Dialogue might be the key to unlocking the best meetings you’ve ever had

Our team has collectively attended thousands of meetings, conferences, video conferences, conference calls, and trainings, in dozens of countries and related to a wide variety of roles, projects, and industries. Almost all of these have had one thing in common:

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Here’s why that matters:

  1. Research shows that adult learners need to apply their pre-existing beliefs or prior experiences to what they are learning for information to truly “stick.” When you don’t give people the chance to make reflective connections between what they already know and what you’re doing, you inadvertently make it more difficult to learn.
  2. We live in an incredibly VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous). It’s not enough anymore to rely on the expertise of a single individual or a small group of people, at least not when it comes to solving wicked problems or generating momentum for some kind of change. We need to tap the wisdom of the collective, even of those who don’t think of themselves as knowledgeable or smart.
  3. People who feel actively invested in an outcome are much more likely to change their behavior to further that outcome. People who feel their opinions were heard and involved in a change are more likely to embody the change and encourage others to do the same.

Dialogue is the single most powerful tool to address all of this.

So why don’t more people leverage the power of dialogue?

Here are a few reasons we’ve heard in our experience training and coaching leaders.

  1. “It takes too much time to get everybody’s input.” This reveals the self-limiting belief that gathering lots of input necessarily requires a lot of time. This also reveals the self-limiting belief that there isn’t enough extra value generated to justify possibly spending extra time. There are certainly some times, contexts, and decisions in which it’s unwise to make space for dialogue! But in our experience, these are the exception, not the norm. In most organizational and team contexts there are many, many places where injecting dialogue would have a wide range of positive outcomes including increased candor, trust, and follow-through.
  2. “When I ask for input, nobody speaks up,” or, “When I ask questions, I already know who will talk and who will be quiet.” This reveals the self-limiting belief that the only or best way to generate dialogue is for a leader to ask questions to a group and wait for people to respond. The truth is that this is only one of many possible ways to engage people in dialogue. There are many other much more effective ways to begin. In most situations it doesn’t make sense to directly engage a whole group until you’ve cultivated high candor by other methods.
  3. “I don’t know the best way to get people talking.” Now we’re going somewhere! In many contexts, “leadership” is defined more by the qualities of an individual rather than by the outcomes that individual is able to achieve through other people. It makes sense that many leaders don’t feel equipped to help people dialogue, because most leaders aren’t promoted on that basis. Make no mistake: being able to help others dialogue is a critical skill that will make you appear to be a confident and seasoned leader!

“Ok, you’ve convinced me. So how can I use dialogue to have better meetings?”

There are lots of ways to creatively and meaningfully involve meeting participants in better dialogue. Our favorite is by using a framing question coupled with images and space for reflection and paired dialogue.

Below we’ll walk you through exactly what this looks like.

Four steps to making meetings better through dialogue

1. Ask a framing question and leave space for people to write their responses.

A good framing question is an invitation to think expansively about a specific concept that moves everyone’s thoughts in the direction of the overall meeting outcomes you hope to achieve. It’s an invitation: open-ended and generative, not divisive or limiting. It’s about a specific concept: choose a powerful word that has something to do with the main purpose of the meeting. It’s expansive: the simpler, the better, so that people can think broadly rather than get bogged down trying to find a “right” or expected answer.

We’re big fans of the simple formula “What is _____?” As an example, “What is leadership?” “What is collaboration?” “What is traction?” You could also take this opportunity to learn about people’s feelings on the subject: “When you think of _____, what emotions come to mind and why?”

Give people 2-3 minutes to think and write silently.

2. Instruct everyone to silently consider the images you’ve laid out and to choose one that reflects their answer to the question.

If you’re with people in a room, you should already have taken the step of laying out images on a side table beforehand. Instruct participants to leave everything at their seat, walk over, and choose an image that reflects their answer to bring back to their seats with them.

If you’re working over a video conferencing platform, you can have everyone peruse the same link or use the same PDF of images (ideally numbered) so that people are looking at the same group of images and can easily view them later when they share. The principle is the same.

3. Once they’ve chosen the images, have them pair up and talk about what they chose.

Formally, this process has four steps:

  1. First, describe the image. Simply note what you see in as much detail as you want. Do not say why you chose it or what it means to you–just talk about what’s there.
  2. Give your partner a chance to mention any details they notice.
  3. Now, share why you chose the image. How does it help you answer the framing question?
  4. Finally, give your partner a chance to say what the image makes them think of with respect to the question. Then it’s their turn, and they can repeat this process.
  5. Bonus: you can do this process as a round robin with small groups of up to five people. Just make sure people limit their sharing to two minutes each, or this can take a very long time.

We run a lot of group meetings on Zoom, and we prefer to use Zoom’s breakout room features (either in random pairs, assigned pairs, or table groups) to achieve this dialogue.

4. After 5-10 minutes, lead a short debrief of the exercise with the whole group.

Bring people back together and ask: Who can share with us, in thirty seconds or less, something you heard in your conversation? This works in person and online.

So what does this accomplish for my meeting?

Several important things:

In conclusion

Good leaders can get a lot done. Great leaders can empower others to get a lot done. Dialogue is the fuel that powers more engaging and effective meetings, trainings, presentations, and brainstorming sessions. Harness the power of dialogue to give those you work with a more meaningful and powerful experience that will build trust, strengthen common commitment, and result in better ideas overall.

Reflection questions:

  1. What’s my typical method for organizing and running a meeting? How much dialogue is usually involved?
  2. What pitfalls or barriers have I observed in bringing dialogue to meetings? How can I overcome those?
  3. In addition to this method of using images, what other ways could I use the power of dialogue in meetings?
  4. If I implemented this method in a specific meeting I can think of, what might change for the better?

Interested to learn more about this?

We’re hosting a free virtual workshop on Thursday July 2 at 1pm CST. If you come, you’ll receive a virtual Image Deck with 50 images and walk away ready to use it for exactly this process. Sound good? Click here to register!

Rory Tyer is an executive coach, expert facilitator, writer, and videographer who thrives on asking powerful questions. He is the creator and host of Work Like a Human, the GoInnovation podcast, and has worked with or coached leaders in several countries from organizations such as Toyota, Amazon, Chick-fil-a, World Vision International, Coca-Cola, and St Jude Children’s Hospital. He currently lives in Tupelo, MS, with his wife, two daughters, and two pit bulls. Find him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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How to Transform Your Meetings Through Dynamic Dialogue

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