Four rules for collaborating well in meetings

A lot of my work involves facilitating large meetings where groups need to collaborate to resolve difficult issues or develop future plans for working together. Over the last 12 months I have started to share 4 Golden Rules with the participants which always seem to significantly improve the results we get. Here they are!

RULE 1: Don’t make people earn your trust!

What percentage of the general population are totally untrustworthy? >5% > 10% >15%…
In the excellent book The Sociopath Next Door Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Martha Stout reveals that as many as 4% of the population are conscienceless sociopaths who have no empathy or affectionate feelings for humans or animals. A sociopath is defined as someone who displays at least three of seven distinguishing characteristics, such as deceitfulness, impulsivity and a lack of remorse. Such people often have a superficial charm, which they exercise ruthlessly in order to get what they want.

Now the other side of that coin is that 96% of people are trustworthy – ie 24 out of 25 people you meet. So its not a big risk to start from a position of trust with other people. You can always revoke your trust later if you need to. From a collaboration point of view this is much more productive than making the people you work with earn your trust first.

RULE 2: Don’t criticise other’s proposals – make a counter-proposal!

When somebody makes a proposal resist the natural urge to comment on or critique it as this will usually lead only to debate not action. Much better to build on it or if you don’t like it then make a counter-proposal or ask the person a clarifying question to draw out more details (but not a threatening or aggressive question)!
The background for this is that certain speech acts lead to action (Offers and Requests) and other speech actions lead to analysis (Opinions and Comments). Speech Acts are part of a popular change management discipline known as Commitment Based Management which is used to improve the way people manage their promises in organisations.

RULE 3 – Focus on other’s needs first (and then they will focus on yours!)

Steven Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says “seek first to understand before being understood”. Collaboration works best when everybody focuses on the other participants needs first. Paradoxically if everyone comes to the meeting fixated on their own needs then usually no one’s needs get met.
So at the start of the process focus on the needs of the other participants and at the end of the process check whether your needs have been met. You will probably be pleasantly surprised. I have a great story linking this point with difference between Heaven and Hell but you will have to be in the room with me to hear it live!

RULE 4 – If in doubt reveal rather than conceal!

I once facilitated a group of biotech scientists who were very reluctant to describe their work area in any detail to the other scientists because of concerns over IP (Intellectual Property). It was like a Monty Python sketch. Guess what – nobody was able to collaborate. Sadly 100% of a very small pie is usually much less tasty than 25% of a very large pie.
Most of what we have in our heads is not in the “company secrets” category and can be freely shared with little risk. Don’t make the other parties play Sherlock Holmes to work out what you want or need from the collaboration – put it straight out there – it saves so much time and energy!