Episode 96 – How to Deal with Difficult Meetings with Jane Gunn
Meetings allow us to discuss, learn, and work together towards collective goals. However, many of us were never trained in how to effectively facilitate or participate in meetings. We may find ourselves swamped by conflict – or so busy avoiding it our discussions aren’t productive. The experience can end up being draining and demoralizing for you and your team.
In this episode, we hear from expert in conflict management and mediation, Jane Gunn. She discusses important tips to keep in mind to make sure meetings are as effective as possible. She shares practical conflict management tips and ways to make decisions that you and your team genuinely agree on. Jane also emphasises the importance of putting the fun back in functional meetings and the need to give a voice to participants.
You may have had your share of uncomfortable meetings with conflict brewing underneath, or feel that you’re not sure how to consistently replicate good meetings. Discover the art of creating better meetings in this episode.
Here are three reasons why you should listen to the full episode:
Learn effective strategies for conflict management so you can create the best resolution for you and your team.
- Discover important tips on how to make your meeting comfortable and energising for you and your team.
- Develop your skills both as a host and participant in meetings.
[04:14] Why You Avoid Conflict
- The top reason is that people are often afraid of their emotions.
- When the conflict is with someone you value and respect, you may be afraid of damaging your relationship with them.
- Another reason is that you may not be confident that you are equipped to navigate through difficult conversations.
[05:26] The Skill of Conflict Management
- Having difficult conversations is a skill that many don’t develop enough.
- As humans, we’re naturally adversarial. This is why many of us choose to avoid facing conflict instead.
- There are four ways to deal with conflict: fight, flight, freeze, or appease.
[08:03] Conflict Management Within Teams
- Some teams have too much conflict, whereas others can have too little.
- Conflict is something that is necessary. It is needed to help the team grow and develop when in the right amount.
‘I like to think about conflict as water, you know. It’s actually a resource that you need. It’s something that waters your garden and helps it grow.’
- There is no perfect setup for conflict to occur.
[09:46] The Power of Resolution Rethinking in Conflict Management
- It is usually when you join a meeting that conflicts and issues arise.
- When holding meetings, you don’t usually think about the process of solving and making critical decisions.
- Organisations sometimes decide, announce, then defend the decision. This can lead to negative responses.
- Nemawashi is a process in which the team digs deep into the issue to determine its impact on all sides.
‘Nemawashi means we have to dig around the roots. It means we must dig deep with this issue, and we must understand what it’s about before we make a decision.’
[12:22] The Importance of Consultations in Conflict Management
- It’s important to know who you will consult and how much their feedback will influence the final decisions.
- Consulting in conflict management others allows people to feel heard. They’re then more likely to contribute and participate.
- There are situations in which those being consulted may feel uncomfortable or wary about truly sharing what they think.
- There can be a need for someone to facilitate conversations. These facilitators summarise the key issues and encourage those who are more hesitant to speak.
- Do your best to acknowledge and include the information that you receive from conflict management consultations.
[15:51] Uncovering Concerns
- Bringing up a concern during a meeting can be a challenge.
- It can be addressed during the meeting with a decision being made at the moment.
- There can also be an option to have a personal follow-up in which the concern can be addressed directly with the one who raised it. This is usually the better option.
- Not following up on a concern can cause the issue to fester with that person over time.
[17:04] Framing a Meeting
- At the start of the meeting, you can set rules and expectations for the flow of the meeting.
- Usually, an agenda only lists issues that need to be talked about. It doesn’t clarify how the team will tackle the issue and make decisions.
[18:44] The Elephant in the Room
- In meetings, people often hesitate to bring up the “elephant” and hope that someone else will do so.
- Many are afraid of the backlash and risk of being perceived as less by others.
- An anonymous poll as a conflict management tip can help overcome this fear of speaking up.
- Know what goals and values that you, as a group, strive towards. This can help when facing issues within a team.
’It’s, it’s thinking about what are some strategies that I can employ to make people feel safe to say things.’
[23:30] Uncovering Conflict and Conflict Management in a Meeting
- Be clear on your criteria for making decisions within your team.
‘One of the things I think is really important that people miss is being clear about what your criteria for decision are.’
- This is to avoid others from deciding based on their own viewpoint instead of an agreed set of criteria.
- It’s important to get clarity at each stage to quickly reach a decision.
[26:52] What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You
- Sometimes, people get a feeling that there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
- Bringing in intuitive feelings is more difficult in groups.
- This intuitive feeling often comes from experience. It serves to remind you to take the time to think rather than rushing a decision.
- Some decisions need to be settled as quick and smooth as possible, while others can take time and be made in a more structured setting.
- Knowing what stage you are on a structure can allow you to avoid repeating stages and causing delays.
[32:21] Hosting a Meeting Like a Dinner Party
- It’s important to develop your skills in setting up meetings and acting as a facilitator within them.
- Have your meeting like you’re hosting a dinner party. Try to make it both fun and functional.
‘I often say to people: “Think about your meeting as if you’re hosting a dinner party and not you’re running a meeting. How could you make your meeting more interesting?”’
- Meetings are not only for information but for discussion and making decisions.
- If you’re low in blood sugar, you are more likely to be triggered. A great tip for conflict management is to bring snacks or drinks to meetings.
[38:44] Your Role as a Participant in Meetings and Conflict Management
- As a participant, you can use this structure: listen, don’t interrupt, and reflect back.
- If you want to share, be clear and discuss your reason and intent. This can help others clearly hear you.
- You can also ask others to add to your own statements and sharing.
- Avoid being full-on controlling and empower others instead. Let others have the last word by asking them their point of view.
‘Instead of being full on controlling, you’re actually giving power back. We talk in organisational terms about empowerment. But what do we really mean by that? When you’re empowering someone, you’re giving them the last word.’
