Finding the key to productive meetings is a quest many organizations have embarked on. If you do a quick search on the topic, you’ll find countless articles suggesting various tips from creating better agendas and limiting the number of attendees to doing meetings while walking.
And these things can all be important. But I believe there is an element that’s missing from the general conversation on meeting productivity.
The organizations that I work with are usually very productive to begin with. They are young, ambitious companies with great cultures, top talent, and progressive management practices. They’d read those articles you would find on the first page of Google, and even resources beyond that. And they still struggle sometimes with meetings not finishing on time, discussions going around in circles, or nobody being willing to speak up.
If structural preparedness was all it took to have productive meetings, organizations wouldn’t be dealing with these issues as much as they are.
So if you’ve already tried the more common solutions and are still not satisfied with the way some of your meetings are going, what could the problem be? Let me propose an explanation based on the framework of Radical Collaboration.
As a collaboration strategist, my experience is that most teams can work relatively well together as long as everything is going smoothly.
What differentiates collaborating teams from merely nice, agreeable ones is how they handle tension.
When differing opinions, conflicting interests, time pressure, stress, and seemingly impossible client expectations come into play, that’s when a team’s effectiveness is truly tested.
Many meetings aren’t as effective as they could be because there’s an interpersonal layer in the mix we don’t always pay attention to.
All of us have triggers that affect our behavior. When these buttons are pushed, we can get defensive and unconsciously act in ways that aren’t in our best interest.
This doesn’t necessarily mean something drastic like a shouting match – it’s often much more subtle than that. For example, some people withdraw into themselves, and others can try to shift blame or flood their teammates with information to prove a point.
Most of the time we don’t realize we are acting a certain way out of defensiveness. It’s even harder to recognize it in others.
What we can learn to notice are the signs of defensiveness: that some people are not saying anything at all, that one person withdrew after a strong comment, that someone is sticking to their idea no matter what, or that someone has just rolled their eyes.
Most of the time, the reason we don’t get to the end of the agenda is not that we don’t know how to structure a meeting, but that we can’t effectively deal with the interpersonal layer of conversations.
Learning about defensiveness makes you more aware of the interpersonal dynamics playing out in the room. This can help you notice when things are starting to go sideways and manage those situations in a more productive way.
In Radical Collaboration, we have a list of 40+ signs of defensiveness, and all of us have ones we default to when we feel triggered. If we are not conscious of them, defensiveness can take over our brain and cause us to be less effective at collaboration.
We become more focused on in-the-moment self-preservation than finding solutions that are good for the team and ourselves in the long run.
Think of someone who immediately starts to justify their behavior or gets angry whenever they receive criticism, even if it’s valid and skillfully delivered. Listening to the feedback and having a constructive conversation about it would be in their and the team’s best interest, but they’re unable to realize this on the spot because they feel like their competence is being questioned. They might be able to see the other person’s point later when they’ve had time to cool down, but by then the damage has already been done.
People can get defensive even when there’s no interpersonal conflict in the team. Under longer periods of stress, for example, like in the messy middle of a big project, individuals can get triggered and overreact to seemingly small things they might not even notice under normal circumstances.
Already difficult situations become even more challenging when we get defensive because the ways we react are further escalating the situation, possibly generating conflict within the team.
Another problem is that when somebody gets defensive, it invites everyone else in the room to get defensive as well, and we end up with a room full of people unable to get to a solution. Which probably results in another meeting, and then another meeting, and another meeting…
This is why it’s vital that people learn to recognize defensive signs in themselves and others, so they can have calm, productive conversations, especially in situations where there is tension involved.
Sometimes we are the bottlenecks of the conversation without even realizing it. Understanding the concept of defensiveness helps us realize how our own behavior gets in the way of more effective collaboration.
Everyone managing their own defensiveness would be the ideal scenario in every team get-together. However, collaboration also means taking responsibility for each other.
You paying attention to not triggering defensiveness in others, or being able to realize when something is off and having the skills to effectively manage the situation, makes a big difference.
Talking about defensiveness in a team normalizes it. If team members can learn to recognize each other’s signs, they can serve as alarm bells for the team to pay attention to.
Defensiveness is always based on fear. If you can recognize that someone got triggered and that’s why they are acting a certain way, you can better choose your own reaction and also ask yourself: is there anything I can do to make sure this person feels safe again?
Maybe it’s a comment about their contribution, maybe it’s a question to understand their point of view better, maybe it’s asking for a short break to be able to address them privately, maybe it’s coming up with a facilitation technique that would help everyone share their ideas without being afraid of judgment.
If you are unsure about how to start having these conversations, consider involving an external facilitator to help with the process. A great meeting facilitator recognizes when there is fear in the room and has tools to bring back a safe environment.
The next time you run out of time in a meeting, I invite you to reflect on the interpersonal dynamics that were in play.
Did someone go quiet because they got interrupted at one point, and so the team lost a valuable perspective that could have helped move the conversation forward? Did someone start overexplaining their idea after it was dismissed, and 20 minutes flew by without them noticing? Did someone bring up past hurts, making it difficult to focus on fresh ideas?
Having these conversations within your team will help develop people’s self-awareness both as individuals and as a team. And by teaching everyone how to maintain a collaborative, non-defensive presence, meetings and difficult conversations automatically become more effective.
This article I wrote on psychological safety can help you learn a bit more about defensiveness in teams.
And if you need help teaching your people about how to deal with it and how to have more productive meetings, don’t hesitate to reach out. Facilitating difficult conversations others would rather run from and turning them into bridges for better collaboration is one of my superpowers.