This post follows from a question that we talked about on my Constructive Conversations Course. I thought it would be useful to share a list of suggestions that might be helpful.
Sometimes it can be a challenge to work constructively in a public board or committee meeting. Maybe party politics is driving competitive behaviours and point scoring. Maybe ideological differences are making it difficult to find productive cooperation. Maybe it’s a personality clash that’s making it hard to work together.
So, how might board or committee members, who want to be constructive, build cooperation with others who might seem less keen? What approaches or strategies might be helpful?
You can’t make people cooperate, of course, and not everyone wants to cooperate and that’s their choice. There may also be times where behaviours break organisational rules and need to be referred on. For every other situation there may still be hope.
So here are some suggestions that might give some inspiration and provide some clues about how to go forward. There is no ‘one size fits all’, of course, and you will be the best judge of what might work for you.
Among other things, I’m drawing on Tony Whatling’s very useful book Mediation Skills and Strategies, the solution focussed work of BRIEF and an episode of the Reasons to be Cheerful Podcast that shared the work three projects aiming to overcome political polarisation. These were the Hope Not Hate project (Brexit), Better Angels (US politics) and The Forgiveness Project (victims/survivors and perpetrators of crime and conflict). Well worth a listen.
Anyhow, here are the ideas – see if they are things you do already or might want to try. While none of these will be a panacea by themselves, each has the potential to move the conversations in a more constructive direction. I’ll start with a couple of general ones.
Have a conversation about the conversation
If it seems like it might be helpful, and the right time, talking informally, outside of the meeting, about how meeting exchanges might be more constructive is always worth a try. Of course this conversation needs to be constructive and not an opportunity to air grievances as this might make things worse. The approach should be one of curiosity, openness to suggestions and a willingness to try new things. Even small steps can be the start of a bigger difference down the line so it’s not necessary to solve everything at once.
It might start something like this:
Thanks for taking some time to talk to me today, I appreciate how busy you are. I just wanted to have a chat about how the board meetings are going at the moment. I’m not sure if you feel the same, but I think our exchanges could be more productive. Anyhow I just wanted to see if you had any ideas about how we might make things better. I’m a bit stuck to be honest. What do you think?
Care should be taken not to try and persuade the other person into doing things that we think they should, but rather to seek to see things from their perspective and find what might work for everyone. Less ‘why don’t you’ and more ‘how might we’.
Contract for cooperation
Conversation experts such a coaches, therapists and mediators, for example, will usually do what’s called contracting at the beginning of a conversation with a client. This means making explicit and agreeing the hoped for results of the conversation and perhaps something about how the conversation will work. It doesn’t need to be a protracted process and it provides the foundation for what follows.
In the same way, in a board or committee meeting, it might be helpful to state our intentions to work cooperatively and to seek ‘permission’ from others. We might do this as a chair or as an ordinary board or committee member. Either way, simply stating our intentions may go some way to making a constructive exchange more likely.
It might go something like:
OK, so I know we have sometimes generated more heat than light in these meetings but I’m hoping we can work together to get something agreed on this as I know it will make a difference for the schools in the county if we can get it right. I’ve got some views but I’ve also been listening to what others have to say and I’m hopeful we can reach some common ground and work constructively. Hopefully that’s OK with everyone?
Demonstrate and acknowledge cooperative behaviours
Acting in a cooperative way will make constructive exchanges more likely, and others may well take a lead from us. This is likely to stand out more when we act constructively even in the face of unreasonable behaviour on the part of others.
Think about how you might like to be treated and responded to and this is likely to be a good guide. We might expect people in our meetings to be calm, polite, respectful and professional, to give others the space to speak without interruption, to voice appreciation for the contributions of others, to listen well and to demonstrate they have listened through their body language and subsequent contributions.
At the same time, if others demonstrate cooperation it’s helpful to make clear that we appreciate it and respond to it. Maybe something like:
Thanks, I think you’ve picked up my point really well there and, now you have raised it, I think there is certainly some merit in your point about doing more consultation with the families of the students in year six. Perhaps we could talk about that?
Acknowledge the right of others to hold different views
Underpinning both the Hope Not Hate and Better Angels projects is the idea that building cooperation is certainly not about changing the other person’s mind. These projects are about inviting people to talk and listen in a safe space. It’s helpful to accept each other’s differences and give people space to set out their opinions without fear of judgement. In a committee or board meeting acknowledging someone else’s right to hold a different view might sound something like this:
OK, I can see we come from very different places on this. Would you be happy just to spend a minute setting out how you come to that view? I think it’s important just so we can understand each other. Please. Go ahead.
If this invitation is accepted it’s important to follow through and simply listen and then thank them for their contribution without judgement. If there are areas of agreement then these might helpfully be reflected back.
Furthermore, as the Forgiveness project suggests, we don’t always have to agree but that shouldn’t stop us from being compassionate towards each other.
Get to know the person behind the opinions
In the projects discussed on the podcast, face to face contact helped to break down stereotypes and other ways in which ‘dehumanised’ versions of people had grown to dominate discourse. Meeting people for real and on safe topics can help minimise the negative models of people that we sometimes build in our minds.
