Successful Meetings: The Diversity Factor

by Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

Departmental meetings can be the most productive part of the week or the biggest waste

of time. This article describes practical strategies to make every meeting a worthwhile effort. While emphasizing how diverse communication styles can make effective meetings more difficult, the piece points out the importance of setting an agenda, giving everyone the responsibility for making meetings work, and using creative strategies that match your individual culture.

Diverse communications styles, whether they be because of gender, personality or culture, can make successful meetings more challenging to achieve.

  • You can keep interruptions to a minimum and encourage quiet people to voice their ideas by having an agenda in which every person is given an opportunity to speak.
  • Make each participant personally responsible for adjusting their communication style in such a way as to increase the productivity of the meeting.
  • Find creative ways -- games, fines, contests -- to balance participation in your meetings.

Lets take a meeting. This phrase is terminally Hollywood, but says a lot about the corporate world as well - meetings are important, they are key to information gathering, organization, and relationship building. They can be productive, frustrating, fun, and a plain waste of time. One element that dictates whether a meeting is a pleasant experience or a disaster is the way people communicate. Differences in communication style may be because of gender, personality, or culture.

Take men and woman, for example. It is of course impossible to say that one characteristic applies to all members of a group, but, as a general rule, more men than women interrupt in meetings. Interrupting per se is not a bad thing -- there are whole cultures that feel that a conversation is not going well unless people are talking on top of each other. The problem arises when those interruptions disturb other people and interfere with effective communication. The biggest difficulty is if the interruptions make it impossible for others to contribute to the conversation.

Not only might women have difficulty with interruptions, but, so too, might team members from other cultures. Many Asian cultures -- and again we cant generalize -- feel that to speak up at a meeting, not to men interrupting someone else to do so, is rude, disrespectful, and calls uncomfortable attention to the individual. If you add the fact that some individuals have foreign accents and are afraid they will be misunderstood, you can see why many valuable employees with much to contribute fail to get heard.

Fortunately, facilitating meetings between people who have different communication styles is a fairly easy process once you are alert to the problem. There are three main strategies to keep in mind. First, the person running the meeting might design an agenda in which everyone is given a formal time to speak. This agenda should be distributed well ahead of the meeting date. This accomplishes two things. First, it gives anyone who is reluctant to speak an opportunity to prepare comments with which they will be more comfortable. It also forces them to stretch their comfort level and practice the skills that it takes to participate effectively in group discussions. Second, it structures the meeting so that those who tend to interrupt will be forced respect the time allotted to their fellow participants.

A second tip for making meetings work effectively is to give each individual the responsibility for compensating for their own and others communication style. This means that those who are reluctant to speak need to recognize that their ideas will not be heard if they do not speak up and act accordingly. Likewise, those who speak readily and tend to interrupt need to pull back to meet the differing needs of the rest of the group. In other words, the facilitator plays a role in running an efficient and productive meeting, but that does not relieve participants of an obligation to contribute to the success of the discussion.

Finally, find creative ways to minimize interruptions and multiple conversations. One company had a terrible problem with participants constantly interrupting each other. In desperation, they decided to fine anyone $25 (it was a high level group) when they interrupted another speaker. This was a cleaver idea and it worked to a point, but some team members felt their ideas were so important that they would actually pull out the money, stick it in the pot, declare, Its worth it and start talking. The point is that you need to work with your personalities and your culture -- there is no one right answer. If you keep your eye on the goal of creating an atmosphere in which everyones best ideas will be heard, you will be able to develop strategies for making every meeting productive and, most important, worth your time and effort.

About the Author: Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.

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