Controversial Discussions in Meetings

You are dreading the meeting — you know the issue at hand is highly controversial. You’ve talked to a few people and there are two or more proposals floating around that are mutually exclusive and people feel passionately about them. You are looking at a few uncomfortable hours in which at least half of the group will be disappointed. Here are a few hints for a process that helps you get to a solution that is well thought through, gets as much buy-in as possible and does its best to prevent people being offended.

We are often asked to facilitate meetings of this kind: board meetings, meetings between two departments, customer-meetings, supplier-meetings, strategy meetings etc. Here is the process that we use as facilitators (and if you can’t hire us, we recommend you get yourself a neutral facilitator or someone who can convincingly act neutral or “multipartial”).

1) Clarify the framework before the meeting

  • What is set?
  • What can be changed?
  • What is the scope of the meeting?
  • Who needs to attend?

We recommend to involve as little people as possible but definitely representatives of all who will have to implement or are touched significantly by the decision, people who make the decisions, people with special knowledge. We’ve made the mistake (once) of involving too many resulting in chaos in working groups (everything has been said but not by everybody) and involving too few (resulting in pertinent information not being available). In the meeting:

2) Clarify the process goal

  • “Suppose we spend X time discussing this successfully and you go out of this meeting room content with the process, what happened?”
  • “What will tell you that you are on the right track, that it is working?”
  • Write down contributions as “ground rules”

3) Clarify the content goal

  • “What are the criteria that a good solution needs to meet?”
  • “Which of these criteria do you all agree with?”
  • When people answer mutually exclusive goals: “We need less sales people” — “We need more sales people”, ask for the “goal behind the goal”: “Ok, so what will “lesser sales people” achieve “what will more sales people” achieve?”
  • Write down a list of the criteria that everyone can agree on on a flipchart

4) Clarify proposals

  • “What are your ideas for reaching solutions that meet these criteria?”
  • Make a list of proposals and explore each one so everybody understands what is being proposed why (what are the good reasons for thinking this way)
  • After all proposals are clear get a statement from everyone: “What are your thoughts at the moment, where are you leaning toward?” (it is important to clarify this way that everybody can change their minds, that we are searching, not fighting)

5) Take a break

6) Take the decision

  • “What were your additional ideas during the break?”
  • “Which new arguments did you come up with?”
  • When all aguments are stated (usually there aren’t many after the discussion before the break) ask what kind of decision making process is suitable:
    • voting
    • voting with more than one vote and then decide on the two best ones
    • a decision matrix
    • presenting the two best ones to a superior
    • consensus
  • When you vote take care that the people whose suggestions are not taken on board feel ok with the process: “Can you live with the other solution?”, “What will you need to see that will convince you that this will work, too?”

7) Compliment group on whatever you observed in the process that will enable them to take such difficult decisions again in the future: “I see that you all felt very passionately about the issue. You managed to stay enthusiastic AND you were able to listen to each other and change your mind. Your ego did not get in the way, etc.”