[45:04] Our Responsibility as Professionals
- We have a responsibility to run effective meetings.
- There is a gap in professional training for learning these kinds of skills in leading and participating in meetings.
[46:30] Top Three Tips for Making Meetings Better
- Think about the meeting as a dinner party.
- Make the meeting fun and functional.
- Create ways to let everybody have a voice and participate.
‘Don’t forget that you’re thinking about the meeting as a dinner party. How are you going to make it fun as well as functional? And how are you going to enable everybody to have a voice and participate?’
[47:29] The Power of Revolutionary Thinking
- The course focuses on three levels of professional development.
- The first level includes learning skills. The second level focuses on application. The third level helps increase awareness of yourself and the impact you have.
- The course focuses on creating a better understanding of how we can manage change, crisis and conflict.
- Jane’s course runs over six weeks and works with multiple organisations.
Jane Gunn is often known to her clients as the Barefoot Mediator. With over 25 years of experience in conflict management, she is one of the leading mediators in the United Kingdom. With her help, she has helped people and groups reach decisions, manage change and face different challenges together.
Jane is also the author of How to Beat Bedlam in the Boardroom and Boredom in the Bedroom, a book on managing conflict. As an author and keynote speaker, she helps others develop the needed skills to be able to facilitate their own conflicts.
Want to learn more about conflict management with the Barefoot Mediator? You can reach Jane through her LinkedIn or email and learn more about her on her website.
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Dr Rachel Morris: Do you ever dread going to a particular meeting because of the toxic atmosphere? Do you feel like many of the meetings you attend just sap your energy and can be done and dusted in half the time? Until you know that there are issues in the room, which have been swept under the carpet and left unsaid but are actually running the show.
In this episode, Jane Gunn, friend of the show, lawyer, and the Barefoot Mediator returns to the podcast to talk about conflicts in meetings and how to make them, well, just better. We talk about why people find it so hard to speak up and say what they actually think, and how learning to run or be a participant in an effective meeting is a crucial skill that we’re just not taught at med school. We discuss simple ways to help people speak up, to chair better, and to make sure our meetings actually work. Listen if you want to find out how to get everybody to speak up about what they actually think, even if it’s awkward. Listen if you want to find out why acting like a dinner party host might just be the best way to chair a meeting, and find out the surprising power of ten and how this can help you bring up even the most tricky of issues.
Welcome to You Are Not A Frog, the podcast for doctors and other busy professionals who you want to beat burnout and work happier. I’m Dr Rachel Morris. I’m a GP, now working as a coach, speaker, and specialist in teaching resilience. Even before the coronavirus crisis, we were facing unprecedented levels of burnout. We have been described as frogs in a pan of slowly boiling water. We hardly noticed the extra long days becoming the norm and have got used to feeling stressed and exhausted.
Let’s face it, frogs generally only have two options: stay in a pan and be boiled alive or jump out of the pan and leave. But you are not a frog. And that’s where this podcast comes in. It is possible to cross your working life so that you can thrive even in difficult circumstances. And if you’re happier at work, you will simply do a better job. In this podcast, I’ll be inviting you inside the minds of friends, colleagues and experts—all who have an interesting take on this. So that together we can take back control and love what we do again.
I am delighted to announce that the doors to our Resilient Team Academy online membership are now open until the third of November only. By joining our community of busy leaders in health and social care, you’ll get the Shapes Toolkit core training. You’ll get monthly webinars which you can join live or watch in your own time. You’ll get bite-sized videos and team resilience-building activities, plus coaching demos, and much more.
The Resilient Team Academy will give you simple tools that you can support your team for resilience, productivity, and wellbeing, help them deal with overwhelm, and get you a happy and thriving team without burning out yourself. You can join individually or we have special deals for organisations, such as PCNs. Find out more in the show notes.
It’s wonderful to have with me on the podcast back for, I think the third time, Jane Gunn, so welcome, Jane.
Jane Gunn: Hello, Rachel. Lovely to see you again or hear you again.
Rachel: Now, Jane, for those of you that have not come across it before, Jane is The Barefoot Mediator. She’s a lawyer and a mediator. She’s also the upcoming president of The Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. Congratulations on that appointment.
Jane: Thank you. Thank you.
Rachel: Well deserved. Well, it’s really nice to have you back because the episodes that you have done around difficult conversations, around conflicts are some of our most popular ever. I think it’s just a topic that everybody struggles with, and we’re all pretty scared of. Let’s just rewind back, and I just wanted to ask you again, I know we probably ask you all the time, but why is it that we, who are used to having difficult conversations with patients and customers and clients, why do we fear conflict so much among ourselves and our colleagues?
Jane: I just had a workshop yesterday actually. The top reason was we’re afraid of our own emotions. If it’s something that’s important to us, we’re afraid how we might react in front of someone who’s important to us. If it’s a business colleague or a family member or someone that we actually respect and value, then we’re slightly afraid that we might damage that relationship or trigger some reaction that we can’t manage.
Also, I suppose the second reason that came out of the poll I did yesterday was that we don’t feel somewhere we’ve got exactly the right words or the right skills to navigate through the conversation as it develops. It’s those two things, I think, really.
Rachel: Yeah. I think that’s quite helpful to think of it that way. Because if we think of it as a skill, then we think, ‘Right, well, a skill is something that I can develop and I can get better at.’ I remember when I was teaching communication and professionalism 25, 30 years ago. In medicine, we used to think communication was innate that you either could communicate or you couldn’t and then all the research said, ‘No, it’s a skill.’
Some people are maybe naturally better at it than others. But actually, you can teach people the skills you need to do it. Same with resilience. You can teach people the skills. You need to be resilient. Although I’m getting slightly allergic to the word resilience, it has to be said in this day and age. But conflict, you’re saying these difficult conversations are a skill that we can all learn?
