The Most Useful Question to Ask if You Expect People to Take Action on a Meeting Agreement, Hint: It’s not, “So… are we agreed?”

Organizations fall into meeting patterns. Leaders often set up and conduct meetings the same way irrespective of the meeting purpose. Getting ready for a status update meeting may not require a lot of forethought. Getting ready for an alignment building meeting on the other hand, requires careful consideration of process, stakeholders and decision-making roles. If you want an agreement, you’ll need to think through how to conclude the meeting in a way that increases the chances people will turn meeting agreements into action.

There are actually two challenges related to a group reaching agreement during a meeting. The first and most obvious challenge has to do with building consensus when people have different perspectives and needs. The second and subtler challenge has to do with interpreting what people mean when they indicate agreement by verbalizing, nodding or not raising an objection. The question referenced in the title of this blog post helps with the second challenge.

Imagine that you have reached the end of a meeting you are leading. You’ve managed to facilitate a productive discussion that has led to alignment on a solution to a problem. You want to confirm that the group has reached an agreement that will result in concerted action. What will you say or ask?

You might be tempted to ask, “Are we agreed?” It seems like a simple way to confirm the group’s conclusion. The most common answer to a meeting leader who asks a group, “Are we agreed?” is silence. Extroverted members of the group may nod or say, “yes,” but you are very unlikely to hear from everyone. For starters, unless the answer is, “no,” no individual can actually answer the question, “Are we agreed?” No individual knows whether or not “we” are in agreement.

Because silence typically greets the question, “Are we agreed?” many teams and organizations have adopted the informal practice of equating silence with agreement; if no one raises an objection, we must be in agreement. Interpreting silence as agreement has always been risky. It can work for some teams and in some cultures. It’s a particularly risky strategy in a virtual meeting setting.

It turns out that the “silence procedure” or “tacit acceptance” procedure has a long history and plays an accepted role in matters of international diplomacy. There is even a Latin phrase for the formal practice of equating silence with agreement: Qui tacet consentire videtur, he who is silent is taken to agree. Both NATO and the European Union use Qui tacet consentire videtur for gaining member acceptance of joint statements and procedural documents.

Asking the group, “Does anyone disagree?” represents an improvement over “Are we agreed?” At least, individual meeting participants can answer the question, “Does anyone disagree?” Interaction Associates uses the term, “Negative Poll” to describe a question framed as an invitation to speak up if you don’t yet agree. Whether or not an individual who disagrees will accept the invitation of a negative poll has a lot to do with the trust and rapport the leader has created.

Whether you use the positive or negative framing of the question, you still have a problem. Let’s say you manage to hear from every person in the meeting. Furthermore you now know that everyone agrees with the proposal or plan under consideration. Here’s what you still don’t know: What does each meeting participant mean when they say, “I agree?”

“Yes, I agree” versus “No, I don’t agree” seems like an unambiguous, black-and-white distinction. When everyone is in the “Yes” column, we should be able to declare victory on the meeting. Consider however, the shades-of-grey intentions that may accompany someone’s assent. A person could indicate that he or she “agrees” and be entertaining any one of the following thoughts:

  • I’ll go along with the majority. I think we are making a mistake, but it’s not that important to me. I hope they’ll remember my warnings when we start running into obstacles and resistance.
  • I think there are better approaches, but this seems workable. I’ll cooperate when we start acting on this agreement, but I won’t volunteer to lead anything.
  • We reached the right conclusion and I’m eager to begin lining up resources and getting people excited. Let’s start assigning next steps.

When you think about it, leaders don’t really need to know whether people are in agreement with a proposal or a plan of action. Leaders need to know whether or not they can count on people taking action or changing behaviors consistent with the conclusion the group reached in the meeting. It’s nice to know you agree, it’s essential to know what action I can count on that will turn the agreement into progress.

Stop asking groups of people whether or not they agree. Start asking each member of the group: “Given the conclusion we’ve reached today, what do you plan to do?” 

 

For a more comprehensive treatment of how to discern what people mean when indicating agreement, have a look at the Interaction Associate’s article, “How Much Yes Do You Need?”

Uncovering Your Client’s Requirements: Four questions for connecting services and solutions to wants and needs

Changing the way we refer to things says a lot about our changing mindsets. For example, our organizations used to “train” people, now we “develop talent” through “blended learning experiences.” Companies that once employed “salespeople” responsible for closing deals, now have “business development teams” that form relationships with customers and clients.

