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20 ways I fail to ‘think together’ with others; 20 reminders for productive dialogue in meetings – FREE prompt cards

Are you left with the feeling that there was always more which could have been achieved when we gather together with others – in brainstorming, decision-making or problem-solving meetings? We are told that increased diversity should release the creative potential of multiple perspectives. Yet our day-to-day interactions seem to prove the opposite: we observe and (yes, let’s admit it) contribute to the ignoring of deeper human needs, low levels of exploratory inquiry, the unloading of pre-recorded thinking, the prevalence of judgement and the consistent undervaluing of quiet or divergent voices.

Below are 20 things I do or fail to do in meetings with colleagues and which reduces the potential of our collective intelligence. I have attempted to remind myself of what is needed to ‘think together’ – and so went back to William Isaacs and his book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. These reminders are especially important when the pressure is on to get things done quickly to respond to the pace of change around us.

  1. I listen with an enthusiastic finger on the trigger. As others are speaking I’m reloading. I look for a space to come in and say what’s on my mind – the things I want to tell the group – but not always what the group needs. I need to take my finger off the trigger more.
  2. I listen selectively. I quickly join the dots between what others have said (or what I want to hear to fit my view of how things should be). When I’ve done this I use this partial picture to defend my views. I need to soften my focus and listen to the whole of what they are saying.
  3. I find listening to views which diverge from my own very hard to do. The opposite perspective and style causes almost a physical allergic reaction in me. I don’t tell them of course. I just wait for views which will later confirm my own. And jump on that bandwagon. I need to listen more to what opposes my view.
  4. When I hear minority challenges to majority thinking I’m saying to myself, “yes, but…”. Especially when it’s late in the day, I’m tired and have a thousand other things to do. Or I say the fashionable “Yes, and…” (but really mean “Yes, but”). I need to make it easier to support challenges to collective thinking more often and earlier in our meetings.
  5. I jump to conclusions – I think I know what people mean (because I’m joining the dots at the speed of sparking neurons). I need to slow down and check what people really meant and their intention.
  6. Because I ‘know’ people, I have some pretty clear assumptions about how they think and what they’ll say. I see mind reading based on our history of collaboration as a necessary efficiency tool. I need to throw away my assumptions and see people ‘fresh’ each time we meet.
  7. I love fixing problems and people (people problems are my nirvana!). So, those with opposite views to me need fixing – and I know what’s best for them and us. I need to respect opposing views without always trying to fix them.
  8. In the search for ‘alignment’, those with divergent views receive a collective withdrawal of breath and a metaphorical rolling of eyes which says ‘do we really have time for this detour?’ I admit to mentally rolling my eyes on a number of occasions. I need to do some deliberate conflict mining and find space in our meetings for those with a different view.
  9. I feel uncomfortable when there are personal conflicts floating around for too long (see 7!).This needs to be fixed! I need to be able to hold the tension of divergent views until we can enquire into them more deeply.
  10. I’m more introverted than extrovert. So I can spend time listening to others (admittedly doing 1, 2, 3 & 4). But when I’m sure of what I’m saying and get invited in I can take up huge slices of airtime as I piece together my chunks of thinking for the benefit of all. I admit I do this more when I’m the boss. I need to avoid serial monologues and say to myself that if I take time I need to make time for the quieter participants with untapped potential value.
  11. I like asking questions in meetings. Questions get people to think…about what I intend to propose. I must admit that I prefer asking others questions to which I know the answer. I need to have the courage to ask questions to which I don’t know the answer.
  12. When I ask those great questions to get others to think I fall into the trap of judging or disguising my statements as ‘questions’. I have been known to ask leading questions like: ‘Don’t you think…?’ I need to ask questions to enquire. That means I must admit I don’t know.
  13. Sometimes we go around the houses in our meetings and at the end everyone feels we have elegantly danced around a magnificent elephant in the room. I need to ask what we are systematically ignoring in our conversations.
  14. I love answers. Closing things down and moving on feels like progress – post-it notes clustered and prioritised on the wall, something on a flipchart, preferably action items, so I can move on to the next priority on my ‘to do’ list (there’s SO much to do).  When we’re exploring something new or difficult, I need to ask more ‘hard’ questions (see above) rather than just being satisfied with giving or getting partial answers.
  15. I am frustrated because in my more introverted moments I’m bursting to share my doubts about what’s been said in the last 20 minutes of the meeting. But what’s the point. They seem to know so much more about this topic than me. No one is inviting me in or expressing alternative views. I need to take responsibility for expressing my views with conviction – my voice needs to be heard.
  16. Sometimes I say something profoundly superficial – just to cover up my embarrassment at not knowing quite what to say. I must say something. We’ve been told that to keep talking is good. In meetings here in the West everyone seems to contribute to filling the minutest crack of silence (except when our colleagues from Finland join us). Yes, some of us need to think before talking, while others talk to think. I mustn’t underestimate the creativity of silence so that we can have a space to think together.
  17. I want to say intelligent things. Be thought of as an insightful contributor deserving of respect. But to do this I find myself in a state of déjà vu saying the same things I said yesterday in other meetings… and last year at that conference…which I said the year before when I met my wife’s friends. I’m contributing to a Groundhog Day loop of repeated, pre-packaged thoughts. One of these days I may even believe they are the ‘truth’. I need to remind myself that true creative thinking is more likely to be inarticulate and raw. That is humbling, so I will encourage colleagues to leave their ‘polished talk’ at home in the quest for more hesitant but original collective thought.
  18. Back to my loading-the gun-approach. Sometimes I’m patient enough to politely wait until others have finished their contributions. Then I take the baton and tell them what I think. I need to encourage silence after people have spoken so that we can let their meaning ‘grow a little inside us’
  19. In some meetings I leave thinking that I’ve talked too much and suffocated the airtime; in others I have sat on my opinions thinking it wasn’t the right time, the right forum, the right channel of communication or doubting my ability to express myself with sufficient coherence or tact. I need to find the balance between being too quiet and taking up too much territory.
  20. When I’m in attentive listening mode I hear all the diverse perspectives, the false starts, the unspoken frustration. I then filter this through the needs of my own agenda.  I need to put my ego on hold at these times to ‘represent us all’ in expressing what the group is trying to say.

To remind me of these 20 points I have created 20 prompt cards to increase the focus on connection and creative results during meetings, teleconferences and videoconferences. They are particularly useful for multicultural teams where diversity of approach can make dialogue more challenging.  They are based on my synthesis of practices in William Isaac’s Dialogue – the Art of Thinking Together.

To get the card sets:

  1. Reply YES in the comments on LinkedIn:
  2. Sign up here to get the card set –>

Or share this article if you like the cards and think others would find them useful (eg. colleagues, friends, team members or even bosses!)

You will receive a file from me by email containing both a portable small card set (13.5cms x 10 cms) and a larger A4 set.

You can use the cards as:

  • a personal prompt in your pocket to get into the habit of supporting dialogue
  • a shared approach in a team to approach problem-solving and brainstorming sessions
  • an introduction to teleconferences or video conferences to sensitize everyone to good practices for dialogue
  • a self-reflection tool after meetings – everyone selects a card which they think they personally need to pay more attention to next time, sharing it with the group
  • a feedback tool after meetings – everyone receives a card from each colleague present as the aspect they would like you to focus more on next time – getting very similar cards from everyone is a powerful message (cards can be given face up or face down)
  • Please share suggestions for other ways to use the cards in the comments – together we can put our collective intelligence to work immediately
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