Last time I shared with you a brainstorming on social skills conducted with a group I recently worked with in York. The same group also discussed international meetings, and I thought I would share some of the group’s comments on this topic this time. After all, it’s nice to hear what business people actually have to say about these things!
1. ‘Remember, a meeting is not an event!’
Yeah, I thought so too! What a strange thing to say! What the person was picking up on was that too many people do too little preparation before international business meetings. In order to ensure the success of the event itself, the meeting scheduled from 10.00 to 12.00, it is vital that both leaders and participants contact others going to the meeting in advance to exchange views and clarify objectives and intended outcomes. If this isn’t done, there is far greater opportunity for people to arrive with misaligned expectations which can lead to misunderstanding, disagreement and eventually conflict. The same process of people management goes for after the actual meeting. Without post-meeting networking to clarify levels of understanding and commitment –vital when everyone is working in a foreign language – then actions will not be completed on time and the meeting with have proved a waste of time and money.
TIP: View a meeting as part of a longer communication process with a pre-meeting networking phase, the actual face-to-face meeting and a post-meeting phase to ensure implementation of any decisions.
2. ‘Clarify what you mean by the word meeting.’
Now I can hear you saying ‘Oh, come on!’ But while it seems another ridiculous thing to say, it actually makes good sense and reveals a strong intercultural sensibility. We all know the word meeting but may have very different interpretations of what it means. Is a meeting a place for structured and polite discussion or a forum for creative and challenging discussion? Is a meeting a time for top-down briefing or bottom-up brainstorming? Is a meeting a place for analysis or action? Is a meeting a place where binding decisions are taken or a place where preliminary and reversible decisions are defined? Now you see what the person meant. It is likely that people will enter a meeting room with very different expectations and preferences regarding the event itself, differences which will lead to severe frustrations if not clarified.
TIP: Spend a couple of minutes clarifying expectations of the term meeting and getting some form of common definition for the specific event on that day.
3. ‘Set communication rules.’
Well, it was a German group! No, but seriously, without stereotyping, it is useful for groups to agree some standards of international communication to support their decision-making processes. At the very least, agreeing to the principle of equal participation will give the chair of a meeting the mandate to interrupt native speakers who are likely to dominate. Where English language skills are not strong, it will be an absolute requirement to agree rules on the use of interpreters and the use of different languages in the meeting e.g. allowing a colleague to explain a point to another colleague in his / her own language during key points of a discussion. Many in business to me stress to me the importance of capturing the output of a meeting on a flipchart in real time with simple words as the discussion is happening. This is a great way to keep discussions focused and understandable, especially for those with lower English language skills. Beyond this, other rules such as ‘Silence means agreement.’ or alternatively ‘You must say yes if you agree.’ help to overcome misunderstandings due to differences in dialogue styles across cultures.
TIP: Spend two minutes at the beginning of a meeting defining 5 simple rules which can support clear communication. At the end of the meeting, reflect on how well the participants followed the rules and how to do better next time.
4. ‘Say what you’re not saying.’
A lot of writing on business communication stresses, and rightly so, clarity and transparency as a goal. The problem with trying to speak clearly is that no matter how hard you try, someone always manages to misinterpret what you’re saying! One great way for speakers in a meeting to support clear communication is to add to their messages explicit statement which expresses what they are not saying.
I would like to propose that we delay the start of the project for three weeks. Now, I’m not saying that we have failed and I am not criticising anyone in any way. What I am saying is that I think with the information we have now about the problem, it simply makes sense to start a little later than planned.
This style of communication actually anticipates possible misinterpretations of a message, surfaces them, discounts them and then communicates the real meaning. It’s a very simple but effective way to increase the likelihood of getting your message across successfully.
TIP: Before you give your point of view, tell people explicitly how not to misinterpret your message.
5. ‘Leverage diversity!’
I know, I know ... it’s one of those trendy phrases which, despite not using the word synergy, is prone to irritate. But hey, if it’s irritating you then maybe you aren’t as tolerant as you thought and so aren’t leveraging diversity effectively. In simple terms, we are talking about making the most of diverse points of view which people bring to a meeting. Too many meetings generate into angry defences of own opinions rather than a welcoming and investigating of alternative points of view.
Managing diversity means doing a number of things:
Welcoming opposite views
John, what do you think?
Pete, why do you say that?
Pete, what do you think about John’s idea?
Okay, perhaps we can use both ideas and agree to ...
Celebrate the ‘diversity process’
Great. I think we have a great solution. I know it was quite a difficult process but we needed this to get to where we are now.
TIP: Actively encourage different points of view in order to find innovative solutions.
And of course, never forget at the end of the meeting to document who has to do what and by when. Ill-defined actions with no clear responsibility allocated or timeline fixed will not get done!
Not a bad group methinks. Solid best practice from the voice of business. I should do more of this;) Until next time!