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ON TRACK: How to Keep Your Small Meeting and Attendees On Track

Back in prehistoric times, a small group of hunters gathered in the gloom of a cave and hunkered down to talk about how they were going to hunt down a wooly mammoth that had wandered into their territory. Thug wanted to ambush it; Ug wanted to trap it; Mug thought it would be a good idea to chase it off a cliff. Ug raised his voice to drown out Mug. Thug interrupted Ug constantly so he couldn't get his points across. Mug gave up and sat back against the cave wall, bored and irritated. Finally, Thug grabbed his club, and the decision to ambush was made. Unfortunately, they had spent so much time discussing the matter that the mammoth had wandered off. So they scheduled another meeting to discuss what to do next.

Funny how some things never change. While today's wooly mammoth is more likely to be increased market share, improved profits, or better human resources allocations, small meetings still tend to take up too much time and accomplish too little. In addition, notes David Kennedy, Ph.D., president of the scientific-equipment manufacturer Tekmar-Dohrman, "When I get together with my six senior management direct-reports to discuss how to solve a certain problem, whoever dominates the discussion still tends to have a dominant influence on the outcome of the meeting." While our clubs tend to be verbal rather than literal these days, conversation dominators and time-wasters still get in the way of having meetings accomplish what we would like them to.

It doesn't have to be that way. With a little forethought and planning, participants in small meetings can efficiently and effectively consider issues and make decisions without resorting to clubs. However, says Kennedy, "it does take some time and some skill to develop and maintain a good, balanced, productive discussion."

IDENTIFY THE TIME WASTERS It is estimated that 50 percent of meeting time is wasted. The main reason? The Thugs and Ugs among us who ramble on, digress, focus on irrelevant information, interrupt or otherwise misdirect and drag out what could be productive time. Part of this problem can be resolved by ensuring that your meeting has clear--and clearly stated--goals that will be met by the meeting's end. It also is important to have a time limit and to stick by it. Kennedy addresses the problem of meetings going over their scheduled time allotment by ending them at lunchtime. "It may sound silly, but no one argues to continue the discussion when the meeting leader suggests it's time for lunch," he says.

Also, if the participants know that the meeting will end at noon, they'll be sure to get their main points across up front so they won't miss the opportunity to be heard. "We may go out to lunch together and continue the discussion, but in a much less heated, more relaxed way," Kennedy says. An agenda that outlines. step by step, how the meeting participants will work toward reaching goals also keeps things organized and on track.

No matter how well organized the meeting is, however, when the time comes for group discussions, the participants' personalities, positions in the company hierarchy and their degree of knowledge about the topic under discussion can lead to conversational chaos. Often the meeting's leader will attempt to bring order by dominating the conversation, or will give up completely and let chaos reign, hoping that something salvageable will come out of the mess. In the first case, a dictatorial meeting leader can provoke resentment, boredom and frustration in other meeting participants. The "order can come from chaos" scenario, while it may work for the formation of a star, seldom has stellar results for a business meeting. Instead, participants tend to digress, dominate the conversation, sit back and watch instead of participate, and generally have an equally boring, frustrating, or resentful time. The bottom line is that neither method gets results.

Quincy Abbot, a former executive at CIGNA Corp. and current president of ARC (formerly the National Association for Retarded Citizens), has planned and led innumerable small meetings over the course of his career. The first thing to do, he says, is to ensure that the group is small enough to make meaningful conversation possible. "You can't have a real discussion if the group is larger than five to ten people," Abbot says. He suggests breaking a larger group down into smaller groups that can either work on various different items on the agenda or all be given the same issue to discuss, then come back and present their findings to the larger group. "Counting off by threes will give you a random way to sort people into small groups," Abbot says. "It also can help keep members of a particular clique from banding together and basing their findings on a preconceived, already unified viewpoint."

Abbot finds that a team-building question at the outset of the meeting, posed even before the presenter's initial statement, can make a big difference in the participants' ability to work together productively, particularly if the participants don't know each other well. "I like to do something at the beginning that will build a group identity before we start in on the meeting's topic," he says. This could be a question such as "Why did you get into this business?" or "What do you hope to get out of this meeting?" This allows each person to share his personality with the group so the other participants and the group leader know a little about where each person is coming from before the actual meeting begins. "It is absolutely vital that the group leader try to build a group identity first when the group is made up of a small number of people who don't know each other well," Abbot says.

TALK TIME In their book, We've Got to Start Meeting Like This! (Park Avenue Productions, an imprint of JIST Works, Inc.), Roger Mosvick and Robert Nelson propose a simple, elegant approach that can be used as a tool to help control your meeting: Ensure that everyone gets an equal amount of "talk time." The ideal talk time distribution for a six-person group, for example, is 25 percent of the time going to the group leader, with the four other participants and the recorder each having 15 percent of the time to speak. Of course, Mosvick and Nelson say that this division of time is difficult in real life because individuals have more or less to say depending on their level of expertise in the discussion topic. "Every group, however, should aim at a reasonable division of talk time, wherein each participant has nearly an equal say in the discussion while allotting the chairperson slightly more time for the additional administrative duties."

