Meetings are often cited as one of the biggest workplace frustrations. There are too many of them, they are often poorly managed, and little productivity comes from them. Yet, we know that meetings can be very effective for opening dialogue, strengthening collaboration, making decisions, and getting input. So how can we create the right meeting environment to get those great results?

In my son Jason’s school, classes are held around oval tables, called Harkness Tables, to facilitate discussion and feedback. This approach to classroom discussions is named after Edward Harkness, an educational philanthropist who in the 1930s proposed this innovative teaching method at Phillips Exeter Academy. He wanted to see more meaningful student-centered dialogue and deeper thinking in the classroom. Now schools around the world utilize the Harkness Table to build important discussion skills such as clarifying, listening, questioning, and analyzing.

On a few occasions I have had the opportunity to participate in a Harkness discussion at the school and found the “rules” of engagement to be great points to use in the workplace in order to increase participation and enhance your ability to hear from more voices in the room. Here are a few guidelines for better meeting discussions:

  • Give up the lead – In Harkness, one rule is “do not address everything to the instructor.” As a leader, you want your team members talking with each other, not turning to you when they speak – or worse yet, waiting for you to speak first. Change up where you sit at meetings rather than always taking the head of the table. Rotate responsibility for leading discussions, so that others develop that skill. When team members look at you during the discussion for validation, approval, or input, resist the temptation to jump in and voice your opinion. In Harkness, teachers focus on observing and taking notes so that the discussion continues.
  • Prepare – Centering the conversation around specific content and questions is another important element of the Harkness method. Before convening a meeting or working group, think about the questions that need to be considered – both high-level/big picture questions and more tactical and specific questions. Distribute any reading, reports, or data well in advance of the meeting and make it clear that familiarity with the content is expected. Once team members realize that the expectation is a priority to you and an avenue to better meetings, preparation should increase.
  • Establish ground rules – In order to get everyone on the same page with better discussion skills and habits, take the time to set ground rules for your team discussions and keep them visible at all times in your meeting rooms. The Harkness rules, such as “collaborate, don’t compete,” remind students of the types of behaviors and attitudes that promote healthy discussion.
  • Get feedback – The needs and goals of your team evolve and it is essential to keep a feedback channel in place to be sure that team discussions are working well. The Harkness method has students rate the participation level of a fellow student designated by the instructor and rate the overall quality of the classroom discussion. While you may not want to have team members rate each other, you certainly can benefit from hearing their perspectives on how the meetings are going, what is working well, and what may need to change. Ask team members to voice or write on an index card the most important thing they have learned from their team members and to rate the level and quality of the discussion.

Meetings don’t have to be tedious and team discussions don’t have to be contentious or unproductive. By taking a page from the classroom and employing a few proven methods to improve your team meetings, you can make meeting madness a thing of the past.

What steps have you taken to liven up your team discussions and break free of meeting madness?
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