In an interesting story at the Harvard Business Review, executive coach and author Sabina Nawaz talks about a CEO she is coaching who has a particularly methodical way of absorbing information.
As Nawaz explains, the CEO – who she calls ‘Elana’ – is deaf, so she is “more intentional about how she listens”. Nawaz has noticed that, during their meetings, Elana does not interrupt, and concentrates deeply on lip-reading Nawaz to ensure that she grasps the full sense of her advice. Through a deliberate process of i) understanding, ii) interpreting and iii) verifying what is said, and checking it against her own experience, Elana is able to digest Nawaz’s coaching details and see the information in the round.
Nawaz writes: “As we worked together this year, I realised that Elana’s listening and communication strengths in one-on-one meetings are skills that most leaders need, many leaders think they have, but none practice as well.”
Nawaz’s piece resonates with a recent item at Inc.com, which explains that self-made hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio has imposed a ‘two-minute rule’ upon his company’s meetings, whereby each speaker is allowed to speak for two, full minutes, uninterrupted, so they can explain their thinking before anyone else jumps in. “This ensures everyone has time to fully crystallise and communicate their thoughts without worrying they will be misunderstood or drowned out by a louder voice,” he explains.
In both cases, the secret is time – and ensuring that there is enough to go round to support the process of understanding. But which other ingredients will ensure that meetings are efficient, effective and likely to be enjoyed, rather than dreaded?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's CEO Phil James says: “What both of the above examples illustrate is that the listening part of the meetings equation is much more important than the speaking part. So many meetings take place in a climate where many of those present are just waiting for their turn to speak. That creates an anxiety in the room, because instead of being open to what other people are saying, each participant is mentally rehearsing their own lines. Now, that can actually push people to hone their contributions and come out with some interesting stuff – but it can also lead them to miss what’s come before. And if they do that, then what they say may come across as a complete non-sequitur that doesn’t connect with the previous speaker’s point, or indeed the overall agenda.”
James explains: “If you know when you’re going into a meeting that you are going to be listened to, that you’re going to be given space to express yourself and that your colleagues will value your contribution, then you have a very different dynamic going on. As chair, enabling and facilitating that dynamic is a real skill – and in many ways, this takes us back to notions of openness and transparency: no sudden, destabilising curveballs that aren’t on the agenda, and no grandstanding stemming from any ulterior motives that one or two contributors may have to raise their personal profiles.
“Enforcing those rules while not appearing to be authoritarian requires real discipline and craft. Those qualities don’t come naturally. They have to be learned. So watching how other, experienced people chair meetings is essential. There’s a balance to be struck: meetings should be neither dull, nor fraught. In that middle ground, they should be safe environments for challenge – providing scope for people to unpick other contributors’ ideas without such probing being considered a personal attack. That will ensure that people come out feeling listened to, informed – possibly even invigorated – and that there has been a genuine and honest exchange of views.”
James adds: “Above all, a meeting shouldn’t feel like a superficial facade – one that’s masking more tangible and impactful decisions that are happening in locked rooms well out of the staff’s earshot. If it’s being touted as an opportunity to involve people in decisions, then that is what it must be.”
For further thoughts on how to run effective meetings, check out these learning resources from the Institute