Jane: Yes, absolutely. It’s a skill that many of us either don’t have adequately or have overwritten because so much of the way we’re wired is to be adversarial, is to be triggered by things. We’re naturally, actually not good at it, I suppose, because we are easily triggered and also, we are quite adversarial by nature, as human beings.
Rachel: That’s interesting because my experience working in healthcare is that with a few notable exceptions, most of us sweep the conflicts under the carpet and don’t address things. You’re saying that’s because we are, by nature, quite adversarial. We know that any little thing is going to trigger us and rather just avoid it, than go through that pain.
Jane: Yeah so we have four ways that we typically manage conflict. We either do the fight or flight thing and actually, flight is running away, or we freeze. Either the running away or the freezing might be the sweeping something under the carpet. ‘I’m not going to deal with it today,’ or ‘I just don’t know what to do.’ The fourth thing is we appease, we give in, or we try and placate someone else. Those are our typical go-to ways of processing conflict, and we have to understand that.
‘What do I generally, myself, do when I’m triggered? Do I get defensive? Do I tend to sort of avoid it and brush it under the carpet?’ The brushing under the carpet is often because we’ve got the timing wrong. It’s like, ‘Well, I can’t deal with that now.’ Actually, a question I got in a workshop I was running yesterday is, ‘Is it a good idea to leave it? Do these things generally go away?’ The answer is no, they don’t, actually.
Rachel: Yeah, they fester, don’t they? Yeah, and then you see that person getting, ‘Oh, they did that. I still haven’t raised it.’ You’ve avoided it for so long that actually then to raise it would just be really, really awkward.
Jane: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rachel: Is your experience of working with teams that there isn’t enough conflict around? Or is it that it’s too much conflict around?
Jane: I guess it’s that we just approach it wrong. There are some teams that do have too much conflict; people are just not getting on. But people think that having conflict is a sign the team isn’t working. But I like to think about conflict as water. It’s actually a resource that you need. It’s something that waters your garden and helps it grow. If you didn’t have it, you’d be dry and arid, and nothing would grow and develop. What we do with water is we channel it. We go, ‘I know it’s going to rain. I’ll stick an umbrella up or put water back in my garden.’
We catch it. and we channel it. We know where it needs to go and when, and that’s what we don’t do with conflict. We don’t say, ‘Well, now isn’t a good time, but let’s talk as soon as possible. And this is what we need to do. We need to set up a meeting. We need to make the time and space. Here is the skills and tools we need to have that conversation.’ The whole structure around it just doesn’t happen.
Rachel: I love that analogy. That is really helpful. Conflict is necessary, but you’ve got to channel it, and you’ve got to do it right. And you’re right, so much of conflict is just done off the hoof when we are in that synthetic triggered system. Then, it never goes well does it? Because you’re not really thinking with your human thinking brain. You’re in a chimp, innit? It just all goes horribly wrong.
Jane: It does. It does.
Rachel: I know you’ve got a course called the Power Of Resolution Rethinking. I love that. I love that. What is the difference between resolution rethinking and then the way that we typically were trying to conflict?
Jane: I’ve been on a number of boards and helped a number of people with meetings. I think often, we don’t even think about resolution rethinking. We don’t think through issues, and quite often in meetings, that’s where challenges and issues are aired. We don’t have a process of thinking, how are we going to process this issue, this thing we need to make a decision about?
Decision-making is a big part of life at the moment. We need to make some critical decisions in our workplaces that impact a lot of people. I’ve gone back to, ‘What’s the process that I would use as a mediator to help people to reach a resolution, to create the right meetings and the right solution?’
Rachel: Rather than just thinking of decisions as just decisions that need to be made, we need to think of every decision as a potential conflict situation in a way. Is that what you’re saying?
Jane: Well, in a way. Because if people aren’t happy with it, then you’re going to get some kickbacks. When you think about dealing with a crisis, or something or any decision, I suppose, particularly, it’s being made at a high level, there are two ways in which you can make that decision. You either decide, and then you announce what you’re going to do, and then you defend it. In an organisation, a message comes from the top down. ‘We’re going to be doing this from Monday.’ That’s it. ‘Oh, I had no idea that was happening.’
You risk getting some kickback. Or you consult, and then you agree, and then you implement. I was just doing some research on this this week, and I remember going to visit Toyota, the car manufacturers. They have this wonderful process called Nemawashi. Nemawashi means we have to dig around the roots. It means we must dig deep with this issue, and we must understand what it’s about before we make a decision.
We don’t just do that, decide and not defend. I guess that’s one of the things I’m suggesting. Let’s dig deep with this. Let’s find out what it’s about, what the potential impact might be. Let’s look at this in a more holistic way, I suppose.
Rachel: That’s interesting. Do you think that the main place that we go wrong with decisions and conflict is we haven’t done that consulting bit enough?
Jane: Yeah, sometimes. I know many people say, ‘Well, we don’t need to consult,’ or ‘If we consult, we get too many opinions.’ Of course, there are levels at which you consult and how much you’re actually going to allow other people to be part of the decision-making. But I think when people have even been allowed to have a voice, then they feel heard. Then, they feel as though they’ve participated.
There’s another workshop I’m actually going to be running for The Chartered Institute Of Arbitrators, which is called the Power of Participation and the Value of Voice, how valuable it is to enable people to feel heard and to participate, even if they don’t necessarily get a vote. It makes sense to know what people actually think and feel about an issue if it’s an important issue.
Rachel: Just reflecting on a meeting I was in a couple of days ago, where there were lots of people there and they were being consulted about stuff, and a lot of the time, they’d come on. It was on Zoom again. They’d come on, they’d say their piece, and then, that was them having been consulted and then move to the next person who said that piece.
