The question and answer session, or Q&A, can be productive and helpful for ‘finding things out’ and for getting things ‘on the record’. However, if boards and committees want to move to the next level, then what’s needed is constructive conversations.
The normal mode of engagement between independent (non-executive) members and the executive in the majority of meetings is the Q&A. Put simply, the independent member asks a question and the executive member answers it. Often this will be a single question. Sometimes the independent member will ask a string of questions, one after another, on a single theme. Sometimes they will ask a string of questions on different themes. All too common is the asking of two or more questions at the same time – a practice that rarely helps.
There are, of course, good reasons for having Q&As in public committee and board meetings. First, they are good for ‘finding things out’. Good questions help expand the knowledge of independent members about the organisation and the approach of the executives. Second, Q&As are good for transparency. They help support accountability by getting statements from the executive ‘on the record’ and making them public. Particularly when there are concerns to be raised, or proposals to be made, it’s important that these are refuted or acknowledged by those in power. Questions asked for these reasons are likely to be helpful and will contribute to good governance and the broader discourse of the committee or board. Sometimes, of course, these types of Q&A neither add nor detract. For example, the independent member is simply curious for personal reasons or has not read the papers in advance and needs to understand the background. Sometimes questions are not really questions at all but a way for independent members to make a statement or share an opinion.
There is a third reason behind many questions in Q&As. Often, and particularly in committees involving elected members from different political parties, questions are asked in order to put people on the spot, to expose them, to make them uncomfortable or to make them look bad. In the political context this might be seen as effective opposition and a test that all leaders should expect and welcome. However, while these Q&As are usually civil, they cannot really be considered as constructive. In fact, it is fair to say that these kinds of questions are often intended to be destructive.
However, there is also a fourth reason for the exchanges in committees or boards for which Q&As are not well suited. That reason is solution building, in other words, engaging in dialogue in order to create new ways of doing things that make a difference for citizens and those using services. The stop/start nature of Q&As means they are not suited for this purpose particularly when ‘fact finding’ or ‘opposition’ are the primary reasons for the questions.
Instead what’s needed to build solutions are constructive conversations.
It’s through structured conversations that solutions can be built, and ways forward found in even the most challenging of situations. These conversations will not happen naturally, however, they require a structured approach and the right tools and techniques. Fortunately help is at hand. Conversation experts such as facilitators, coaches, therapists, mediators, counsellors and supervisors know how to make conversations constructive and many of these lessons can be applied to committee and board meetings. By borrowing the approach of these conversation experts, and by starting to use the tools and techniques that they use, independent members should start to get better, more satisfying results from their exchanges at public committee and board meetings.
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