4 Ways To Stimulate Better Discussions

May 31, 2015
I was preparing to facilitate a day-long meeting for a new team leader.  He had just joined the organization and was pulling together the team of direct reports he had inherited.  As we discussed his objectives for the day, he mentioned that what he really wanted was “juicy discussions.”

By “juicy discussions” he meant conversations about important topics where people speak candidly about the issues and get to the heart of what’s really going on.  Juicy meant messy and it meant he didn’t want people to play it safe.

I told him that was a tall order for a first session, but if he wanted to make progress in that direction, I could help him.  I thought these ideas might be valuable to you too.

What it takes to get a juicy discussion.

1. Time. Juicy discussions don’t happen quickly. They take time, in a couple of different ways. First, you’re kidding yourself if you think a really in-depth and uncomfortable discussion is going to happen the first time your team gets together. Everyone is too busy sussing each other out and they don’t yet have the trust and confidence to speak the truth. Second, you’re delusional if you expect to get a profound breakthrough in a 30-minute meeting with 10 agenda items.

If you are looking to improve the quality of your team’s discussions, book a series of meetings, building toward one that’s a half-day or longer (in a perfect world, make it a two-day offsite meeting with dinner in between).  Have a maximum of one topic per half-day so there’s lots of time to explore.

2. Preparation. Really important conversations are usually about complex topics. Don’t expect that you can spring something on the team and have them give you their best thinking on the spot! It takes some preparation to sort out the factors that contributed to the current situation and to come up with options for how to change the status quo. Some members of your team will be unwilling to chime in until they’ve had a chance to get these ideas straight in their heads.

If you want to have a good conversation that gets at the heart of an issue, start seeding the ideas in advance.  Introduce the idea casually “I’m not sure we fully understand what’s causing revenue to drop in the western region. I’d like us to come back to this topic in our next meeting.”  If you have a specific structure for how you’d like to have that conversation, share it. “Please come with your hypotheses about what’s going on and your top three priority actions for the next quarter.”

3. Questions. If you deliver monologues in meetings, you are a conversation killer. It doesn’t work to say you’re looking for lively debate and then launch into a lengthy description of what you hold true. Equally as destructive is creating a false dichotomy by asking a closed ended question. “Yes or No.” “True or False.” “Go or No-go.” Those are questions that shut down discussion and show you’re not interested in your team members’ thoughts.

If you want to get deeply into an issue, ask big open-ended questions and listen for what people are really trying to tell you.  Stay away from questions that create defensiveness, especially avoiding questions that start with “why.” Switching from statements to questions will show you’re moving from assertiveness to curiosity.  Curiosity is juicy.

4. Reinforcement. The minute you signal that someone said something they shouldn’t have, you’ve snuffed out open conversation.  Your team members are probably already nervous about getting into uncomfortable or unpopular parts of the discussion. That’s especially true if part of the problem is attributed specifically to a single member of the team (and doubly true if that single member is you). One slip where you become defensive about a comment or where you overtly shift the conversation out of dangerous territory and you have set your cause back by weeks or months.

If you want to build momentum in a candid discussion, be very deliberate about encouraging early attempts at candor. Thank the person for the openness of their comments without judging the content of what they said.  “As difficult as that is to hear, that’s exactly the kind of input I’m looking for. Thank you.”

I agree completely with the team leader who was hoping to create juicy conversations.  I also know that it’s his actions that will determine whether he gets them or not.  Only with the patience to make time and space for divergent thinking, only with the restraint to ask questions instead of asserting his opinions, only with the self-control to listen openly and to reinforce uncomfortable and unpopular points of view will he (or you) get those juicy conversations.  Are you willing to make the investment?

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