But I came away thinking, ‘I wonder if that person has really been consulted?’ They just sort of said their piece, but there’s loads behind that. I’m sure there are some stories going on in their head. There are some things that they’re not saying that they feel uncomfortable saying here. It didn’t feel like if a decision was made, they would have really felt that they’d been heard.
Jane: Yeah. What I did and what was happening in that meeting, Rachel, because obviously, I wasn’t there. But what you do need is what we do in mediation, is to have somebody facilitating that conversation, who is summarising back to those people what they heard, but then, maybe summarising what are some of the key issues that came out of people who chose to speak. Checking also, ‘Is there somebody in the audience who isn’t speaking, who would like to speak?’
Because often, some people are more vocal than others. And there might be somebody who sits there extremely quiet, but has the best ideas, and they don’t get heard. That’s what I mean about the power of participation and the value of voice. Is everybody who wants to speak, speaking? How do we hear them? How do we acknowledge what they’re saying? How do we make sure that forms part of a big picture, so we know what came out of all of those voices? And then what do we do with that? What was the point of that? Where do we go with that information? How do we summarise that down and say, ‘Well, look, here are some key issues that have come out of this.’?
Rachel: I’m just thinking about some meetings that I’ve been in, where maybe a smaller group meeting, maybe a partnership or maybe just one team, and someone has said something, and it’s been obvious that there’s been some stuff behind what they’ve said. But we haven’t dug into that because it’s been a bit scary to go there.
Then, we just carried on and just thought, ‘Well, they didn’t. They didn’t have their say. Actually, they weren’t going to bring it up, so let’s just go ahead.’ What should you do when you know that there’s something behind what they’re saying? There’s a thing behind a thing. There’s maybe some odd stories going on in their head or some concerns or anxieties. You haven’t uncovered them, but actually would that if you do uncover them, that proverbial stuff is going to hit the fan.
Jane: It’s a challenge. I guess there are two parts to this, Rachel. Do you do it in the meeting where it might all kick off and upset the meeting? Is it important to hear those things in the meeting because you’ve got to make a decision, and you ought to bear those things in mind? Or do you take it away from the meeting, and go and see that person and set up a separate meeting, to say, ‘I heard what you said in the meeting. I’m just wondering if we could explore that a bit further,’ or ‘If I could hear where your concerns come from.’
I think probably the latter is often more appropriate, is to have a quiet meeting with that person and explore what was going on. As we’ve said before, if you don’t do that, perhaps that person is going to fester with those things for a long time.
Rachel: It does just seem a little bit onerous? Facilitated meetings, always having to think, ‘What’s that person thinking? Have we got everything they need? Are there any unresolved issues here?’ It’s almost like I’d be thinking, ‘Come on, if you’ve got something to say, just say it. Then, don’t whinge when we haven’t addressed your issues if you haven’t raised it.’
Jane: Well, you know what, Rachel, one of the key things and again, it goes back to how do we have better meetings? One of the things is to frame the meeting. So if you were to set the beginning of the meeting, do you know what, exactly what you’ve just said? It’s really important that everybody says what they’re thinking, and we do it in a way that’s respectful. But you set up some ground rules or some expectations about what you would like people to do in the meeting, how you’d like people to address something.
Say, ‘If you’ve got an issue about this, please speak up.’ I think what we’re quite bad at is we set up a meeting, and then we just roll into it. We don’t set up in our mind or even in our agenda. An agenda is usually just a list of issues we’re going to talk about. It doesn’t set up how we’re going to talk about those issues and how we’re going to make the decision or any decisions that need to be made.
Rachel: Yeah, that makes sense. You set it up at the beginning, you say like, ‘Actually, this is your forum to be able to speak. We really want to know what you think. This is a safe space, totally.’ Although, sometimes it’s not. What if, and I have been in practices where you’ve been brought in to deal with a particular issue, which is the elephant in the room, and no one brings it up. It’s there in that meeting, and you know it’s there, everyone else knows it’s there, and that’s what’s running the show. But people are so worried about even bringing it up that they just don’t talk about it, and this becomes about everything else but not that elephant?.
Jane: I guess you get that sometimes as a GP with patients, don’t you? They’ll tell you all sorts of things, and then it’s there, and ‘Is there anything else? Or was there something else?’ ‘Oh, by the way, yes, there was’. But that’s the same in meetings, absolutely the same. We’ll hold back and hold back, that ‘Well, maybe someone else will raise it.’ Part of this comes back to values actually, Rachel. Are we clear in a partnership what our values are? If our values are about being open and honest, for example, then we expect that we do have these conversations.
You mentioned also about safety. Why is it that people aren’t speaking up? Many of us are afraid to speak up in meetings, but we have to understand what it is we’re afraid of. We’re afraid of the backlash. We’re afraid that this isn’t really a safe space, that we’re going to compromise ourselves in front of our colleagues, that they’ll think less of us. Many of us are afraid of being less than, or being perceived as less than, or being criticised by our colleagues. That is one of the things that holds us back.
I guess it’s a question of how do you do that in a way where it’s acceptable for anybody to say things that are important to them. And if they wouldn’t be said in a meeting, can you do an anonymous poll that would get issues out? It is possible even in a small practice to do an anonymous poll, even only at the partners. The poll I did yesterday, which was actually with a law firm, is to say actually what stops you from dealing with conflict around here. Everybody voted anonymously. You can even do that in the meeting because I used an online tool now called Mentimeter.
People just go on their phones and vote. You don’t see who voted what. But immediately, you’ve got, ‘Oh, the main reason we don’t do it here is because of this,’ and you put those answers in. Even at a meeting, you can have anonymous polling where people can say, ‘This is what I’m afraid of,’ or ‘This is what I’m worried about.’ Again, you’ve got to set it up before the meeting. You’ve got to have some structure or framework and know you’re going to ask those questions. But it’s thinking about, ‘What are some strategies that I can employ to make people feel safe to say things?’.
