Leaders benefit from managing content AND process.
The content of a conversation includes what is being discussed, the reason for the conversation and the "facts". Most people focus on content more than process. In fact, I think that most people automatically tune out process in order to focus on content.
The process of interaction between people includes:
- Who is involved
- How the discussion is taking place
- Who is talking at any given moment
- The emotional tone of a conversation
- The ratio of questions vs. statements being offered
- Whether the conversation is widening or narrowing
- How silence is being used
- How long a particular part of the conversation is lasting
Effective meeting facilitators focus on both content and process. This means that agendas are set with the "how" in mind, rather than only focusing on "what" is being discussed. In a given moment, good facilitators are watching for how people are engaged, where the conversation is going, how near or far from the outcome the conversations are, and so on. At the same time they are tracking what is being discussed in order to ask effective questions and paraphrase what is being said to further the shared understanding in a room.
Remember that the meetings you are running are just one small part of a busy day for people involved. If you want people to participate in a particular way, you need to provide a process that will guide them. Shape the conversation by creating semi-structured conversations that provide a process for interaction. Instead of saying "today we are going to discuss updates to the upcoming project and identify next steps", try "we are going spend the first fifteen minutes identifying the core factors that lead to success based on our past experiences, followed by twenty minutes identifying criteria for selecting the most appropriate approach to a solution." Provide specific questions for each section of your conversation. You can even make suggestions for the types of behaviors you would like to see in the conversation, e.g. "I'd like us to unpack our assumptions by asking each other about the pros and cons of each approach." Never assume that people know they should behave in a particular way during your meeting. Shaping conversations by designing and articulating processes is the best way to increase the chances of productive conversations taking place.
Shaping process means being an architect of the topics being discussed, the order in which they are discussed, the time allocated to various discussion points, and the types of exercises being introduced. It is helpful to think about the outcome you desire, and work your way backwards. What truly needs to occur in the next meeting to get there? What is the best process to help it happen? Requesting feedback about how the process is working will ensure that you are being effective as you practice this discipline.
Mastering this discipline is vital to effective leadership. Remember to shape the process for productive conversations.