When people don’t engage in meetings, reframe your objectives to give them choice

When we go into meetings aiming to change people’s minds, they often object because their need for choice isn’t met. If we reframe our objectives to include finding solutions together, we can facilitate in a way that meets each person’s need for choice.

Think of a time when you chose to work with someone because you wanted to. Not because you had to, not because you thought you should, not to get a reward or avoid punishment—but because you believed that it would meet your needs.

Why did you choose to participate?

Consider the meetings you’re involved in at work. Do they feel the same? Would you like them to? If so, try this exercise.

Think of a recent meeting where people “pushed back” or seemed to resist engaging with your ideas. What was your objective for that meeting? Write it down. For example:

“I would like to persuade the group to test the product with users regularly to improve usability”

Is your objective compatible with people choosing to work with you, or are you trying to convince people to come around to your point of view?

In the example above, my objective is to get the group to agree to follow my idea of “best practice”. Although it’s possible that my proposal will meet other people’s needs, I haven’t provided space to discover those needs and find common ground.

I’m seeking power over my colleagues: trying to make them submit to my expertise. The alternative is to seek power with others.

To reframe this objective in a way that allows people to choose to work with me, I need to zoom out from my specific recommendation (usability testing) and ask what needs I’m trying to meet. Perhaps I’m looking for understanding or insight into our users. Maybe I want to learn what works. Or I might want more cooperation in the team, and hope that feedback from users will enable that. How about:

“I would like to find a way to incorporate more feedback from end users into our design process”

This is more open ended so people may be more willing to cooperate. But it’s still prescriptive, and rather than identifying a need I’m subtly criticising the team with my implication that there’s something wrong with the current process. Let’s try naming my unmet needs:

“I would like to increase my understanding of the way users interact with the product so we can meet more of their needs. I would like to work with the group to explore ways to build this understanding.”

This looks more like a request than a solution. I can now imagine people choosing to take part even if they aren’t familiar with the value of usability testing. It talks about a need that we all share—understanding—and requests that the group help in exploring ways to achieve that.

I’ve let go of my suggested solution, so if the group doesn’t choose usability testing I may be disappointed. In return, the group is likely to experience more trust, so there’s a higher chance that everyone will engage.

Have another look at the objective you wrote down earlier. How could you reframe it as a request to help meet a need?

(Want more? Come to #dareconf USA or #dareconf underground.)

Photo: workshop session at agile content conf, January 2015. Credit: Paul Clarke.