Rather Have a Conversation or a Meeting?

Ever had a project introduced in a meeting and thought, “What are these guys smoking? That will never work.” Did you stay silent and subsequently watch the same project move forward with disastrous results? Did you ever have a great idea but thought no one would listen so stayed quiet?  Did you later learn that your idea was tried somewhere else to great success? What about attending a meeting where nothing useful happens or following a process where nothing of value is accomplished? These kinds of scenarios are played out all the time in organizations and sadly, we’ve come to take them for granted. We often accept them as part of the cost of doing business, but what if we changed the dynamic, what if we stopped having meetings and started having real conversations?  It’s not as difficult as it sounds and it doesn’t require special training. Getting into that right groove is a question of trial and error and will reflect the will and makeup of the group but there are some basic interpersonal communication skills that can help.

  • Know Your Audience: As a speaker take the time to consider the audience, their state of mind and experience. Have you prepared them for the presentation? Ask yourself if what you are presenting is truly engaging. Would it capture your attention? Look at their body language, are you reaching them? If it’s two in the afternoon, do they need to stand and stretch for a minute?
  •  Actively Listen: As an audience member you have a role to play and sitting passively isn’t it. Think about the last really fantastic conversation you had. An exchange of ideas where you felt heard and where you could really connect with what was being said. What did it feel like? What was happening was that you were actively listening.  You were hearing what the person meant without contemplating blame, accusation or what you were going to say next. You listened without prejudice and the same was being done for you.  Try it the next time you’re in a meeting. Do not distract yourself with e-mail or other things that will take away from your ability to listen. Do not multitask.
  •  Say It If You Mean It: Speak with honesty and from your personal perspective. Speak because you have something of value to contribute. Do not speak defensively or to blame, speak about how something makes you feel. In business settings, we are often told to suspend emotion and speak “professionally”. While screaming fits and temper tantrums are not helpful, you can only have an emotionless workplace if it’s devoid of humans.
  •  Don’t let dogma distract you: We all have ideas or beliefs we hold to be true, things we are “certain” of. Those ideas shape and inform how we see, hear and understand people and ideas. These paradigms help us to navigate the world around us so they are very important, but they can also act like blinders, blocking our ability to see facts.  It’s important to step back periodically and try to see the world through different eyes.  This doesn’t mean live in perpetual self-doubt, but stay open to new concepts. The same principle holds true when talking to colleagues. Suspend your beliefs, listen with an open mind to what they are saying, you might be surprised by what you learn. Notably, you may gain a better understanding of yourself and why you have the beliefs you do.
  •  Accept Conflict: If you work with people who care about what they do then inevitably there will be moments of conflict. This does not have to be a bad thing. In fact, the absence of dissenting voices can be disastrous for an organization. It could mean that you’re all stuck in the same paradigm.  This means you all see the same way and are also all blind to the same things. Anticipate that you will not always have the same perceptions as those around you and embrace the differences.  Take the time to listen to alternative ideas. Give yourself a chance to learn something new or see something old in a new way.
  •  Slow Down and Smell the Coffee: Sometimes after someone delivers a presentation or proposes an idea we ask, any questions? Generally, we give listeners an entire ten seconds to form their thoughts. Imagine, talking to a group for anywhere from ten to thirty minutes about an idea or project and then giving them ten seconds to digest, integrate and develop questions. Is it any wonder so many meetings and teleconference calls are packed with awkward silence? The real question is, is that silence really awkward? Consider slowing the conversation and giving people the opportunity to ask and engage during presentations.  Consider having a conversation rather than a presentation. Pause and ask people what they think. Ask specific people to feedback what they heard. Let people get back to you later. Allow ideas to percolate.

What was the last great conversation you had at home or at work?  What made it great for you?

Suggested Readings

Updated in July 2017


47 responses to “Rather Have a Conversation or a Meeting?

  • Having been to quite a few networking events, I can REALLY see where you are coming from here – I’m still giggling at the ‘what are they smoking..’ line 🙂 The worst ones by far are the self proclaimed ‘experts’ who go on to prove that they are anything but! My best conversations these days are with my sons, they have reached the age when they have opinions and views and whilst we sometimes don’t agree – I always come away thinking that I’ve learned something new because I was able to look at it from a different perspective.. Brilliant Blog!

    • Thank you and thanks for commenting! I’m constantly amazed at the insight I get from having conversations with my children. Like you, I don’t always agree with them, but sometimes just seeing an issue from a new perspective or delivered in a new way can trigger fresh ideas and understanding.

  • mkslagel says:
    April 26, 2013 @ 01:13 pm

    Active listening is definitely key. There is nothing worse than speaking and feeling like you are talking to a blank wall. Sometimes conversations are awkward and you have to keep thinking about what to say next but if you slow down and just listen, you are more likely to have something just come to you rather than trying to think of something.