Rachel: I love the thought that you can get together with a load of people with the same values and be in a team with them. and you’re all going to think the same. You’ve got the same motivations and insights and intents. In my experience of people that are in partnerships together, they may have been in partnerships together for 20, 25 years, you might get new people coming in, often, they’re not focusing on having common values.
They are literally a group of people that are just working together. They’ve got very different values. They’ve got very different stuff going on. There are different hierarchies even if you’re in a partnership. Different people want different things. They’re not really functioning as a team, they’re functioning as a working group, and things have been swept under the carpet. Things are really, really difficult. No matter how much you say, we need to be open and honest here, they just aren’t. Then, stuff comes out in other ways. I don’t know if that’s been your experience in some places where you’ve worked.
Jane: Hugely, actually. I think, Rachel, it’s quite a new concept, if you like, that we, in any organisation of any size, explore and think, ‘Consciously, what’s the culture here? What are we trying to create as a group? And what values we would like to behave in accordance with every time we meet together as a group, and in the way we address each other when we’re speaking privately and in the way we address our patients and anybody else who comes into contact with us? What are those core values?
Rachel: It’s really important to know your values, and that’s quite a big amount of work that you have to do with a team to do that. Everyone needs to be, I guess, quite up for it. What sort of tips and techniques, and I guess what I’m asking, Jane, is a shortcut. Do you have a shortcut for a meeting where there’s a bit of a conflict around? It’s a bit hidden. We need to uncover it, but we haven’t got time to do a big team coaching piece with our values and things like that. We actually need to make a decision that everyone’s going to buy into even though there are some differences of opinions. What would you advise there?
Jane: One of the things I think is really important that people miss is being clear about what your criteria for a decision are. So even in a meeting where you’ve got to make a quick decision, one of the things I was often asked as the chair of the board is, ‘On what criteria are we making this decision? Do we all agree today on the criteria? Is it important to do it for this reason or this reason?’ I think very often, we just say, ‘Here’s the issue. We need to make a decision. Let’s make a decision,’ but people are still deciding from their own personal viewpoint rather than, ‘Here’s an agreed set of criteria.’
That’s certainly something we would do or I would do in a mediation, is to say, ‘Okay, what are the criteria for making this decision.’ I think that could be a quick way around in a meeting, is just let’s do a piece of, ‘Let’s just be very clear about what the criteria are for this particular decision.’
Rachel: Now, I love that because that’s the real depersonalisation technique, isn’t it?
Rachel: It’s now no longer about what you’re thinking and feeling what they’re feeling. It’s like, ‘Okay, are we deciding this on cost? Are we deciding this on workload, or convenience, or patient safety, or this or that?’ Yeah, then you can look at it rationally, can’t you, really?
Jane: Yeah, it is about rationalising it. But do we all agree on the rationale? Because we might be making it from even a very personal standpoint. One of the boards I was chairing, we had to make a decision about where a meeting would be. and it’s like, ‘Is that because you’d like to go to that place? Is it a cost thing?’. You’ve got to understand where people’s personal preferences cross the boundary as well.
Rachel: I can see how that would be actually quite good to be having a discussion about the criteria rather than the decision, right?
Jane: Yes, and then the decision is easy because they would say, ‘Well, okay, on that basis, let’s all vote.’ Yeah, but you’ve got several. It might be, ‘Okay, cost is the number one. But below that is something else.’ A lot of what people find difficult and what I cover in my courses is this thing called clarity, reaching clarity. I find that many people are stuck in what I call the murky swamp of reality. I’m not clear what the issues are. I’m not clear what people are thinking. I’m not clear what the criteria are. I’m not clear what the options are, so it’s getting clarity, getting clear at each stage.
‘What’s this actually about? Where are we trying to get to? What are some of the options that are available to us? What are the criteria, and how do we make a decision?’ Then sometimes, what are the long and short term implications? Sometimes, we’re looking long enough into the future and saying, ‘Oh, this is great, a decision for this week. But in six weeks time or even in six years time, that won’t have been the right decision.’
Rachel: That’s important, isn’t it? Otherwise, you are just left making decisions based on your feelings, and that’s not hugely reliable. Although, I know that feelings are really, really important, aren’t they, in all of this? What is the role of people’s feelings in stuff like this?
Jane: Well, there are lots of things, aren’t there? There’s your emotions going on. When we’re talking about logic, you’ve got intuition. I know that’s a big topic, but it is, sometimes, you have a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right, and you need to explore that. I suppose that is easier on a personal level than it is in a group because to try and explain what your intuition is telling you or your gut is telling you is quite hard in a group setting. But I find that it’s really important to be able to explore those things.
Because usually, the intuitive feeling comes from something that’s happened to you before and didn’t quite go right, and you think, ‘Oh, something’s ringing an alarm bell here.’ I think it is important to take the time to think rather than rushing headlong into decision-making. I think sometimes, we’re trying to do things too quickly. It’s like the difference between a motorboat and a sailing boat. If you’re in a motorboat, you want to go from A to B, and you want to go as quickly as possible, and you will carve through every wave that comes out. You’ll carve through the weather, and you’ll get to be as fast as possible.
If you’re in a sailing boat, you tack. You go from side to side. You go in a zigzag. If the wind and the waves are not in your favour, you might end up at port C instead of point B because that’s the right place to go. I think that’s the difference between the motorboat approach and the sailing-boat approach. Sometimes, you’ve got to decide, ‘Okay, this is urgent. We’ve got to make a motorboat approach to this. We’ve got to make a quick decision.’