Our changing descriptions of organizational roles and functions signify more than a gentrification of the way we talk about business. In the case of the interactions formerly known as “sales” and “training,” the change in language represents a shift from thinking in terms of transactions to thinking in terms of connections.

Once, we asked for coffee, received it and paid for it. Now we interact with a skilled and knowledgeable barista who assesses how much conversation will be required to meet our coffee needs, including the needs we didn’t realize we had: We can make your cappuccino frothier. Next time order it “dry.”

We no longer transact business. We connect services and solutions to wants and needs.

Our internal and external clients and customers no longer want our prefabricated widgets, our generic training programs, or our one-size-fits-all professional service methodologies. Even health care systems have started personalizing treatment plans to meet individual patient needs.

Sometimes, I have a very specific coffee order and I’m not interested in exploring my options. Similarly, sometimes, a client or customer simply wants to transact business with you. They know what they want and they’re looking for the best value. Before your scoping conversation, ask yourself (or even better, ask the client) about the importance of what Unstuck Minds calls, “The Four Imperatives.”

Find out the extent to which your client needs to…

  • Reduce the risk of missing something important

  • Avoid solving the wrong problem

  • Make it easier for people to take concerted action

  • Increase the novelty of their options

If the imperatives matter, you’ll want to walk into the scoping conversation with better questions. There are four primary questions that will change any scoping conversation from a business transaction into a conversation that connects services and solutions to needs:

What is changing? Start your scoping conversation with a question that demonstrates the importance of context. By the time you have been invited into a scoping conversation, your client has already decided that something needs to change or improve. To avoid being trapped by a discussion of the features and functions of your solutions, find out what has changed in the internal and external environment that triggered the scoping conversation. By asking. “What is changing?” you reduce the risk of missing something important.

What does it mean? After hearing about what is changing, find out how your client has interpreted the changes. Consider other explanations for the identified changes. Why has the client’s current interpretation of the changes become a priority? By finding out what the change means to your client you avoid solving the wrong problem.

How do others see it? You have heard one perspective on the context and rationale for the client’s stated need, now it’s time to find out about the thoughts and feelings of others in the organization. Be suspicious of a client who describes strong alignment on a consistent set of needs. The scoping conversation should include a discussion of what people may end up losing when the client’s needs are met, not just what people stand to gain. Finding out how others think and feel helps make it easier for people to take concerted action to meet the client’s requirements.

How else might we define the challenge? The client engaged you in a scoping conversation by framing a request. If you’ve had a productive dialogue prompted by the first three questions, it’s likely that new information and perhaps some new insights have emerged. In asking the fourth question, you are adding value to the conversation by broadening the solution set. You may even uncover needs that set the stage for future scoping conversations.

Love Encounters Suffering: Questions for being with

The shocking deaths by suicide this week (two celebrities among the estimated 860 deaths by suicide every week in the U.S.) bring to mind Martin Buber’s powerful distinction between “experiencing” the world (the mode of I-it) and “encountering” the world (the mode of I-Thou). In the “I-it” mode, we are separate from what we experience, we operate in the realm of analyzing and judging. As a result, we inadvertently establish boundaries that separate ourselves from others. From an “I-it” frame of reference, we unconsciously presume that there is always a ‘thinker’ independent from the ‘thought of.’

 In the mode of “I-Thou,” we encounter the world by entering into relationship. We recognize the illusion of separateness; the word “other” loses its meaning. I, and that which I encounter, each become transformed through participation and relationship.

 The purpose of Unstuck Minds is to help people ask better questions so things can change. What I am learning this week, is the strength of my bias for asking questions that parse and separate. One can recognize and avoid thinking traps through questions that create useful distinctions. One can also recognize and avoid thinking traps by asking questions that remove the distinctions, which isolate and divide us.

 My daughter Bekah has spent several years learning, writing and speaking out about social anxiety, depression and suicide. I’ve invited Bekah to share her thoughts and questions. Questions that help us listen in the I-Thou mode. Ways of listening that help us understand the alchemy when love encounters suffering.

Seeing people around us suffering brings a response of uncertainty. Often, we choose to stay silent to avoid saying the wrong thing or making matters worse, but asking simple questions can foster meaningful connection in our relationships and within our communities. The power of asking questions and listening is often under-appreciated, but it is what I believe will create real change in our world.

Everyone you encounter is different, every situation is different and every story is different, but I would like to share the power of some general questions one can use to send the message of love and care.

