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?”

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.