This may appear to be too basic to some, who feel that an individual's status, effectiveness in communicating, problem analysis skills, expertise on a given topic, or personal trustworthiness may carry more influence than simply the amount of time one gets to talk. While these factors do bear considerable weight, Mosvick and Nelson's 20 years of research has born out that "the sheer amount of individual talk time correlates more consistently" than other issues.

MAINTAINING CONTROL According to Mosvick and Nelson, the four main ways participants influence a small meeting are:

* Dominating the meeting by talking often and rambling on and on.

* Refusing to let others speak by talking over them or ignoring their interruptions.

* Speaking so loudly that others can't be heard.

* Using verbal reinforcers ("yes, I see what you mean" with an encouraging head movement) or conversation stoppers ("no" or "uh-uh" with negative facial expressions).

So what can you do when you see your meeting start to careen out of control? A stopwatch or timer buzzing to indicate that someone's time is up probably is not a good idea. There are, however, a number of verbal and nonverbal methods you can use to subtly bring out-of-control participants back into a rational, ordered discussion.

Nonverbal cues often guide conversations even more subtly than verbal cues. These would include smiles, glares, finger-drumming, glassy-eyed gazes at nothing, looking a speaker in the eye and nodding the head.

For dominators who ramble, refuse to let others speak and speak loudly to drown out the competition, you can regain control by using their own techniques: interrupt them with points that will get the conversation moving in the right direction. "With someone who takes over the discussion and won't let go," Abbot says, "you usually have to be very direct and cut them off. Say, 'Thanks, we've heard from you,' then turn to someone else and ask them what they think about the issue." Abbot also suggests the direct approach to encourage those who are hanging back. "Address a question directly to someone who's sitting quietly and not contributing," he suggests. Using verbal stoppers and reinforcers and nonverbal cues also can help to discourage a dominant participant from taking over the meeting and encourage others to take part in the discussion. It also can be useful to give dominant attendees a job to perform, such as taking notes, to keep them occupied and feeling productive.

While a certain amount of interruption is inherent to the creative process, excessive interruptions can cause valuable information to be lost and can inhibit those who are introverted from participating in a discussion, regardless of their superior expertise in the subject. A frequent interrupter sometimes can be stopped simply by the speaker raising his volume a notch. If this doesn't work, the interruptee or, if necessary, the meeting chairperson should feel free to tell the interrupter that he must wait until the thought is finished before he can add to it.

Irrelevant questions are a natural byproduct of having to wait one's turn to speak. By the time your turn comes around, the conversation has moved on to another point. Mosvick and Nelson say that this process, which they call "information queuing," can be controlled in part by doing the following: "Strive to give everyone orderly, equitable access to the discussion; remember to reintroduce key ideas which have been temporarily tabled; and require that all participants demonstrate the relevance of their comments to the current train of discussion."

When all else fails and the meeting is becoming stagnant or overly heated, Kennedy suggests that the moderator pull the plug. "When that happens, it's time to admit that this is not something we're going to resolve now," he says. "I would suggest that we take some time to think it over and arrange to meet later."

It can be difficult not to cross over the line between productive conversational interplay and an out-of-control meeting. In many cases, just being aware of the verbal and nonverbal techniques people use in conversation can help to keep your meeting in line with your agenda and ultimate meeting goals. Then your team has a much better chance of capturing that all-important wooly mammoth.

Otto H. Gies "Whenever possible, our management gets together in small groups in restaurants, rather than in meeting facilities, to discuss problems, targets, strategies, and other issues.

"Having a nice dinner helps everyone relax, which in turn helps build or maintain relationships and solve conflicts. If there are still questions after these informal gatherings, we have more formal meetings. But I find that if personal relationships are good, we need less time for official meetings. So our main emphasis is on helping people maintain solid relationships."

Glen Ramsborg, CRNA, Ph.D. "The decision to enter into the activities of the group is a personal one that may be conscious or unconscious. The 'What's in it for me?' question sharply focuses your attention on the needs of the meetingparticipants. It must be answered. Each participant must feel that he or she is a part of the process, that all ideas and thoughts are valued, and that all voices will be heard."

Sharon Buchbinder "No matter how well planned or executed the meeting is, certain problematic personalities will inevitably make an appearance. For nonparticipators, go around the room, encouraging everyone to participate, but also allowing a "pass" option. Ask direct questions of those who take a "pass" only when you're sure an attendee has knowledge, expertise, or experience in a particular area.

Phrase questions in terms of the in-dividual's experience, to allow a gracious out. ("In your experience, have you ever encountered...")

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