When it comes to participating in public committee and board meetings we have a choice about which meeting style we want to use.
Meeting styles colour our contributions and shape the questions we ask. Sometimes our meeting styles are conscious and sometimes they happen without thinking. Either way, it helps to notice which we are using so we can be sure it really is what’s right for us at any given time and so we can operate as effectively as possible.
Personally, I’d argue that constructive meeting styles are best – for example constructive challenge or constructive support – but you might take a different view and, hey, I’m not judging, different situations do require different approaches. At least if we are aware of what we, and others are doing, we’ll be in a better position to make the difference that we want to make.
So, here are my six (non-constructive) meeting styles. They are based on my experience as a support officer, consultant and researcher. I must have observed 100s of committee and board meetings although, to be honest, I haven’t kept count.
See which you recognise.
1. Competitive – throwing questions like punches
This competitive style is all about scoring points from an opponent. The objective is to make the other person look bad in the eyes of the watching world. Think of Prime Ministers Question Time in the UK as an example although this meeting style can be found away from political battles, in boards and committee meetings, when personal differences or ideological disputes come into play.
Questions are often loaded. This means that there is no way to answer that doesn’t cast the opponent in a bad light. The loaded question has a long history as it happens. Perhaps the oldest example is ‘when did you last beat your father?’ and that goes all the way back to Ancient Greece. Questions might also be delivered in the style of a courtroom barrister seeking to undermine a witness and, as we know, they never ask a question unless they already know the answer. Naturally enough, the effect is to encourage defensiveness and evasion so that more heat than light is generated. And, by the way, the public doesn’t really like the ‘Punch and Judy’ of PMQs so it doesn’t really help politically either.
2. Investigative – playing detective
This style is all about uncovering the wrongdoing that the investigator ‘knows’ is there. Think of the TV detective Columbo. He works his prime suspect (who we, as an audience, know is guilty) through a mix of catching them off guard and clever questioning until he eventually gets them to confess. Questions in this style represent a form a fishing, getting the other person to talk about things that they have been involved with until it’s possible to cry ‘gotcha’!
Of course there is only one Columbo and our ’suspect’ may simply be doing their best. Furthermore, it’s actually very easy to see what’s going on so people will become defensive, non-committal and careful. In future all of the question from the ‘detective’ are likely be treated with suspicion.
3. Persuasive – selling their ideas
It may seem seem benign on the surface but this meeting style is all about getting agreement to a pre determined outcome whether it’s what other people actually want to do or not. Think of Don Draper, advertising executive extraordinaire, in the TV series Mad Men, convincing us to stay in a particular hotel, for example. The persuasive style in governance meetings often follows the format of socratic questioning where a series of closed questions lead ultimately to to the point where we cannot but accept what the other person wants. See this example from the US Congress. The person who finally agrees to what the congress woman is asking for actually states “I think you’re an excellent questioner so my answer is yes”.
Unfortunately this approach may ultimately be unsuccessful. While the other person may feel they have to submit to the persuasive approach in a meeting, just like submitting to a confident sales person, they may also feel uneasy afterwards and perhaps find a way to undo or undermine what they have agreed. They might also feel like they have been played. Not a good basis for a relationship.
4. Performance – sticking to the script
The performance style means asking questions that have been provided by someone else but not following up or using initiative. So, for example, when committee or board members are given questions by support officers and use them without a second look. Or when ‘model questions’ from inspectors or regulators are used without thought. The issue here is not the quality of the questions but the act of going through the motions without really being present – hence ‘reading a script’.
Instead, questions should be created in the moment that the board or committee finds itself in and then followed up in a meaningful way. While the performance personality may not be harmful as some of the other personalities, and may allow executives to ‘tick boxes’ with their replies, it might mean missed opportunities for two way co-operation.
5. Learning – asking the basic questions
This meeting style is all about seeking information simply for the sake of filling knowledge gaps. Asking ‘how does this service work’ or ‘what does that legislation require us to do?’, for example. The frustrating thing for others is that these are questions that might have been answered by reading the agenda pack, by attending that training course or by seeking advice outside of the meeting. Harmless in itself, after all it shows that someone is interested, the learning style is a problem because it uses valuable time that could have been spent doing something more constructive.
It’s a fine line, however. Sometimes what seems like a ‘basic question’ might be just the thing thing that everyone else was wondering but was too scared to ask.
6. Cheerleading – supporting the boss
Cheerleading means supporting the cabinet member, chief executive or headteacher in a superficial way, no matter what. The motives may be political (with a big or small ‘p’) and usually well intentioned. This style often comes with rhetorical questions such as ‘people really appreciate what you have done, don’t you think?’, or softball questions on a favourite topic.
Cheerleading is not to be confused with being solution focussed – it’s helpful to draw attention to what’s gone well and to describe successful strategies so they can be repeated. Cheerleading, in contrast, uses up valuable time with shallow praise and unchallenging contributions. After all, every good leader needs some challenge if they are to perform at their best.
What you might notice is that the first three styles (competitive, investigative and persuasive) are zero sum. In other words, ‘I get what I want and you don’t’. They can often seem aggressive, are certainly one-way and have a damaging effect on relationships. I refer to them as destructive styles.
The second three styles (performance, learning, cheerleading) are passive. They don’t cause harm but neither do they promote progresss. They use up valuable time that might be used for better purposes. I refer to them as unconstructive styles.
Constructive styles (support and challenge), on the other hand, are two way, positive sum and coo-operative. They seek to create something grater than the sum of their parts and generate something that otherwise wouldn’t have existed if the the meeting or conversation hadn’t taken place. Constructive styles are my favourite.
If these meeting modes resonate with you and you are interested in finding out more – particularly how to be more constructive and productive in meetings, even when responding to these styles, then please check out my Constructive Conversations course.