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Meeting Processes That Support Effective Influencing
SINCE SO MUCH INFLUENCING takes place at formal or informal meetings, whether at work, at home, or in your community, following are some suggestions for designing meetings for effective two-way influencing. If the outcome of the meeting is to be a decision or set of actions that will require the commitment of participants, it is especially important that each person have an opportunity to influence the end result. Too many meetings are designed to avoid engaging people in discussion about decisions that they will have to buy into and implement. This only lengthens the overall process.
- If you are the person calling the meeting, spend some one-to-one time with other key "stakeholders" (those who have something to gain or lose by the outcome of the meeting) and get their ideas as to what should be on the agenda, who should be invited, and so forth.
- Send out the agenda or let participants know in advance the topics that will be discussed. That way, those who like to think before they speak out will have a chance to prepare to influence others at the meeting. This tends to shorten the meeting, because people will come prepared. In addition, establishing topics in advance can prevent the situation that arises when someone who did not participate actively at the last meeting now wants to re-open the topic for discussion, just when you thought the matter was settled.
- Ask someone to facilitate the meeting. This is especially important if there will be difficult or controversial topics on the agenda, or if the group typically tends to become bogged down in details or get sidetracked. The person who is facilitating should be someone who does not have a vested interest in the outcome of the issues under discussion. This can be a rotating role in your group, or you can use someone outside the group who has had some training in meeting facilitation. The job of the facilitator is to manage the process of the meeting by agreement with other members of the group. He or she should not contribute to the content without stepping out of his or her facilitator role.
- State clearly in the agenda, and again at the beginning of the meeting, the purpose of the session and the process you will follow. It is helpful for participants to know what results are expected. Which of the following best describes your purpose?
In meetings that are primarily expressive in nature (such as meetings that communicate information or decisions), it is important to set aside time afterward to use receptive skills to gather questions and/or listen to concerns.
In meetings that are primarily receptive in nature (such as meetings that are held for the purpose of gathering information or exploring issues), it is important to begin with an expressive statement informing or reminding participants of the purpose and process and why they are being involved. It may also be useful to share a vision of the ideal results of the meeting and encourage participants to be active and open.
Overall, meetings should be designed to enable participants to move back and forth between expressing their ideas and learning about what others think. There is little chance of a successful result if everyone is only interested in expressing his or her ideas - or, for that matter, if no one is willing to take the risk of putting an idea on the table. A good facilitator can be very helpful with this.
Use different processes during the meeting to involve everyone who has something to contribute. For example, try a "nominal group process" in which each person contributes a thought or idea, one at a time. (There should always be an option to pass.)
Be sure to separate processes that are meant to generate ideas, such as brainstorming, from processes that are evaluative and meant to move toward decision making. Use ground rules that support the process you are using. (For example, brainstorming processes require a "no evaluation of ideas" ground rule to be successful.)
Notice when someone who is key to implementing the group's decision, or whose support is important, is not participating or is giving signals that he or she is not happy with the direction. Use receptive skills to invite that person to participate and/or to express concerns.
For important decisions that require participants' support, consider using a consensus process. Consensus does not mean that everyone believes it is the best possible decision. It means that everyone has agreed that he or she can live with, support, and implement the decision. A consensus decision process involves:
Explore problems or issues
Make a decision
Announce a decision and discuss how to implement it
Establish a set of norms or ground rules for this meeting (or to use at all meetings of a particular group) that will ensure that everyone has a fair chance to be heard and to influence the decisions appropriately. Ask participants for suggestions and then be sure to enforce them in a good-natured way. Some examples might be:
Have a time limit for each person's comments on a particular topic
Ask for someone's ideas if he or she has not spoken for a while
Ask the group for alternatives before settling on a solution
A proposal for a decision, often a summary of a discussion about the issues involved
A question: "Who cannot support the decision as stated?"
A query to those who are not in agreement: "What would have to change in order for you to be able to live with and implement the decision?"
A discussion and good-faith effort to modify the decision to gain the support of those who disagree
Another check for agreement
This process may be repeated several times until a consensus is reached.
Consider who, outside of the group, will need to be influenced in order for any meeting decisions to be implemented successfully. Discuss how to approach the influence "tasks" as next steps in the decision process.
All of the suggestions above are valid, whether the meeting is held face-to-face or by video, telephone, or web conference. When participants in the meeting are not co-located, special care should be taken to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to participate and influence. From time to time, the facilitator or leader in a virtual meeting should do a "round-robin" check for comments, opinions, or questions from each participant by name (always allowing for a "pass" response).