  • How are you *really* doing? We ask people every day how they are doing, but unfortunately it has become a longer way to just say “hello.” Taking this question back to its original meaning to stop and allow someone to honestly answer is powerful.
  • What can I do to best support you? Another open ended question. This question gives insight to whether or not your goals are aligned with the person you are talking to. It is also a way for people to communicate their needs with you.
  • Have you ever felt this way? (With the follow up, what has seemed to help you in the past when things feel this way? This question gives empowerment and focuses on strength allowing someone to be reminded of all of the pain they have gotten through in the past while giving them the power to think of their own ideas.
  • You haven’t been yourself lately (give specific observations, you’ve been quieter than usual, you haven’t been eating as much, you’ve been sleeping a lot, etc.) How are you? Giving someone those observations shows that you see them, you’re paying attention and you care. Again, asking them how they are opens the door for an honest conversation.
  • Sometimes when people are feeling this way they have thoughts of ending their life. Are you having thoughts of suicide? This question can be daunting to ask, but it is so powerful. It allows you to understand their current crisis further while also sharing the message that you are comfortable talking about suicide. Asking this question does not put the idea in someone’s head and it can be life saving.

Reaching out to someone can be terrifying, but the most important thing is to show that you care and are willing to sit in that pain with them and listen. Follow their lead and allow them to drive the car. Our job is to simply be in the car with them helping to guide the way because we all need a passenger in our car sometimes.

For more information about how to help or to find support check out The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Bekah Cone is a Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience major at the University of Michigan and a counselor with the Crisis Text Line. She is currently on sabbatical from her Second City Improv Troupe, A Bunch of Ringos.

Question Authority

Thanks in part to Steve Bannon and my fondness for double entendres, the slogan of my youth has become my new job title: Jay Gordon Cone, Question Authority. For the purpose of my job title, “question” is a noun.

I had been resisting business cards for my new venture, Unstuck Minds. I never know what to do with the business cards I receive. The whole idea of business cards seems outdated to me. After all, Unstuck Minds is a company devoted to helping people recognize and avoid thinking traps by asking better questions. Traditional business cards represent a kind of conformity to standard organizational structures that can sometimes be a source of thinking traps.

However, I recently had an opportunity to team up with colleagues to facilitate a practicum session on Unstuck Minds at the 2018 Conscious Capitalism Conference in Dallas. People I respect urged me to have business cards printed so I could hand them out to conference attendees. I relented and got in touch with Jonathan, my talented graphic designer. We quickly agreed on a very simple design for the front of the card. We decided that each card should feature a different question on the back taken from the Unstuck Minds conversation card deck, a minor twist that satisfied my need to be unconventional. Now that we had the design of the card, Jonathan wanted to know what title I wanted under my name. The question touched a nerve and I told him that I would get back to him with an answer. Given the printing deadline, I settled for, “Founder.” I’ve had the cards for almost a month and I’m still not happy with the title, “Founder.”

Last night I watched Fareed Zakaria interview Steve Bannon on CNN. Apart from the substance of the discussion, I was intrigued by the mismatch in communication styles between Zakaria and Bannon. Zakaria wanted to understand and explore. Bannon wanted to confront and persuade. When one person in a conversation seeks the truth and one person in a conversation feels they know the truth, you get a one-sided conversation. Whatever you may think of Steve Bannon or the opinions he holds, he speaks with authority.

Lately, I’ve been paying attention to the role of authority in today’s political discourse. Arguments about the appropriate role of authority have been with us since the time humans formed societies. The philosophical tension between faith in evidence and faith in authority came to a head in the Age of Enlightenment. More recently, the topic of “authority” has been studied from the perspectives of cognitive and social psychology. After watching the CNN interview with Bannon, two research programs that shed light on our relationship to authority came to mind.

George Lakoff, the former Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, writes extensively about the central metaphors that distinguish conservative and liberal thought. Lakoff refers to the origins of conservative thought as, “Strict Father Morality.” In strict father morality, the world is a dangerous place; obedience to strict rules is required and the exercise of authority is not just prudent, it’s moral. From the perspective of “Strict Father Morality,” we can begin to understand the rationale for disregarding facts. If the world is threatening, we’re better off putting our faith in those who speak with comforting authority than putting our faith in a world that keeps changing the rules on us.