Other times, take the time to process it. Take the time to think. Take the time to set up a meeting that is much more structured and that’s covering all the things we’ve talked about.
Rachel: I 100% agree on that. Most of us react far too fast when we’re in our fight, flight, or freeze, our chimp zones and making decisions that are never any good. However, I have seen the opposite, is that no one will make any decisions, and then they get deferred, and they get deferred, and they get deferred. I presume that’s because they haven’t gone through the clarity and the proper thinking that needs doing.
Jane: Yeah. I think if you if you’ve got a structure and you know which stage of the structure you’re at, now, we’re looking at options. Now, we’re at agreeing criteria, then, you know. Because what happens when you’re delaying something, is it comes up at the next meeting and you just go around the block again, don’t you? You’re just like, ‘That’s where we started last time, where we ended up last time,’ and then we’ll say, ‘Well, let’s put this off until next time.’
Rachel: Yeah, as soon as it gets difficult, you put it off. As soon as it becomes, ‘Oh my gosh, right, there are going to be some emotions and feelings, someone’s not going to be happy,’ and we might have to talk about that elephant, which is ‘Okay, let’s think about it a bit more.’ It’s so frustrating when that happens.
Jane: I think the other thing, Rachel, that’s occurring to me as we talk is you do need someone who is a good chair, who’s a good facilitator. Of course, as GPs, that’s not what you’re trained to do. You’re trained to do something else and yet, all of a sudden, you’re in a meeting. So who’s going to chair that meeting? Who’s going to facilitate it? Did they themselves have the skills and the training to facilitate these difficult meetings? Because often they don’t and perhaps don’t even want to.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be the senior partner. Perhaps it would be someone else who would share the meeting, and it isn’t a sign of status or anything else. It’s a sign of being able to use the person who’s got the best skills at chairing, or facilitating, or maybe you take it in turns, and you do try and develop your chairing of meeting skills or you’re setting up with meeting skills. That could be a project where you try and improve your meetings each time. Again, it’s a skill you have to learn, is meeting chairing.
Rachel: Yeah, I totally agree. I don’t think I know anyone who’s been on a meeting-chairing course. Even though the further up you progress in your professional life, you end up having to chair meetings. I was reflecting on what you said just then, Jane. Often, in practices, it’s either the senior partner that chairs, and then often it’s their agenda, and it’s their decision. They make the final decision, and no one really wants to speak up against them, and half the time, they’re the problem. They are the elephant. You can’t do anything about it.
Or it’s the poor practise manager that has to chair it. Actually, they’re the one that has to action most of the actions. They’re chairing, but they’re also responsible for all the stuff that’s coming their way. ‘Thank you, my goodness. I can’t do much more.’ They’re being triggered. Yet, they’ve got to be very neutral, whereas, I think it’s probably quite a difficult place to be. Yeah, and then, everyone else is just sitting around thinking, ‘Well, this meeting isn’t good. Is it going to plan? I’ve not been able to say what I need to say.’ So I don’t think we pay enough attention to chairing. I like your suggestion about it rotating, so everybody’s getting a chance. On the other hand, if you do that, then you might end up with one who’s absolutely hopeless, and then it’s almost like a pointless meeting.
Jane: Just thinking of different ways in which you might share that responsibility but also make it more equal. As you say, it often ends up being the senior partner who sets the agenda. That’s a big question. Is anybody else allowed to add things to the agenda? Do they just sit at the end of the agenda and never get? So it is about thinking about creating meetings that are run better, that seem fairer, that are facilitated properly, and who does that?
Perhaps, it doesn’t get rotated around everybody, but perhaps it gets rotated about people who would like to do it or do have the skills. There’s just different ways. We don’t have to go back to the old ways. We don’t have to do things always in the same way. How do you do that? Are your meetings always at a certain time of day? How do you say. How do you create? This is one thing I was about to write a blog on. How do you put the fun back in functional? Because our meetings are very functional and not very much fun.
I often say to people, ‘Think about your meeting as you’re hosting a dinner party and not you’re running a meeting. How could you make your meeting more interesting, so people enjoy coming to your meeting?’ They’re thinking about, ‘Oh, that’ll be nice.’ I know they’ll have provided something nice, a surprise, or something like that. I know it’s adding another layer of complexity and ‘Oh, God.’ But actually, just think about, ‘What’s one thing I could do to make this meeting more fun, as well as functional?’
Rachel: I love that idea of approaching a meeting like a dinner party. If you are in a dinner party, you’re thinking, ‘Is everyone okay, here?’ Right? ‘Has everyone had the gravy? Anybody need another drink? That person has been a bit quiet. Okay. Do they have anything to contribute?’ Yeah, and also, you wouldn’t let anybody monopolise the conversation. You wouldn’t just deliver a monologue about stuff. The problem with a lot of meetings is we think that they’re there for information, but they’re not. They’re there for making decisions
I think just thinking back to that whole bit about who chairs it, we have stuck in our heads that the chair is the person that makes the decision and is the one in charge. Therefore, why wouldn’t it be the senior partner? Right, but actually, if the chair is literally just there to make the meeting run properly, maybe thinking about it more as a professional dinner party host.
Jane: Think about, ‘Has everybody got some snacks and drinks and things?’ It’s the simplest thing I do, is to take chocolates to meetings. I know it’s [inaudible 35:10]. Small chocolates.
Rachel: Big chocolates, cakes. I still remember the study I read about when they were looking at judges in the US and parole decisions. They looked at ‘Was there any correlation between when a prisoner came up for parole, whether the judge would be lenient on them or send them straight back to jail?’ In terms of the prisoner’s behaviour, their psychological state, if they were sorry for what they’ve done, they looked at all these factors that affected the judge’s decision making. The only thing that affected whether the judge was particularly lenient or particularly harsh was the time that had elapsed since the judge had last eaten.
