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The Key to Running Effective Meetings

The Diversity Factor

The Key to Running Effective Meetings

"Let's have a meeting." You've heard that phrase more times than you can count, right? That's because meetings are key to organizing projects, gathering information, and building relationships.

Meetings can be productive and fun. They can also be frustrating or a waste of time. It all depends on the way people communicate. Diverse communication styles can make effective meetings more difficult to achieve, so it's important to remember these differences may result from divergent gender or cultural backgrounds.

Take men and women, for example. As a general rule, men interrupt more than women do during meetings. Interrupting, per se, is not a bad thing — there are whole cultures that feel conversations are 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 or make it impossible for others to contribute to the conversation.

Not only might women have difficulty with interruptions, so too might team members from other cultures. Many Asian cultures — and again, we can't generalize — feel that speaking up at a meeting, not to mention interrupting someone else to do so, is rude and disrespectful and brings 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 aware of the problem. There are three main strategies to keep in mind when planning meetings:

Give Everyone a Chance to Contribute

The person running the meeting might design an agenda in which everyone is given a formal time to speak. The 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 necessary to participate effectively in group discussions. Second, it structures the meeting so those who tend to interrupt will be forced to respect the time allotted to their fellow participants.

People Have to Do Their Part

Make participants personally responsible for adjusting their communication style to increase the productivity of the meeting. Those reluctant to speak need to recognize that their ideas will not be heard if they do not speak up. Likewise, those who speak readily and tend to interrupt need to pull back to meet the rest of the group's differing needs. 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.

Minimize Interruptions and Distractions

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 when they interrupted another speaker. This was a clever idea, and it worked to a point. But some team members felt their ideas were so important that they actually put money in the pot, and then started 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 everyone's best ideas will be heard, you will be able to develop strategies for making every meeting productive and worth your time and effort.