With a new academic year now begun, I’m noticing again how odd and awful meetings can be. People of strong intellect and good intent, when gathered over an agenda (or a lack thereof), so often get lost in weeds and hand-wringing. Words are spoken. Heads are nodded. And you leave the meeting without knowing what exactly you discussed or decided.
Lots of “how to” books and articles about effective meetings focus on preparation and process (developing a clear agenda, keeping good time, restating outcomes and decisions, etc.). And this is essential. But those instructions assume a more fundamental understanding of the building blocks of any meeting — forms of human speech.
Bill Torbert et al offer a productive primer on these forms of speech in their book Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership. They suggest four primary types of speech, with productive conversations containing all four in good balance and in their rightful place. In their words:
- Framing refers to explicitly stating what the purpose is for the present occasion, what the dilemma is that everyone is at the meeting to resolve, what assumptions you think are shared or not shared (but need to be tested out loud to be sure)….This is the element of speaking most often missing from conversations and meetings.
- Advocating refers to explicitly asserting an option, perception, feeling, or strategy for action in relatively abstract terms (e.g. “We’ve got to get shipments out faster”).
- Illustrating involves telling a bit of a concrete story that puts meat on the bones of the advocacy and thereby orients and motivates others more clearly.
- Inquiring, obviously, involves questioning others, in order to learn something from them. In principle, the simplest thing in the world; in practice one of the most difficult things in the world to do effectively.
If everyone in a meeting brought more intent and craft to the way they speak and the way they listen (don’t advocate a particular strategy in the form of a question, for example), and if every meeting began with a clear framing of what it was for and what assumptions it is built upon, the world would be vastly improved.
So at the next meeting you control, check your language, and check the balance of language types used throughout. Great human conversations are, in part, a craft. And any craft demands a proficiency and deep practice with its essential tools.