BRIEF, in their solution focussed therapy sessions, for example, will encourage ‘problem free talk’ at the start of a session to help make a connection with the client that does not involve the problem they have come with. This lets the client know that they are much more than that problem and gives the therapist or coach clues about the strengths and assets of the client.
In the same way it might be helpful to spend a minute or two finding out how things are going before the meeting – or taking time over a coffee to find out what someone’s interests are outside of the board or committee, for example. This might bring to light strengths or common interests that might not have been noticed otherwise.
Keep it professional and respectful
When receiving services we expect people to act professionally and we know how it makes us feel when then don’t. Respect and courtesy are important if we want to find common ground and this needs to be sincere. As the Forgiveness Project say, language is important and name calling ‘poisons our water supply’. The words we choose, our tone of voice and body language all need to be telling the same story and this only really happens when we practice genuine respect and empathy for the other person.
BRIEF say that clients don’t arrive ‘ready made’ and that ‘we co-construct our clients, bringing into the room the version of the client who can move forward’. It can be helpful, therefore, to prepare the best version of the other person in our minds as this in turn prompts our constructive behaviours which in turn provide cues for constructive responses from others. One way to help create this best version of others is to write a list before the meeting of, say, ’10 things I admire about x’, or ’10 strengths they have’ or ’10 things they bring to the process’.
Another helpful rule that BRIEF suggest is to only ever talk about people as if they are in the room with you. It’s easier to be respectful to people in meetings if we are the same behind the scenes.
Draw attention to the fact that people in similar situations have cooperated successfully
One strategy highlighted by Tony Whatling in his book on mediation is that of normalising. This is the idea that, while it may seem so to those involved, their difficult relationship is not in fact unusual. Moreover, many similar situations have been resolved for others. Simply by drawing attention to this can help address the sense that the situation might be hopeless. So, for example:
It looks like we are struggling to find a way to work together at the moment. I guess we are not the only board to experience a bit of a tense atmosphere but I know that many other boards have worked through it as well. I hope that we can.
A good way to build on this, if you are able, is to mention a board or committee that you are familiar with, that had difficulties but came through its ‘sticky patch’.
Notice how you are already cooperating
From solution focussed brief therapy comes the idea that, however bad a situation seems, there are always some instances of how we would like things to be in that situation. So it is likely to be the case with cooperation in meetings.
We might use a zero to ten scale for this. Say we scored our meeting as having a measly 2 out of 10 for the level of cooperation that’s present, we might still ask ‘what are the things that got the score as high as a 2 and not lower?’ Perhaps the fact that people turn up on time, or keep to the agenda, or follow the instructions of the chair. Making a list of these things can help give a sense of perspective about how bad things are and provide some clues about what else might work.
Highlight the areas where you do actually agree
Another strategy highlighted by Tom Whatling is that of mutualising. Where people perceive that their positions are entirely incompatible, mediators may try to create ‘healthy dissonance’ and therefore some movement, by highlighting that there are, in fact, always areas of common ground. This might be ‘to find a resolution that they are happy with’ or ‘to do the best by the children’. In the same way it might be helpful, while recognising differences, to bring attention to the common interests that people share. So, for example:
OK, so we disagree about this policy change but I think we agree that we want this to work as well as possible for the tenants and that we need to get this resolved. Let’s see if we can’t find a way forward that we are all happy with.
I think we will have to agree to disagree on how this has been handled by the board in the past. Do we agree, though, that there needs to be a way of working going forward that gives us all confidence? Perhaps we could talk about what that might look like?
Find the other issues where you can work together
One of the things that stood out from the Hope not Hate project was the willingness of people from either side of the Brexit divide to talk and and work on other things. So for example, comparatively high housing costs or the poor state of the local high street were common causes of concern.
By finding something else to work on, either inside or outside of meetings, it may be possible to get some clues about working constructively on the more contentious things.
Reframe the problem talk
Reframing is when you take a negative statement as to why something can’t happen and turns it into a positive statement about how something might happen. One question that works well to achieve this, when people are engaged in what we might call ‘problem talk’, is ‘what would you like instead?’
Sometimes problem talk is necessary for people to get things out of their systems, but ultimately, from a solution focussed perspective, it’s unproductive. So, for example:
I can see you are unhappy with the way that these lessons plans have been implemented but what would you like to see done instead?
By reframing in this way, we are inviting people to contribute in a more productive direction.
Press the time out button if you need to
Perhaps not a strategy for cooperation, but an important one to stop things from getting worse. Sometimes things get too heated or emotional for any cooperative work to be possible and it’s time to pause the discussion or even the meeting itself.
In pressing the pause button it’s still possible to plant the seeds of possible future cooperation. So for example,
OK, I think we all need to take a break. Let’s come back in half an hour and see if we can’t find a different way to approach this.
I hope that’s been helpful. If you are interested in being more productive and constructive in your board and committee meetings then why not check out my constructive conversations course.