I strongly believe that the best ideas arise out of group discussions.
A single individual may have a great idea, but that idea will almost always be better – and stronger – when it has been debated, tested and fleshed out by a group. It then becomes the group’s decision, and is all the stronger because everyone buys into it.
But getting the group to come to an agreement is not always easy. When people get together to talk over an issue, simple things will often take the meeting off the rails.
Here, from my own experience, are tips for keeping discussions focused on outcomes – and preventing egos from scuttling the meeting.
I. Before the meeting:
Invite the right people.
Be inclusive and make sure to involve people who have an interest and opinion on the outcome. Don’t exclude people you know should be present - it’s a short-sighted tactic. What you want is a meaningful discussion where input can be presented on a level playing field at the right time. And the best way to have a rich discussion is to tap into the right opinions and perspectives.
Establish context and goals.
Suppose you’re building a house. You can’t hold a meeting to discuss how many bathrooms the house should contain once construction has started. The time to have that meeting is when the house is still in the design stage. So if you are organizing a meeting, make sure the timing is right.
You should also make it clear – in advance – what the meeting’s goals are and what outcomes you are expecting. To use the house analogy again, if the meeting is about how many bathrooms the house should have, it should not end up in a discussion about which contractor to hire. Defining the topic and expected outcomes in advance will help keep the meeting focused.
II. At the meeting:
Make sure participants are comfortable giving their opinions.
Participants in the meeting should not feel intimidated or inhibited. They should feel they can express themselves fully, and you should make it clear they are free to do so. Assume positive intent: If you’ve asked them to the meeting, assume they want to contribute to the discussion, not torpedo it.
If you see participants digging in their heels, or heating up emotionally, it’s important to have a few strategies in your back pocket to focus the talks.
For example, you may be able to calm a frustrated participant by asking that person to help you understand their point of view. Or if one issue is causing tempers to flare, you can ask that the discussion on that topic be paused and move on to something else for a while (as long as you do get back to the topic).
It’s really important to listen to what people say. Often, that’s hard to do. Something a participant says may give you a flash of insight, and all you can think of is getting your idea out.
Keep yourself in check. Let the speaker finish – and listen to what he or she is saying.
Listening also means determining whether the meeting is moving towards an agreement – or whether participants are going off on a tangent.
Keep an open mind.
Don’t hold a discussion to rubber-stamp a decision that has already been made. You have to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things – even if they upset your original thoughts.
I want everyone to come to the meeting with an opinion, but that does not mean I want them to leave with the same opinion.
As American marketing specialist Guy Kawasaki has said: “Smart people change their minds. It’s dumb people who don’t.”
Allan Wille is a Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Klipfolio. He’s also a designer, a cyclist, a father and a resolute optimist.
Originally published April 22, 2016, updated Jun, 17 2019