Arie W. Kruglanski, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland touches on the role of authority through his extensive research on the psychology of closed mindedness. Kruglanski and his colleagues have repeatedly demonstrated that specific traits and specific conditions can heighten our need for closure. Kruglanski defines our need for closure (on topics that don’t have a specific resolution) as a “desire for a definite answer to a question, any firm answer, rather than uncertainty, confusion, or ambiguity” (Kruglanski, 1989). Conditions that create stress or psychological traits that dispose people to feel threatened by too much confusion or ambiguity increase the desire for an answer; again, under certain conditions or for some people authority is comforting.

I’m not interested in passing judgment on people’s relationship to authority. I am interested in how our relationship to authority influences the way we recognize and avoid thinking traps in service of getting unstuck. The next time someone is simplifying a complex problem by framing the situation as a binary choice between opposing views, ask them, “What if we did both, or neither?” The next time someone appeals to authority or states an opinion as the truth, ask them “How did you reach that conclusion?”

How do I know I’m right about this? You can trust me, I’m a question authority.

 

Kruglanski, A. W. (1989). Lay epistemics and human knowledge: Cognitive and motivational bases. New York: Plenum
Lakoff, G. (1996). Moral politics: How liberals and conservatives think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

The Most Important Skill for Leaders Heading into an Uncertain Future

I’ve just returned from a week in Frankfurt Germany. While there, I co-facilitated a strategic leadership workshop for a group of executives at a global technology company with my friend and colleague Nick Noyes. Nick is a partner and co-founder of Insight Experience, the company that designed the business simulation we use in the program.

Nick and I work together a few times a year and I can always count on learning something new when he’s leading the participants through a debrief of the simulation results. In recent years, Nick has been passing along a concept he learned from the business school professor and consultant, Roch Parayre called, “robust capabilities.” For Parayre, a robust capability describes an organizational capability that can be used in a variety of situations. Irrespective of how things change, a robust capability will be useful.

You could argue that learning to play the piano and read music is a robust capability that prepares you for a variety of musical pursuits. Learning to play the banjo limits your options (Is it just me or does anyone else hear their mother saying, “I told you so!”)

Parayre has devoted much of his scholarship and practice to the art and science of strategic decision-making. He is particularly interested in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Parayre argues that many of the decision-making tools used by today’s business leaders work best when conditions outside of an organization’s control remain relatively stable. For example, using net present value calculations to help make capital investment decisions assumes that the values we assign to alternatives won’t be affected by disruptive technologies, government regulations or unexpected competition.

In a world characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and rapid change we should be suspicious of what we accept as immutable knowledge and expertise. Eric Hoffer once said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” To be a learner is to be skilled at asking questions.

I would argue that the skill of asking better questions is the most robust capability to be developed for leaders hoping to navigate the complexities of an uncertain future.

Let’s say an organization’s leaders are faced with a decision about which human resource information system to purchase. Consider the difference between the questions we have been trained to ask and questions that might help us reduce the risk of missing something important:

Questions from leaders who assume the future will resemble the present

·    What will be the impacts of each system on productivity?

·    Which system includes better implementation support and more responsive service when things go wrong?

·    What are the costs and timelines associated with the change management required to implement the system?

What leaders trained to ask better questions also want to know

·    Which processes should we stop doing before automation makes them harder to discontinue?

·    How will automating our HR systems impact existing social networks? In other words, what benefits of inefficiency will we be losing?

·    How might we design a low-risk experiment to help us better anticipate the impacts of committing to a full systems implementation?

The saying goes at Interaction Associates that when feeling trapped by the uncertainty of a strategic moment, “It’s not knowing what to do that counts. It’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” When feeling stuck for an answer because things have changed, the ability to formulate a better question will serve you better than revising the way you answer the wrong question.

The Unstuck Minds Compass: How to recognize and avoid thinking traps

Imagine you have a persistent and mysterious stomachache. Your family physician is stumped. Now imagine that you could convene a dream team of health professionals to sit together like a panel of experts and ask you questions about your condition. Maybe you would select a gastroenterologist, a psychologist, a nutritionist and a mind-body healer. Each expert takes turns posing questions about your condition. As you would expect, each of them asks questions based on their training and worldview. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

In the same way, the Unstuck Minds Compass comes at your most persistent dilemmas from different directions. Four different thinking systems ensure a comprehensive approach to understanding the nature of your dilemma. The four strategies of the compass don’t supply answers; they introduce questions you haven’t been thinking about. You will be drawn to some questions and you will reject others.

