Welcome back to our series about how to facilitate meetings with people who have challenging personalities. In this part of the series, we’re talking about people who relish debate.
A Cautionary Tale
I was once working with a small scrum team during a release planning session. As a designer on the project, I was part of the delivery team. The delivery team’s goal was to inform the product owner about technical feasibility and dependencies. Our scrum master was also present to facilitate the meeting.
Initially, our scrum master did a great job keeping the team on track whenever we became distracted from our goal. Unfortunately, we had several delivery teams and only one scrum master. When he stepped out to talk with another team, the session quickly regressed. Rather than focus on technical feasibility and dependencies, we focused on how the designs could be different or proposed removing entire features without consulting the product owner. As we continued to talk, the situation escalated. The group became borderline unruly with several heated side conversations happening at once. It was hard to find a time when only one person was talking. As a result, people just talked louder to be heard over the other conversations.
At the end of the day, we had been in the session for four hours and only reviewed a small portion of the prototype. We made zero decisions about technical feasibility and we listed zero dependencies on other teams. We had entirely lost sight of our goal.
Why did this meeting fail? First, every person had a different understanding of the meeting’s desired outcome. We never took the time to reiterate what we were trying to accomplish. Instead, we dove straight into reviewing the prototype.
To avoid this, spend a few minutes at the beginning of every meeting to review your agenda and clarify what you hope to accomplish. Write these intentions out on a slide and project it in the room or video conference. If the group continues to go off track, keep the slide up during the entire meeting.
The facilitator’s absence is the second, and perhaps most obvious, reason this meeting failed. While some teams get along well enough to self regulate their meetings, finding such a team is rare. So, if the scrum master can’t be in the entire meeting, designate a facilitator to take over when he or she leaves. Even if that person isn’t a trained facilitator, it always helps to have someone dedicated to keeping the team on track.
So, let’s say you’re facilitating a meeting and things start to turn unruly, as they did here. What should you do? When side conversations start, gently refocus people by saying something like, “if you don’t mind me interrupting, let’s try to have one conversation at a time.”
Use A Parking Lot
If side conversations continue to happen, consider creating a “parking lot.” A parking lot is a well vetted facilitation technique. It’s essentially a collection of topics you will discuss later. When a side conversation starts or a debate has drawn on too long, simply say “This is an important topic to discuss, but I want to come back to it later. Let’s put it in the parking lot for now and you two can discuss it later.”
The parking lot is great because it keeps the meeting on track without discounting what your team considers an important issue. It’s best to make the parking lot a living artifact. Make sure your team witnesses you writing the topics down into a running list, either on paper or in your favorite project management software. Otherwise, it just seems like you’re just trying to ignore their concerns.
Also, not all long conversations are meant for the parking lot. The conversation may be entirely necessary or relevant to reaching the meeting objective. An easy rule of thumb: put a conversation in the parking lot if it is off-topic or distracting the group from a cooperative conversation.
Set Ground Rules
If you find that side conversations and loud arguments are a consistent problem, it may be time to set ground rules. Publish and share a list of firm rules with your team. You can even write them on the walls of your meeting rooms. Here are some ground rules we’ve used:
- One person talks at a time
- No side conversations
- Provide one piece of positive feedback for every two pieces of negative feedback
- All ideas are well considered. Respond to ideas with “Yes and…” statements, rather than “No, but…” (Disclaimer: this rule is better for brainstorming sessions)
The Rest of The Series
Intro and Part 1: The Silent Genius
Someone who has great ideas or input, but doesn’t speak up.
Part 2: The Swoop-and-Pooper
Someone who isn’t very involved in the project, but then swoops in late in the project lifecycle and gives feedback that sends you back to the drawing board.
Part 4: The Multitasker
An attendee who thinks they can simultaneously check their email, reply to slack messages, juggle oranges, and pay attention to the meeting.
Part 5: The Unclear Communicator
A first cousin to the tangential thinker, the unclear communicator speaks in long, rambling sentences and uses unnecessarily complex terminology.
Looking for more information on how to handle challenging personalities? We have more for you coming soon.
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