Thursday, July 3, 2014

Speaking Up in Classrooms and Business Meetings

Our project meeting broke up, and as we went our separate ways I overheard our young “summer hire,” Steven, apologizing to the boss for not contributing. Well of course Steven had nothing to say: The project was already being implemented before he got hired, now we were wrestling with Part Two. So I met him in the hall and told him I had partly overheard his apology.

I said, “Sometimes, at the end of a meeting, I have had people thank me for my attentiveness. Even at a meeting where I have nothing to say, people would notice that I had been bringing energy to us by being present.” I didn’t tell him these meetings were at a community center, not at work. I added if people shoot off their mouths merely “to have said something” then “that bugs me.” I think Steven appreciated hearing me. We chatted a little, and went our separate ways. Since he’s a summer hire, I wondered if he is going to school in September—where he may feel pressured and scared about speaking up in classrooms and large meetings.

Today I am thinking of individuals speaking in meetings, and of the total group.

As for individual participation, middle-aged guys like me can make it look so easy, and I suppose I could feel guilty about that. While my high school days are too far in the past for me to remember, I know what it was like in my post secondary years, and in big meetings: Butterflies, anxieties like rising sparks and embers, subsiding, then flaring up every time I got close to speaking up or raising my hand. As the sergeant always said in those 1950’s war movies, “It’s OK to be scared.”

For me, the trick has been not to stand up and then “wing it” but to plan out my words before I stood. By planning under my breath I wouldn’t have frantic pauses, and I wouldn’t be long-winded and unsure; rather, I would be concise and get to sit back down all the quicker. I suppose it takes practice: “Stand up to be heard; Speak to be understood; Sit down to be appreciated.”

Back in the days of the Pilgrims a writer in London, Samuel Johnson, commented to his young friend James Boswell that we all want to be stared at, and if we have a legitimate reason, then let people stare all they want. What Johnson meant, I dare say, was that it’s fine getting attention by having “a claim to fame,” such as juggling or reciting classic poetry, but not so fine to be hogging the light with empty boasting or loud posturing. As they said in jolly old England: Empty barrels make the most noise.

In a classroom or large meeting, before my embers flare, I check my motivations: if I sense I am about to speak solely to boast or to boost myself, or even mostly to boost myself, then I will stay silent. Furthermore, by asking myself what exactly my contribution is to accomplish for the group, a lot of not-so-good impulses to share will vanish.

As I told Steven, to the group I bring my energy, my focus and my listening. And when listening, I know any contribution meant seriously is worth serious consideration. Therefore when someone speaks I will take some “moments” to respectfully process it. If instead I am too hasty to wait even a single moment, if I “step on the heels” of the previous speaker, then I am depriving both myself and the group of that “moment”—and I’m being disrespectful. As a Pilgrim put it, “Speak only if you are moved to speak; don’t speak if you are not moved.” To me this means: Don’t be speak on impulse, do take a moment to process, and then do take a moment to check yourself—don’t be hasty.

As a practical Zen Buddhist engineer might say: “If I don’t take a moment to “check in” as to whether I am moved—call it “getting centered” if you wish—then I am operating without data, merely guessing that my contribution is worth the group’s time. And guesses have no place in engineering.”

To think about individuals is to raise my eyes to a larger picture frame. “That’s me in the middle.”

The difference between a group of colleagues having a project meeting, and those same colleagues gathered in a tavern, is focus and self-discipline. And even in the pub a certain disciplined politeness prevails: If one guy is allowed to tell a story, then during the long course of the evening everyone else will also be allowed one story.

I suppose we adults in the tavern each retain, somewhere inside, our “inner teenager,” even as our politer adult side prevails. The difference between a social gathering of adults and a gathering of teenagers is instructive—no wonder we don’t want adolescents drinking next to us in the bar! I have long forgotten what a high school classroom meeting is like, but I still know what teen socializing is like, because I hear teens in the mall food court by the Malaysian food counter: impulsive, attention seeking, somewhat rude and impolite, rushing to speak, sometimes rushing to the point of “everyman for himself.” Call it immaturity, but call it normal for their age group.