Jane: Yes, absolutely true. As doctors, you will know that. But as doctors, it’s very difficult to practice what you preach. Today, you’re so busy; you’re running around; you’ve got this or that. So yes, low blood sugar is a huge factor in conflict, Rachel. When people are low, their blood sugar is low, they are much more likely to be triggered and explode. It is an important factor.
I remember, I actually was called in to chair the board meeting of a company, and I happen to know from some information I’d gathered that someone was coming late and somebody was coming from the dentist. In other words, they wouldn’t have eaten. So I took two things to the meeting with me. One was a large bunch of bananas. The other one was, I just happened to have it at home, a huge slab of chocolate.
The interesting thing was it wasn’t individual chocolates. The chocolate sat in the centre of the table, and the meeting went on until somebody couldn’t bear it anymore. They picked it up and broke it. But if you’re going to break a large slab of chocolate, you’ve got to break and share it. It was like breaking bread. We’re breaking and sharing. And once they shared the chocolate, it transformed the meeting, I have to say.
Rachel: Yeah, we just forget we’re human beings, don’t we? We forget that we become really hangry, and we really need food. I think as doctors, we’re rubbish at thinking that. We skip breaks. We skip meals. And often, our meetings are our lunchtime. And then, organisations are like, ‘Well, we can’t. This is NHS. We can’t afford lunch.’
It’s like, ‘Okay, can you not afford a tenner on sandwiches to make this meeting go better? If this meeting goes better, that might prevent somebody leaving or having to have three more meetings because you’ve all been shouting at each other, or you haven’t dealt with the issue.’ It was just basic Maslow’s Hierarchy stuff. So bring sugar to a meeting or sandwiches. Oh, hell, I have to say healthy snacks because this is a podcast about healthy stuff. But if you know me, please bring chocolate.
Jane: I have to say, I’m a chocoholic too. It is very dark chocolate, but I’d never get anywhere without some snacks because I know that I will get grumpy if I don’t.
Rachel: Oh, yeah, totally, totally. I’m glad that we’ve done a whole podcast about conflict and the main take-home is take chocolate to a meeting. But seriously, Jane, I think that’s really helpful stuff in there. The other thing that’s going through my head is what if you are… I think listeners are sitting there thinking, ‘Well, okay, that’s all very well and good. But I don’t get to chair my meeting. I’m not in charge, but I have to go to so many meetings that are so awful. I can see all this playing out.’ What can you do as a participant in meetings to help better decisions, to help increase the good conflicts and the stuff that need to come out in the open?
Jane: I guess a couple of things. One of the things I cover in my courses is how to hear what needs to be said. In other words, how to listen well and then how to say what needs to be heard. How do you speak in a way that other people are going to hear what you’ve got to say? How to hear what needs to be said? As a participant in a meeting, you can take the role, even if you’re not chairing, of listening well to other people around the table. If someone else has said something important, you yourself could summarise that back. And so, ‘What I’ve heard you just say was…’ And the key issue seems to be, ‘Did I miss anything?’
There’s nothing wrong in you, as an individual, doing that. And then, when you need to speak to be heard, you need to be very clear about what your thoughts are. Share your reasoning and intent. So, ‘What’s my issue? What am I feeling about it? What’s my reasoning and intent, and what would I like to happen as a result?’ Again, have a structure for what you want to say, and then, you can ask, ‘Does anybody else got anything they’d like to add to that,’ or ‘What do other people think?’
Although you’re not sharing, you can still use some of these techniques to ensure that you listen well. Because when you listen well, by summarising what someone else is saying, you’re helping other people to hear that, and you’re helping that person to feel heard. By speaking well, you’re helping other people to hear you. Those two things you can do without taking the meeting over but simply, again, being very clear about what’s going on.
Rachel: I love that. Yeah, so you can say, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting point. Thank you, Jane. Can I just check that I’ve understood that right? So this is what you mean. Is that what you mean? Is that right? Okay, okay. That’s interesting. Was there anything else? Okay, these are the assumptions I’ve got in my head, but what I’m thinking here, and this is what I would like to happen.’ That would be so powerful.
If even just a few people did that, it’s modelling. It’s showing empathy. It could take the meetings to a whole different track. You’re right. You don’t need to be the chair to do that. You just need to have a little bit of self-confidence and a structure, like you said. Can you just repeat that structure for us?
Jane: The structure about how to say what needs to be said and hear what needs to be heard? How to hear what needs to be heard, you just need to listen to what someone’s saying, don’t interrupt them, reflect back. ‘As you said, here’s what I think I just heard you say. That’s very interesting. Can I just check that’s what it was? Is there anything else?’, checking that the person has said everything. Then, when you want to say what needs to be heard, you need to be very clear of what you’re saying. ‘Here’s the issue,’ or ‘Here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s my reasoning and intent. This is why it’s important to me. Here’s the outcome I think would be helpful,’ and everything else. ‘Where do you think we should go from here?’
One of the key things, I think, and I call it this, the power of ten. The power of using language was it’s tentative. Instead of being full-on controlling, you’re actually giving power back. We talked in organisational terms about empowerment. But what do we really mean by that? When you’re empowering someone, you’re giving them the last word. In saying to someone, ‘Here’s what I think I heard you say. Did I miss anything?’ You’re actually giving the power back to them, to go ‘Yes, you didn’t even hear me right. You’ve got it completely wrong’ or ‘Yes, there is something else.’
The same when you’re speaking, you can speak and say, ‘Hey, here are the things that are important to me. Here’s why they’re important. Here’s what I think we should do. What does anybody else think?’ Again, you’re giving the power back. You’re not going in and saying, ‘There’s no argument,’ or ‘I’m right, and you’re wrong.’ You’re just saying, ‘This is my point of view. What’s your point of view? This is what I think. What do you think?’
