New Podcast Series Focusing on Power in Meetings

In the second series of the Meeting Strategist podcast, I will explore a topic that most leaders dread talking about: power and, more specifically, power in meetings and conversations.

Here’s why leaders cannot afford to ignore this topic:

  1. Power plays a huge role in our daily interactions, which in turn shape our organizational culture.

  2. Power can be used as a force for good, but it also has the potential to ruin our interactions and seriously hamper your ability to lead.

  3. On a more positive note, power is a choice. There are strategies you can use to neutralize it in order to create a more productive and meaningful discussion with the people you lead.

In the coming episodes, I will talk with leaders from the investment and business world as well as communication experts, coaches and other extraordinary professionals about their experiences with power in meetings.

The central question: how can leaders use power more productively, starting with their everyday interactions and meetings?

The first two episodes will be available later this week.

To get notified as soon as new episodes go live, please sign up to my newsletter at the bottom of this screen or subscribe to the Meeting Strategist podcast in your favorite listening app.

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4 Levels of Conversational Awareness

“Whenever you are confronted with some specific problem - such as handling a child, winning your spouse to your way of thinking, or satisfying an irritated customer - hesitate about doing the natural thing, the impulsive thing. This is usually wrong.”

- Dale Carnegie

Whether it’s at work or at home, we often communicate on automatic pilot. To become a better communicator, you have to increase your awareness on four levels:

  1. You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This means being more considerate and respectful of his or her time and opinion. Whether you are listening or talking, you should constantly remind yourself that you are having a conversation with a real human being with her own perspective, wants and needs.

  2. You have to meet with more intent. We complain about wasteful meetings, but we don’t ask the right questions to make them better. Start by asking yourself why you are meeting in the first place. If you can’t answer this question, you should probably cancel the meeting.

  3. You have to be mindful of the moment. Listening requires full commitment and deep focus. Beware of internal and external distractions. If you are in a rush or otherwise stressed, it’s better to suggest another time to talk.

  4. You have to be aware of your own emotions, biases and habits, because they affect how you listen and respond. As I suggested in a previous post, it could help to study yourself with a scientist’s eye and keep a journal of your observations. The same can be achieved through constructive feedback from colleagues, professional coaching or communication training with video analysis.

Neurological studies show that humans are not as rational as you might think. Most of our behavior in conversation is driven by unconscious processes, which could result in misunderstanding, disengaged staff, broken relationships and wasteful meetings. The first step to creating meaningful interactions is to become more aware of this blind spot.

Prepared Curiosity

I recently picked up the term prepared curiosity.

It sounds like the perfect state of mind when getting ready for an important conversation. You prepare as much as you can and then, when the moment is there, you throw it all away. It reminds me of this Charlie Parker quote:

You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

It also sounds like the perfect antidote for the preparation paradox, which I talked about with criminal defense attorney David Rudolf on my podcast. Preparation is crucial, but take it too far and it can easily become a distraction. You’ll be thinking about your prepared script, the next question on your list or the brilliant idea you came up with under the shower, while you should focus all your attention on being in the moment and connecting with the other person.

As I said in a previous blog:

The most important thing to do in your preparation is to ask yourself what you want to get from the meeting and why it matters. If you have clarity on your goals, you’ll find the appropriate words when needed to keep the conversation moving in the right direction.

In other words, you have to find out what you are curious about and why. Other than that, you are good to go.

A Bug Book for Meetings

In a recent podcast interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, management thinker Jim Collins shared an interesting concept. Early on in his successful career, he used to keep what he calls a bug book.

As he describes on the podcast, he studied himself “with dispassionate objectivity” as if he were a bug and kept a journal of his observations. One of the things he wrote about was what “the bug Jim” liked and disliked, which ultimately helped him find his passion in life.

When listening to this conversation, I started to wonder: what about a bug book for meetings? What if we would study ourselves in meetings with a scientist’s eye and keep notes of it?

For one thing, it would make sense to learn more about the creature that we are in meetings. Our actions in communication are often driven by impulse. Many of us tend to respond before the other person has finished speaking, and it’s much easier to criticize than to try to understand the other person’s perspective.

A bug book could be a tool to help you become more aware of your communication pitfalls. This will help you better manage your natural tendencies and become a more effective communicator.

To provide more structure to your bug book, you could focus your entries on the following questions, which are loosely inspired by this HBR article:

  • How do my emotions, assumptions and biases lead me to act in a certain way?

  • How do my actions in meetings affect other people?

  • How am I contributing to a misunderstanding, conflict or a wasteful meeting?

Here are more questions that provide direction: What do you want more and less of in meetings? When do meetings boost or drain your energy? When do you feel powerful in a meeting? What makes you lose your focus and wander off track? What prevents you from really listening?

It’s important to write about yourself in the third person, so you maintain a scientific distance. Here’s a fictitious example:

“The bug Marcel talked too much in today’s meeting. John tried to passionately explain something, but the bug felt the urgency to cut John off and share his own perspective. John didn’t say much in the remainder of the meeting.”

Of course, you regularly have to go back to these notes to discover patterns and formulate strategies to better manage your impulses.

Stephen Covey said: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space.”

If you understand how you tend to respond in certain situations, you can better use that space to choose your response and create a more productive interaction.

Questioning Discipline in Congress

At the start of the Cohen hearing earlier this week, presiding congressman Elijah Cummings said the House Oversight Committee was in search of the truth.