The adolescents remind me of a few British soldiers in the Malayan jungle during the war, guerrillas against the Japanese. There was never enough food. The men would try to eat Chinese style, from big communal bowls, rather than having the food individually rationed out. And for each meal, the men would find themselves starting out polite, but then rushing faster and faster, like an arms race, for the food. Like adolescents having an arms race for the attention of their peers. When adults gather to talk, racing is too undignified, like seeing a businessman in his suit and tie running on the sidewalk.

During my young army years, when of course we had no staff meetings, I noticed that socially we acted somewhat like adolescents. I wasn’t surprised at all, as I thought soldiering was similar to athletics: Rejoicing in glory, and having an upper ceiling on character development. If one got too mature, then one might move on from sports to other things. Confucius was a highly prized military consultant, but no one expected him to be a soldier.

Learning of businessmen being “meeting challenged” was something that truly surprised me. Judging by the Internet, many people, departments and corporations never seem to learn, not even after many years. Right up until retirement employees will blog how they still hate meetings, experiencing their meetings as ineffective, dysfunctional, unnecessary, and a dreary waste of time. I would have hoped that in the business world good business-like meetings would be as common as common sense; I would hope that no one with any experience would lack “meeting skills.” But they do. Too many people will speak up too quickly, too forcibly, quite confidently, not giving appropriate time to the slower, quieter and just-as-effective thinkers. In some companies Confucius, although the smartest man in the room, wouldn’t be allowed an equal hearing… this because certain individuals would lack self-discipline.

Of course the payoff would be these extroverts individually get what they want, but then this wouldn’t always be the wisest thing for the company, so why? I know, as a writer/creator, how the first ideas I spout off are seldom the ones I go with. Are these confident individuals too stupid to know that a meeting of minds, in order to be optimal, requires that all minds be included? Or are they too selfish, thinking that attention and respect is a finite resource like a communal bowl of food, like working under the “law of the jungle,” somehow forgetting there is no “I” in “team?”

More charitable than seeing them as rude is thinking, “Water reaches its level.” These individuals are acting at whatever level the rest of the group, and the group leader in particular, allows. Well then, is the leader stupid, lazy? To be charitable, perhaps many managers have not thought through the demands of their position. I wonder: What would business guru Peter Drucker, the inventor of “business management,” say? Although I think of Drucker as being an academic, I am convinced that if Drucker had to lead a workplace meeting then he would first think through the group purpose, and the leadership skills required, and then make sure he was ready. For example, he might prepare to say, “We haven’t heard from Jade for a while. Jade, what are you thinking?”

As a good manager prepares his meeting skills he is also, in some Zen fashion, “setting his intention” for how to manage and role model. With his intention in place, I think a manager would instinctively keep the meeting pace from getting out of hand, listen well, think before he speaks, and respect everyone’s wish to contribute.

At my own workplace our meetings feel so natural. To prepare poor Steven for what he may find at future jobs, I wonder if I should tell him how lucky he is to be here?

Sean Crawford
In the Calgary sunshine,
July 2014    
~Is anything coincidental? On Friday, just after I had started this essay, Marie at our weekly writer’s group put some free books on the table for anyone to pick up, and then handed one book to me. It was the best seller Quiet by Susan Cain, subtitled The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. No, Marie wasn’t telling me to be quiet, although I was speaking up like an extrovert to chair the meeting that day, and doing a good democratic job of it too, if I do say so myself.

Marie said she’s eager to know what I think, after I read it. I’m only half finished—but I heartily recommend it.

~One of the guerillas, Spencer Chapman, a colonel in the Seaforth Highlanders, wrote The Jungle is Neutral.

~Last week I saw The Railway Man. Part of the reason the Japanese soldiers were so cruel was because under fascism they were being treated cruelly themselves. I feel sure their armed forces are normal today, as are their civilians. Thank God for citizenship and democracy.

~Drucker is as well known in Japan as here. I sure wish Moshidora, about using Drucker’s book to manage a baseball team, were in English—if they can subtitle Sailor Moon, why not Moshidora? It started as a novel, then became an animated series and a live action movie. The hero is supposed to buy a book on managing a sports team, but accidently comes back with Drucker’s book on management.  

~Former Microsoft manager Scott Berkun did an essay on his blog which, especially in his comment section, applies to meetings called The Fallacy of Quick Answers, July 14, 2010

~I told him I was inspired to do my own related essay, Too Fast, Too Wrong, archived July 2010.

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