shared our 8 ideas and it was amazing what people came up with. Simple but so effective!

The team at Huddle have some great free human-centred design resources (subscribe to access) including a ‘mindful reflection’ and a ‘how might we…’ template which could be awesome for people to complete before a meeting so they can bring (and feel comfortable sharing) their A-game.

Another oldie but goodie is ‘Start, Stop, Keep’. Perfect for gathering feedback from a team in a more structured and less intense way.

Consider how you can use tools or alternative structures to just sitting around as a group and spit balling ideas!

Create a safe language

People often feel safer talking about tough stuff when they have a language to use that is considered ‘safe’. For example I had a boss who was prone to being a little too direct. While I could never say ‘I think that was too abrupt’ I did feel safe using DiSC language to say ‘your High D is in full force right now’.

You can do this in meetings using something like De Bono’s 6 hats. When people want to speak up they can use a ‘hat’ to contextualise the statement. For example:

  • Just popping the red hat on for a second; I get the sense this won’t be well received by our clients.

  • I know this is a bit black hat, but doesn’t this run the risk of…

  • I’m going to suggest something wacky and a bit green hat, but what if we…

A lot of people do this automatically with statements like ‘just being devil’s advocate here’ or ‘I don’t want to be negative Nancy, but…’. So this is really just providing a clearer framework that people can leverage to feel more comfortable speaking their minds.

You can even use the 6 Hats as an agenda to make sure you’re looking at your conundrum from a variety of angles. You may find some people speak up more in one section than in others because it’s within their 'zone' (eg data vs intuition) but at least they've had the chance to provide their perspective!

I know a lot of this blog has focused on problem solving, but ultimately that is the purpose of most meetings right? And this tends to be when people feel most confronted about speaking up and potentially looking silly.

I know a having a few of these in place would have saved me some tomato faced moments!

If this has struck a bit of a chord for you, this excellent TEDx talk by the wonderful Juliet Bourke from Deloitte is worth an investment of 13 minutes of your time:

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