But as the hearing showed, many of his colleagues found it hard to stick to the script.

Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society, wrote In an opinion piece in The New York Times:

“… instead of asking probing questions and eliciting damning evidence from Mr. Cohen, too many committee members chose to make a speech.”

In her article, she referenced Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, who tweeted in frustration:

“Bipartisan incompetence in the questioning at #cohen hearing. All they do is make speeches, and fail to listen to answers or follow up.”

Was it effective? It all depends on what you’re after.

One thing is certain: making political statements typically doesn’t help you get closer to the truth. If your desired outcome is to have a roadmap for further investigation, you need to elicit information that can help corroborate the testimony - especially when it concerns someone with credibility issues.

As I explained in a previous blog, effective questioning requires discipline. In most situations, it’s best to keep your questions simple and focused on their intended purpose.

Fredrickson noted one positive exception in the Cohen hearing, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Like a good prosecutor, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was establishing the factual basis for further committee investigation. She asked one question at a time, avoided long-winded speeches on why she was asking the question, and listened carefully to his answer, which gave her the basis for a follow-up inquiry.

The congresswoman from New York earned widespread praise for her performance, and as GQ noted: “… she didn’t even need all five of her allotted minutes.”

In a cheerful tweet, Ocasio-Cortez attributed her effective questioning skills to her previous life as a bartender and waitress. "Forces you to get great at reading people + hones a razor-sharp BS detector.”

But of course, that’s not the whole story. She later retweeted a HuffPost article, which describes how she thoroughly prepared for this moment together with her team.

You can watch the result right here.

Connected Talking and Deep Listening

When a conversation with your spouse or a colleague ends in frustration and misunderstanding, it’s easy to blame the person on the receiving end. “You’re not listening!”

Similarly, when you read blogs like this one or this one here, you might get the impression that listeners are solely responsible for creating better conversations.

Of course, that’s not true.

Couples therapist Traci Ruble points out that we should pay more attention to how we talk. As she explains in this Wall Street Journal article, talkers are usually “too active”:

“The talker starts on a roll and never checks to see if they are being listened to, and the listener starts to feel objectified and thinks: ‘Do you even notice that I am here or are you just anxiously pouring out all your thoughts?’”

The better alternative is what Ruble calls ‘connected talking’.

As she lays out in the article, connected talkers are mindful of the listener’s point of view. Before launching into a conversation, they check whether this is a good time to talk and provide a hint as to what the listener can expect from the conversation (do you want to share happy news, or do you need advice?). And while talking, they stay connected so they are able to pick up cues as to whether the listener is feeling overwhelmed.

In other words, the connected talker makes it easier for the other person to listen.

The article reminded me of my podcast conversation with Australian executive coach Oscar Trimboli. Oscar introduced me to the term Deep Listening, which means listening more consciously at all five levels - not only for the words, but also for yourself, for context, for what’s not being said and for meaning.

As I noticed in our conversation, a deep listener is also a role model in how he or she talks. Oscar speaks slowly, uses a lot of pause and makes it easy for the other person to listen.

As you can read here, Oscar is on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners by 2030. We probably need a similar goal for connected talkers, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they are the exact same people.

Writing vs. Typing Your Notes

Over the weekend, I read an interesting Twitter exchange about how VC investors can make meetings more pleasant for founders. One of the discussion points was whether you should take notes by hand or use a laptop.

I must admit: it’s tempting to bring a laptop or tablet to meetings. Typing your notes will make it much easier to decipher them, share them with colleagues and store them in a CRM or whatever system you use.

But what’s the point of having these notes if the meeting failed to deliver?

In a previous blog I wrote:

Great listeners understand that they’re easily distracted and they’re not afraid to demand the right circumstances to listen.

If you want to be effective in meetings, you have to be aware of internal and external distractions. In the latter category, screens are among the worst. If you type your notes, there’s a big chance you’ll get caught up in what happens on your screen (especially when you haven’t switched off your email notifications) and miss important points.

Plus: academic research indicates that writing by hand is better for retention.

Are you ready to ban laptops from your meetings? Here are a few quick tips for taking better notes by hand:

  • Focus your preparation on what you want to get out of the meeting, so it’s easier to decide what’s important or not. Some people develop a form of shorthand to speed up their writing, using keywords and symbols. That could work, but it’s even better to take fewer, more relevant notes.

  • The first thing I try to do after each meeting is to go through my notes and add whatever context is needed to make sense of them later. This also provides a good opportunity to highlight important points and connections.

  • A smart pen might be a good solution if you want to easily digitize, store and share your handwritten notes. Examples are the Moleskine Smart Writing Set and reMarkable, which uses a paper tablet. (Disclaimer: I haven’t tried these products myself, so please don’t consider this a recommendation.)

  • Divide up the roles. When doing the meeting together with a colleague, discuss in advance who’s going to take the notes so the other person can be more engaged in the meeting.

  • If you feel you really, really have to type your notes (for example because you are working off a longlist and are still in the phase of meeting dozens of founders), make it a habit to put aside your laptop and listen intently for the first 5-10 minutes. That’s the least you can do.

The Twitter thread I followed mentioned the term ‘founder NPS’. I like that.

Even if you are a listening Jedi and don’t feel distracted by your laptop, you have to consider the other person’s point of view. How would you feel if you were looking at the back of a screen while pitching the most important idea in your life?