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Ideas for building cooperation in board and committee meetings


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.

Or..

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.

 

The seven ingredients of constructive governance conversations


This is a follow up to my previous post From Q&As to constructive conversations.

If we want governance conversations to be more constructive then it’s helpful to look at what the professional conversation experts, in other words the facilitators, coaches, mediators, therapists, supervisors and counsellors, are doing. Of course, the exchanges you’re having in your board and committee meetings are already professional in many respects and it’s helpful to pay attention to this.

While professional conversations are similar in many ways to the day to day conversations that we might have with friends or family, they differ in a number of important respects. Some things are obvious perhaps. In our professional life, or when talking to those who are providing services, we expect people to behave in certain ways. It’s the same with a governance conversation. It’s hard to work constructively with someone who is being dismissive or rude. 

Drawing on the work of the professional conversation experts, and particularly the solution focussed work of Iveson, George and Ratner [1], I’d like to suggest seven ingredients that help to make governance conversations professional and more constructive.

Seven ingredients of constructive governance conversations

Positive focus

Positive focus doesn’t just mean being supportive and kind (although it definitely does mean that). It also means paying attention to solutions rather than problems, to what’s wanted rather than what isn’t. After all, constructive means building – in a positive direction. Of course public governance requires that concerns are identified and dealt with and, having a positive focus doesn’t change that. On the contrary, knowing that the aim is to find solutions rather than pick over what’s gone wrong (this requires a different type of conversation) can help create the conditions for bringing issues of concern into the open.

Respect

Spoken words and body language have an important role in professional conversations and can show that we trust and appreciate each other. While dismissiveness or a lack of civility will stop a conversation in its tracks, over familiarity makes it difficult to establish the creative tension that is needed for a constructive conversation. Furthermore, to the public looking from the outside, over familiar conversations might appear too cosy or even suggest collusion. 

Purpose

Professional conversations are conversations with a purpose. In our day to day conversations we might be happy to meander and not worry where things are going. In a professional conversation, however, it’s important to have a shared understanding of where we want the conversation to go and what the benefits of talking together might be. It’s important for citizens and service users to know that governance time is being used as productively as possible.

Turn taking

For Iveson, George and Ratner, turn taking is one of the two rules that apply to all conversations. Turn taking ensures participation and we notice when the rule is broken as we feel we have ben unfairly excluded. In governance conversations this means taking into account the different roles of executive and independent members and respecting the turns of each other.

Circularity

The second rule highlighted by Iveson, George end Ratner is that of circularity. When coaches, therapists and mediators, for example, ask questions, they will do so in a way that builds on what the client has just said and encourages a response that will give them more to build on. In the same way, if governance conversations are to be constructive, then contributions need to reflect what has gone before and encourage a back and forth that creates something new. Without circularity, governance conversations can stutter and jump between unrelated points.

Evidence 

A professional conversation requires evidence, whether it comes directly from what the client says or is taken from the world outside the conversation. In a governance conversation there is an emphasis on ‘outside’ evidence as the board or committee seeks to learn about how the organisation is performing and the context it is operating in. This means that the contributions to a constructive governance conversation should be evidenced wherever possible in order to frame, justify, and increase the credibility of questions, proposals and compliments, for example.

Facilitation  

Finally, in every professional conversation someone takes responsibility for managing the conversation. We would normally expect a coach, therapist or mediator, for example, to take on this responsibility to keep the talking purposeful, ensure turns are taken as they should and encourage circularity. In a governance conversation this responsibility is less clear. Perhaps the chairperson has a role, perhaps the whole group has a part to play but certainly each participant, through their contributions, can act as a facilitator. 

 

So, these are different aspects of professional conversations that might usefully be considered when working out how to make governance conversations more constructive. But what might this look like in practice?

To unpick what members of public boards and committees could actually be doing to support more constructive conversations we need to look at two levels; the structure of a constructive governance conversation and, first, the nano structure, or grammar, of constructive contributions. 

I’ll cover that in future posts.

 

 

  1. Two books by Iveson, George, and Ratner in particular:  Brief coaching: A solution focussed approach (2012) and Solution focussed brief therapy: 100 key points and techniques (2012). 

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From Q&As to Constructive Conversations


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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