It seems more so today than ever before that everyone wants to talk, but no one wants to listen. Just flip between CNN, Fox News and CNBC, and you can watch instant analysis of the news on just about any subject. After the TV host encapsulates the lead story of the day, the camera cuts to a group of panelists who offer their views on the topic.
This too often descends into a near food fight with each participant talking over one another to the point of a sensory overload and an auditory nightmare for the viewers. At that point most who are tuned in are hoping — albeit knowing it won’t happen — that the moderator will blurt out, “Shut up and listen!”
Anyone involved in a business meeting can learn a valuable lesson from this style of television gone bad. When everyone is talking at once and no one is listening, nothing gets done. For a meeting to be effective it must have a cadence — a rhythmic tempo — to maintain momentum. To accomplish this, the chair of the gathering must take control and keep control.
If you’re watching an out-of-control group of talking heads on the TV news, the remedy to ending the chaos is simply accomplished with a mere push of the button, changing stations and moving to a more civilized analysis on a different channel. In a business meeting, it’s not that simple and, depending on one’s rank, not even a viable alternative to tune out or walk out.
The best resolution for maintaining order is to have the meeting chair set the ground rules early on, and then guide participants through the proceedings. When someone starts to take on the characteristics of an unrestrained TV panelist, the person running the meeting must first nudge the recalcitrant player back in line. If that doesn’t work, they must fulfill the fantasy of the TV host and tell the offender to zip his or her lips and let others speak, but obviously choosing different words that are more socially acceptable.
There is, however, a delicate balance in having a meeting that is more form than substance — occasionally stepping on one another’s words or ideas is not necessarily a no-no. It’s all a matter of degree. A little mixing it up is not a bad thing, as it gets the participants thinking and typically engages even the most reticent attendees. Occasionally, even though it is not a person’s turn to speak, he or she might just blurt out something that nails the issue.
Meetings can be productive and energizing or just as easily become a matter of rote where the decibel levels are tame and what is spoken is benign. A good leader knows when it’s time to intervene by “poking the bear” with a challenge or controversial view that can reinvigorate the session.
We all learn by doing, but we can also learn by watching how not to do it. Just turn on the TV news for an excellent tutorial.
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide. Today, as founder/CEO of Max-Ventures, his firm invests in and consults for retail businesses.