Want Arguments or Outcomes?

We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.
— Anthony Damasio, Descartes' Error

It's hard not to get emotional in meetings. We can be interrupted, overruled, judged, outsmarted, muted, invited, rescheduled, replaced, uncredited, unrecognized, cancelled, acknowledged, ignored, celebrated, blamed, and more. After years and years of meetings, I decided to change my approach to them and the results have been liberating.

My change started with Damasio's quote above stating that people are not thinkers, but rather feelers with the capacity to think. To test his hypothesis in meetings at work, I started emotionally distancing myself when picking up on threats to stability and candor in the room. In other words, I shifted my role from "participant" in a meeting to "observing participant."

An Observing Participant

As an observing participant, I still cared about the results of a meeting, but became equally interested in observed behaviors. During verbal interruptions, there were noticeable changes in behavior, language/word choice, volume/tone of voice, and the physical posture of both the interruptor and interruptee. I noticed same during moments of correction (whether deserved, uninvited, or appreciated), recognition, and authoritative overruling. In the language of Crucial Conversations, I watched for "violent contributions" to the "shared pool of meaning."

Here's what I noticed: many people are more interested in argument than outcomes. Knowing that I have personally interrupted, overruled, judged, made great efforts to outsmart, muted, etc. others in meetings, I knew I needed to change my own behaviors. (Pro tip: Deciding to change lets you skip the brutal step of noting your own behaviors.)

Changing My Behaviors

Upon being interrupted, I shut my mouth and let the other person finish. It provided a great opportunity to ask myself whether I was taking the meeting off track. Rather than taking offense, I could see what the interruptor had to say and whether it had merit or was emotionally charged.

To prevent myself from interrupting others, I counted to 3 before speaking when in the room. When on the phone, I put my phone on mute and kept the phone locked and at an arm's length so I would have to unlock it and hit unmute before I could speak.

When judging others, I asked myself why I had a problem with someone else's behaviors. It's very rare to be in a meeting where I literally have no teammates, so why would I judge anyone in a meeting with me? It's my problem, not theirs. Meetings are forums for dialogue and decisions, not argument and winning.

When disagreeing with others, I asked questions to clarify my understanding. It was so easy to believe I was the only person with the right answer, especially in emotionally-vulnerable meeting moments. Usually, just a few minutes of keeping my mouth shut led to other people coming around to ideas that were usually better than the half-formed thing I had in my head.

Instead of providing input, I asked everyone else to provide input. More often than not, this made everyone feel included and someone would eventually ask me for my own input. This gave me an opportunity to be the last person in the room to speak and assess whether I had anything new to offer that hadn't already been said. I also could use that time to offer support to ideas already mentioned by others.

Instead of focusing on my personal opinions/objectives, I focused on outcomes. Outcomes matter more than the details that literally have no impact on a meeting, especially details relating to work I would personally not be doing. Most of the time I had an opinion, it was about some minor detail and not the big picture, anyway.

There are a lot of other personal behaviors I had to outsmart, but I'll save some time and skip to the results.

Results

Tracking and preventing my own unhealthy professional behaviors helped me understand how poorly I often behaved in meetings. It was easy to think everyone else was the problem until I had my own personal scorecard. The following are some of the results of the behavior changes mentioned above.

As an observing participant, I became more concerned with the group of us getting along well and less concerned with getting my way. Everyone appeared happier or more satisfied at the end of the meeting, but that's purely speculative.

Shutting my mouth saved me embarrassment. It turns out that I'm not quite the expert I believed I was. Shutting up helped me to see the expertise in others.

Asking questions made others feel good and gave me an opportunity to see them shine. It felt so much better to be inclusive than to be right.

Observing behaviors gave me a list of behaviors to avoid: 

  • Speaking louder than others and steamrolling
  • Repetitive stuttering of the first word of a sentence
  • Not asking questions or including others
  • Getting offended at unexpected approaches
  • Talking too long or too often

Thoughts?

What are some poor behaviors you've noticed in meetings and how do you think you can counter them in your own behaviors? Or, do you need help with this stuff? Let us know!