We do an exercise in my trading called No Buts, what you mustn’t have in your brain. This idea that I’m saying this or I’m listening to you and going, ‘Yes, but,’ ‘Yes, but I’m right.’ Of course, we all do that. I’d say, ‘But now.’ But that attitude to ‘I need to listen to you, but I don’t need to listen to you.’
Rachel: Yes, it’s listening to understand, as opposed to listening to argue. I love that thought about the power of ten. When you’re offering your thoughts, always give it back. ‘Is that right? It’s just a suggestion. Am I right? Can I check that out?’ That automatically gives you the signal that ‘I could be wrong. It’s not been known that often, but I could.’ I had to put that into my husband, and my family think that I can never ever admit that I’m wrong, which, occasionally, I am wrong. Occasionally.
The other thing that I think is really powerful in what you just said is making really clear the reasoning and the intent behind what you’re saying. Because, I think, that is a step that we so often miss. We often say what we’re thinking, or what our opinion is and what we’d like to happen. But we don’t say that reasoning, and the reasoning is so important. Because if you can understand the reasoning, if it’s right, then you can say, ‘Oh, yeah. How are we going to sort that out?’ If it’s wrong, you can say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. My opinion is this.’
I’m trying to avoid saying ‘yes but’ here, and you can sort it out. I do think we have a responsibility, as professionals, to be able to articulate our reasoning and intent
Jane: We do. We do. And we do have a responsibility as professionals, Rachel, to run effective meetings. As lawyers, as mediators, as doctors, we do have a responsibility to be running our businesses and running our meetings professionally, and we’re not trained to do that. I wasn’t trained at law school how to run a meeting. I wasn’t trained as a trainee lawyer how to run a meeting. It’s only in becoming a mediator, a facilitator, that I’ve learned those skills. I think there’s a gap in professional training for many professionals in not even learning these skills.
Rachel: Totally, I totally agree. I would even go a bit further and say that there’s a gap in learning how to be a meeting participant.
Jane: Yes. Yeah, exactly.
Rachel: It’s not just chairing effective meetings, but how do I participate in these meetings that’s going to make it better for everyone? Because so often, we’re just passengers. We think, ‘Oh, this is such a crap meeting. Why am I here?’
Jane: You just turn the video off and do something else.
Rachel: Check your emails; make sure the camera’s not on while your cat comes in; or even worse, it gets captured on YouTube and goes viral. Oh, Jane, we need to finish. We’ve rambled on for ages. Oh, we could still talk for ages, but it is such an important thing. Let’s have your top three tips. What are your top three tips be for, I guess, surviving meetings and making meetings better?
Jane: Well, let’s start with don’t forget that you’re thinking about the meeting as a dinner party. How are you going to make it fun as well as functional? And how are you going to enable everybody to have a voice and participate? I guess those would be my top three tips.
Rachel: Great, thank you. For me, the things that have come out of that is, A: learn how to listen, to understand, not to listen and ‘Yes, but,’ learn how to express your own reasoning and intent behind stuff. Actually, the power is just being a bit tentative, not sort of making these statements, but actually checking stuff out with your colleagues. And not just being a passive participant, but actively trying to make things better.
Jane, that was really, really fascinating and helpful now. I know you’ve got a course, and you’re relaunching this in November. I’m sure there might be people that are quite interested in coming on it. Can you just very briefly tell us about that?
Jane: Yes, of course. It’s called the Power Of Revolutionary Thinking. I’ll tell you very briefly. It’s about the three levels of professional development. The first level, whatever we do, we learn the skills. The second level, we learn how to apply those in context. And the third level is a growing level of awareness of ourselves and how we affect situations that we’re in, either negatively or positively. Sometimes, we’re unaware of our own impact. That’s the framework for the course. Then, it’s understanding, a better understanding of how to manage, change, challenge, and crisis or conflict by understanding our own journey.
We go through this journey. It actually follows a map. And we go through this journey of ‘What are some of the storms I’ve had to experience in my life that affects how I am? Why do I get stuck in this murky swamp of reality that I’ve talked up before? How do I make decisions when I get to the crossroads? How do I get to a place of greater awareness about myself?’ It’s a course that I’m running both within organisations. I’ve been running it with a number of organisations and with GP practices.
And which individuals are coming on, I’ve got one starting this afternoon. I’ve got a GP coming on that. It runs over six weeks. It runs as a group sort of mastermind where people are sharing their own experiences, and then you’ve got access to ongoing, online learning videos that you can go back to, which gives you a lot of these tips and tools and a pocketbook that you can carry with you at all times.
Rachel: That sounds immensely helpful. Hang on, I’m just going to just pick out. You’re starting to hack me off.
Jane: Literally what people do with my book, Rachel, it’s pocket-sized. People have produced it and said to me, ‘Look, here’s my dog-eared copy of your book. I’m carrying it around with me.’
Rachel: I can imagine what happens in organisations is like you’re having a conversation and someone gets the book out. You think, ‘Oh no, what have I said?’ ‘She’s got the book! She’s got the book! It’s gonna turn tricky.’ Brilliant, so how can they reach you and find out about that and all your other work, Jane?
Jane: Email is email@example.com. I’ve got a website janegunn.co.uk. Almost every day on LinkedIn. If anybody’s on LinkedIn, I post blogs and tips and so on there. I can give you a link for your show notes, Rachel, which is an access to some of the many videos that I’ve done that people might like to look at.
Rachel: That’s perfect. Thank you so much. Thank you, thank you for spending the time coming in the podcast. We’ll definitely get you back again if that’s okay.
Jane: Of course. Thank you so much, Rachel.
Rachel: Thank you. See you soon. Bye.
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