Critical Inquiry

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Critical inquiry helps us get unstuck by ensuring we don’t take problems at face value. For example, we can take medicine to relieve a headache. The medicine makes us feel better, but we are left wondering why we periodically get headaches. If we take action to resolve a problem and the problem returns, then we start looking for patterns. Critical inquiry helps us recognize patterns in our persistent problems and helps us explain why the patterns exist.

Critical inquiry helps us avoid solving the wrong problem.

Contextual Inquiry

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Contextual inquiry helps us get unstuck by encouraging us to look at the big picture. Sometimes we follow our comfortable routines without ever questioning whether the routines still make sense. For example, improving the durability of a video cassette is a waste of time if people stop buying video cassette recorders. Contextual inquiry helps us notice changes in the environment that alert us to what’s coming. Contextual inquiry allows us to reevaluate how we prioritize our attention and resources.

Contextual inquiry reduces the risk of missing something important.

Collaborative Inquiry

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Collaborative inquiry helps us get unstuck by drawing our attention to the networks of people and groups that might play a role in improving our situation. When ideas and feedback feel unwelcome or when sharing them feels unsafe, the organization can only recycle familiar opinions. Even a high quality strategy or solution won’t improve things if people are committed to maintaining the status quo. Collaborative inquiry reminds us of the power of social networks and the value of hearing what people are thinking and feeling.

Collaborative inquiry makes it easier for people to take concerted action.

Creative Inquiry

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Creative inquiry helps us get unstuck by provoking insights and surfacing hidden needs. Sometimes we get stuck because we insist on a business case for new ideas rather than encouraging experimentation and learning from failure. If the only ideas we are interested in are the ones that feel like a sure thing, we will only hear about ways of improving the status quo. Creative inquiry encourages us to question our assumptions about what people need and about our self-imposed limitations.

Creative inquiry increases the novelty of our options.

Using the compass helps you think differently about your dilemma while simultaneously teaching you how to deal more effectively with complexity and uncertainty. When people use the compass together they not only develop their thinking skills, they develop an appreciation for how others in the organization think and feel about the situation you want to improve.

Everybody’s Talking at Me

Harry Nilsson’s Grammy award winning song has been stuck in my head all day. I actually met Harry Nilsson years ago when I managed a restaurant in Southern California called Severino’s. Nilsson’s sister and her partner Severino Surace owned the place. Nilsson decided to make a surprise visit to his sister and walked into the restaurant one busy Saturday night. He bypassed the Maitre D’, walked into the bar and started playing the piano. I didn’t recognize him, so I did what any attentive restaurant manager would do; I officiously insisted that a Grammy award winning singer/songwriter get up from the piano and stop disturbing the other patrons. In my defense he wasn’t exactly dressed for a night out at a high-end Italian restaurant. Luckily, Severino intervened before it turned into an argument by walking up to us and giving Harry Nilsson a big bear hug. Severino introduced me to Harry, after which I made some sort of lame apology and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen.

As I told the story of my Harry Nilsson encounter to a few of my colleagues, I recognized that I had acted out the song title by “talking at” Nilsson. Now that I can’t shake the song, I find myself thinking a lot about the prevalence of “talking at” as opposed to, for example, “talking with.” When we have a responsibility, work to do and we need the cooperation of others to get it done, influence generally looks like “talking at.” The police officer says, “move along.” The clerk says, “next!” Even a request for information can feel like you’re being talked at, like when a bureaucratic agent at a call center asks with a blend of tyranny and boredom, “name and account number?”

The meeting rooms of our organizations have become arenas for talking at. Meeting participants take turns expressing important ideas in a bulleted list hoping to influence, inspire and/or inform. Recall something you heard that you found influential, informative or inspiring. My guess is that you are recalling a narrative or image not a list. We are wired to take in narrative. Narrative involves us, whereas a list on a slide highlights the separation between the presenter and those being presented to. In a recent letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos reiterated his prohibition against presenting ideas in the form of bullet points. “We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon.”

If you’re not ready to ban PowerPoint at your meetings, you could make one small change that will switch the level of involvement you get when you present.

Next time you have to make a presentation to people whose cooperation or approval you need, consider starting with the question, “What will you be listening for?”

Depending on the number of people in the meeting, you can hear each person’s answer or have them talk it over in small groups and then request a few responses. Giving people the opportunity to tell you what they need to hear not only helps you shape your presentation, it also creates an atmosphere of shared responsibility in the room.