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Plan Efficient Meetings: Social Contract

This lesson is a part of an audio course Plan Efficient Meetings by Igor Arkhipov

The environment in the room always matters when it comes to successful meetings.

You will never get to an acceptable solution if the people in the room feel scared to talk, or their thoughts are occupied with shadow politics, or people prefer to shout and argue instead of having a healthy debate.

A way to get to a productive environment is to establish a social contract that will be respected by everybody in the room. The social contract will cover the norms of behaviour that are accepted and expected by the group during the session.

Having a contract in place helps build psychological safety in the room.

According to Amy Edmondson, psychological safety can be defined as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. When people are afraid to speak up, they will not participate and won't contribute to the success of the meeting. Lack of psychological safety will result in a stressed, toxic environment in the room where people will be very careful with words in the sense that they will try to say things that others will want to hear, even if not necessarily true or relevant.

A safe environment, on the contrary, facilitates different points of view and encourages participation.

This is a part of our human nature. Psychological safety is both fragile and vital for success in an uncertain, interdependent environment, as explained by ancient evolutionary adaptation.

Our brain subconsciously processes a provocation by a boss, a competitive coworker, or a dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat. We all have a little alarm bell in the brain. It triggers a primal response to such a threat, hijacking higher brain centers. This "act first, think later," brain structure shuts down analytical reasoning. Quite literally, just when we need it most, we lose our minds. While that reaction may save an individual in a real life-or-death situation, it is not something you want to witness in the audience you facilitate.

So, let's see how we can build a better environment in the room.

You need to have a few basic ground rules that can be used for most of your meetings.

These ground rules cultivate the basic ingredients needed for a successful meeting. Here are a few ideas to start building your own list of rules.

The rule of one microphone means only one person speaks at a time. If someone wants to say something, they have to wait till the previous person finishes. This rule also means that if a group of people wants to discuss something while someone else is speaking, they also need to wait till the previous conversation finishes. This rule prohibits having multiple conversations at a time unless directly instructed by the facilitator.

Solve problems and situations, not people. If the meeting's goal is to find a solution to the problem, focus the attention on the problems themselves or a business situation, not on the people involved in those situations. Discussing people is rarely constructive.

Discuss opinions, not individuals. We will talk about conflict a bit later in the course, but for now, remember this. If the meeting gets into the stage where people exchange arguments, make it a rule that the participants discuss arguments and facts, not each other.

Don't end a meeting until everybody had a chance to speak. From time to time, direct questions to the silent participants, backing it up with the rule that the meeting cannot be over if not everybody is heard.

Encourage people to express their frustration. Confusion and frustration are good. It means there is more to discuss. Make it a rule that if someone has a question – they have to ask it. It usually means others also have it, but they are just being too shy to ask. There is no such thing as a silly question – every question has value.

Explain everybody's roles in the room. Make sure everybody always understands the roles of people in the room. No one should be surprised why someone is doing certain things.

It is a good idea to list your primary ground rules on the agenda so the people can come prepared.

In addition to those, carefully plan who do you invite to the meeting. Take into account formal relationships between the people – sometimes the participants feel uneasy talking next to their own managers or people higher than them in the organisation hierarchy. If you know that certain people have personal issues, also try to plan around it.

Now, let me give you a little home task. Prepare your own list of ground rules to establish psychological safety, before you move on to the next lesson. Until then, thank you! We'll speak soon.

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Written by

Igor Arkhipov