    • I totally know what you mean. When you slow down and really listen, your responses are more authentic, more meaningful. That in turn brings the conversation to a higher level of engagement for both people. Thanks for commenting.

  • I’ve heard of walking meetings, where people stroll as they’re discussing their work, which is supposed to be most productive – and healthy. And as people spend more time working from home, I think virtual meetings – like Google Hangs or Skype – will become more popular. Any meeting needs a very clear agenda, and it also helps sometimes to have a time limit per item. It may sound crass, but it works!

    • I like the idea of a strolling meeting for small groups. Having an agenda and delivering it in advance means people can arrive prepared and that no one is taken by surprise. My post, “Surprises at Work” explores how destructive I think surprising people at work is.

  • A well-organized meeting can bring out some wonderful ideas. Unfortunately, most of the meetings I have attended are either 1). scheduled at the last minute due to a crisis issue, or 2). part of a routine ritual with no clear purpose. In both cases, I would rather not waste my valuable time!

    • I’ve attended both kinds and can certainly appreciate your reaction to them. Individually we need to contribute what we can to the exchange, perhaps set the example for our colleagues. I can’t imagine they’re having any more fun in uninspired meetings than we are. 🙂

  • Most meetings I’ve ever attended were a big waste of time. Although they do have their place as I have worked in a place where the owner/boss didn’t believe in meetings at all. I think he could have done with one or two and listened to his staff (but that is a whole other story).

  • These are some very good points. Far more is accomplished when colleagues can meet and openly converse. Good communication is key in all relationships — including work relationships! I’ve been fortunate to have co-workers and even bosses who are also my friends and who value and respect everyone’s thoughts and opinions. 🙂 I hope more people follow your advice!

  • Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) says:
    April 20, 2013 @ 04:04 am

    I think that one way to engage people in meetings is to request suggestions for agenda items ahead of time. This gives the attendees a chance to think and also gives the meeting organizer a chance to invite specific people to present their agenda items if appropriate. Unless the meeting is with a quite small group, I like to ask people to write down their questions as the meeting is happening so they can all be addressed at the end of the meeting. I used to make presentations and would allow questions as I went along. Sometimes that resulted in the meeting being hijacked by people wanting to talk about their own personal issues that did not much concern the other attendees. When written questions are considered at the end of the meeting, it is a way for people to 1) remember their question because they can write it down in real time, and 2) for the presenter to organize the questions and to first address the most important and coherent questions.
    (Courtesy of BHB)

  • I can completely relate to sitting in meetings like this. I would hate to admit it but I have probably run a meeting like this. I think the idea of engaging the audience through out the meeting is a wonderful idea.

  • Very well put. Personally, I’ve always thought of a meeting as being a conversation but with a leader and parameters for the subject/s being discussed. Although this is how I think of a meeting, way too often it’s more like a class or a lecture. Everyone, but the person speaking, feels like a student instead of an equal.

  • Teacher in-service meetings could improve drastically by taking these pointers into consideration. Too often meetings happen so it looks like everyone is coming together to get something done, when really nothing gets done at all. Then we wonder why people get so disgruntled with their jobs and the voice they have in how to feel like they are accomplishing something.

    • Jeri I know what you mean, Jessica called it “Groupthink”. If ever a word described the opposite of what it meant, it’s that one. What’s sad is that it makes idea of getting together with your colleagues into a bad thing.

  • Great information. I love open communication. I’ve been my own “boss” for over 20 years, but I work at a Medical Clinic with other professionals. It is so important to work as a team and to be successful we need open communication and mutual respect. If you question something, go directly to the person for clarification. Having regular business meetings are also very valuable.

  • I think it’s just making sure that Groupthink doesn’t happen, which is pretty much what you mentioned. If you have a different opinion, speak up because it could boost your status in your company. But it also depends on the relationship between you and your boss… The boss needs to foster the environment for others to feel welcome to speak as well 🙂

  • Great advice. I love that you include “Say what you mean” and only contribute what will add to the discussion. I think a lot of time people try to voice their opinion to simply get attention or seem like they have something to say, when in reality it is not furthering the conversation or adding anything. Having a personal perspective and new ideas is vital to truly contributing to the group in a productive way.

    • When I was growing up I remember being told by teachers that I should always try to ask a question because it showed I was listening and also that I was smart. Like you, I think it just shows that I can talk, and boy can I talk! The thing is, we have a lot of folks who were told the same thing. My kids are certainly graded on their participation in class, so we create a culture that encourages us to speak even when we have nothing to say. In some respects its our way of saying, “I’m here and I’m alive” but in the limited confines of a corporate meeting it can mean missing out on real conversations.

  • Gosh this so resonates with me. It has been a while since I have had any kind of formal meeting of this type. The one thing that stood out for me was “If you work with people who care about what they do then inevitably there will be moments of conflict.” Many run from it or try their hardest to avoid any conflict when in reality it can make all the different in the world. Without disagreement, discussion will not ensue and positive change does not occur.

    • Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been known to be provocative at work so that people would engage in a conversation. It isn’t always fun for me, but it gets them talking. 🙂

  • Actively listen. This is so important. It’s so easy to tune out.

  • I will never be a fan of the “corporate meeting.” From my experience those have always been more about what they will do instead of what can be done. The idea of a conversation where ideas are discussed and the focus is on moving forward is a welcome change to me.

  • I think it really important that we ‘say it if you mean it’ sometimes we tend to be apologetic especially if we have something negative to say and even defensive. People tend to be more receptive if we say what we have to with confidence.

    • Hi Anita, Thanks for commenting. I agree, people can be receptive because by avoiding the accusatory or defensive tone and speaking confidently everyone can focus on the message and not the emotion. It gives the speaker and the listener in the conversation some breathing room and the opportunity to think, not just react.

  • I’ve noticed this before. It is really easy to sit back in meetings and let things pass that you don’t really agree with. It may be because we don’t want to interrupt the meeting or cause any friction, but if you have something to add to the topic, it is best to go ahead and say it. It’s good for your confidence and probably good for the company as well.

    • Great point about what it does for your confidence. The act of engaging reminds us why we’re in an organization/group and reminds the other people present about what you bring to the table too.

  • I think you’re spot on about not multi-tasking during a meeting. This is something that has seemed to change in our culture in the last decade or so. As pagers, laptops, tablets have entered the market. I always turn my phone off when I’m in meetings. That way I’m not distracted to look at it or be bothered if a call or text comes in.

    But it surprises me how many sales reps and clients are constantly looking at their phones during meetings. I personally think it’s rude. Unless my wife was due any day I would not have my phone in front of me when I’m taking time in a meeting. This takes their attention away which could lead to them missing a key point, and not speaking up when they could of had a suggestions.

    Great post, thanks Debra.

    • I actually found myself looking at my Blackberry during a meeting and had to decide NOT to bring it with me anymore, it contributes nothing and detracts from the exchange. People think they are multitasking, but they’re generally just ignoring something.

  • I have actually given up on having meetings because it seems like no one pays attention. Yes, they listen for a little while and then go right back into their habits of doing what they did before I had the meeting. I am trying a new tactic, asking my staff what they want to talk about. It is interesting because they know what problems need to be solved, but hearing them say it followed by a discussion has added more participation and they don’t seem to get as bored.


    • When you give employees the opportunity to speak in their own voice they will inevitably get to the issues that you have identified as an area of concern. The perception that they are out of synch with management is generally a reflection of management not being clear on objectives or unclear on what will lead to success. I say this from the perspective of a leader who, after having an incredible revelation, a true aha moment, had her staff look at her and say, ” No sh!t Sherlock, we’ve known that for a while.” It’s humbling, but also revealing of what we can learn by listening. 🙂

  • As always, good suggestions Debra.

    Got hung up on what you wrote in the beginning, I quote you: “Ever had a project introduced in a meeting and thought, “What are these guys smoking? That will never work.”

    Can’t help thinking that when you brainstorm it’s usually the weirdest ideas that are the winners and will make a lot of money for the company. Your first thought is that it will not work but if you give it a chance it frequently does.

    • Good point Caterina and if we actually asked the question in our heads out loud (albeit politely) we might get to that great and lucrative idea or at least better understand it.

  • Cool, i was attending an offline conference just a couple of days ago and i was thinking about the same thing. During certain presentation, i had a couple of questions – but by the time the presentation ended, i was tired and i no longer felt like asking those questions – left it to ask Google later at home 😀

    Conversation instead of presentation is a great idea. But gets educating the audience that not only it is ok for them to participate with questions, ideas, comments; it is encouraged… and the “presentators” should be educated the same as well.

    thanks for writing and sharing this post, Debra!

    • I hear you. I remember once looking forward to a presentation at work only to find that I had a hard time staying awake through it. By the time it droned to a close there was silence. I had moved from excited anticipation to wondering why my colleague wanted to present. My questions followed later by email. I’ve always wondered if I was the only one with questions.

  • I think that it is so important to acknowledge and anticipate that in these conversations/meetings you will not always see things in the same way and that if everyone is being honest, there will be conflicting ideas/solutions/paths. This is where good leadership comes into play. A good leader will create a friendly and open atmosphere where sharing “blue sky” ideas is welcomed and even recognized. When the climate is set to openly converse and share any new ideas, just think about the positive possibilities for the team, for the leader and for the idea/project.

    • Couldn’t agree more, leadership sets the tone for engagement. Ideas rarely come whole, they generally require tinkering and reflection, the best way to do that is buy having different perspectives brought to bear. The idea that we will all see things in the same way is not only not sensible, but I can’t see why it would even be desired.There is generally more than one way to reach a destination.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.