The Little Known Secret to Conducting the Most Productive Meetings

We’ve all been there — it’s your meeting to run, and not only is it going over time, nothing is being decided. And for the other people in the room? It’s their third meeting of the day, and all they can think about is the pile of work waiting for them back at their desk and why do we have so many meetings?!

It’s time to get unstuck around business meetings. For over a decade, I’ve been using "Yes!" to get extremely high levels of engagement from workshops and meetings. Organizers always approach me in amazement after a meeting and say, "I’ve never seen so many people contribute. How did you get John to talk?" or "How did you get so many ideas on the table in such a short period of time?"

I say, "Yes!" That’s how I did it.     

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In order to turn meetings around, we have to go at this from a completely different point of view. And we are going to use rules from improvisation to do it. Improvisation is the art of creating a comedy, scene or play in the moment without a script, costumes, make-up or props. But improv does have a few rules, and if we employ rule #1, the most important rule saying "Yes!", we can really improve our meetings.

When improvisers arrive on stage, they say, "Yes!" no matter what the contribution. It gets the action rolling immediately, gets the entire troupe involved and creates endless possibility. The point is to consider and validate everything and everyone. When you say, "Yes!" to the contributions of everyone in the meeting, people want to contribute more, rather than less.

However, "Yes!" is not a Pollyanna kind of thing, such as, "We’ll say yes to everything and follow through on every single point no matter what!" The yes in improv is, "We’ll say yes to you and your contribution now so that we can consider it, examine it, and maybe use it further. If it doesn’t pan out, there will be no hard feelings, because we gave the idea a chance to grow and be used. If it does fly, we’ll all be glad we did not shut it down immediately."

As adults, we are required to be critical thinkers. We’ve spent a lifetime, and earned education and promotions based on our ability to think critically. Although it allows us to be aware of potential pitfalls, it shuts down the propensity to look for strengths. If someone hands us a paper to review, we inevitably look for mistakes and typos first, rather than strong supporting points or great ideas. By saying yes, we have to be willing to support the unexpected contributions of our colleagues, even if our critical mind isn’t too sure about it.

Which leads us to improv rule #2. You can’t just say yes, and expect the other person to do all the work. You have to say, "Yes, AND." Following that "and" is the next idea that you add, built on the first. That’s how scenes on stage, and great ideas in business, grow.

One very important point to remember is that "Yes, but is NOT "Yes, and." Basically, "Yes, but equals "No." If you think you are giving someone a compliment by initially agreeing, then telling them why you are really right, you’re killing the power of yes. The moment you say "but" you’ve patronized and denied the person with whom you are working.

"Yes, that’s a great idea. But it won’t work, because I tried it once."

"Yes, we can go to the conference. But not this year."

"Yes, you’re right. But there’s no budget, so don’t bring it up again."

Yuck.

Yes is about drawing out the ideas and confidence of the people in the room. It has a lot to do with open-ended questions and saying "and" rather than "but".

"Yes, that’s an unusual idea. And could you tell me more so that I can understand?"

"Yes, we have an agenda set. And tell me about what you’d like to add that is important to you?"

"Yes, that’s a great point we have not considered. And what else can we discuss that’s unexpected?"

Sometimes, all you have to do is say the word, "Yes" out loud after each person speaks. Stand and nod and wait for the next contribution. Believe it or not, people are often just watching to see if it’s safe to speak up. When the devil’s advocate, "but" and "no" are banished from the room, they realize there may be space for their own idea to be heard. 

Take responsibility for the energy and output of your next meeting. Just say, "Yes!"

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