The Meaning in Meetings

A few weeks ago, in the small talk before a meeting started, I was talking with a woman about our respective work. In reference to my work as a facilitator she said, “ugh, I couldn’t stand all those meetings!” I understand her reaction, particularly if you are used to the rather boring and tedious way many traditional meetings are run. It made me think of the story of the stonecutters all three doing the same job, one irritated and bored who saw his job as hammering rock, the second was a bit more motivated seeing how his stone cutting work was one part of creating a wall, while the third, who was most inspired, said “I’m building a cathedral!” The same work, imbued with a larger sense of purpose and meaning, created an inspired attitude to the work.

CathedralFor me, the meaning in meetings is about building a field of collaboration and common purpose among people whose work is similar yet fragmented. Conversations are what weave together and connect the fragmented parts. The fruits of the labor are the magic moments when ‘emergence’ happens, when all the pieces come together and a new idea emerges out of this unique combination of people and perspectives. It takes good design to lay the foundation for this to happen, such as framing open strategic questions and creating a safe inviting environment for these kinds of cross-fertilizing conversations and good thinking to happen. Like a gardener who invests in good soil, it is a thrill to see a healthy seedling emerge.

The other kind of magic moments I love are when people’s varied perspectives and expertise combine and build on each other, almost like improvisational jazz. It happened in a recent meeting with New Hampshire Farm to School, as we discussed which communities around the state might be good candidates to evolve to the next level of “Farm to School 2.0.” In a short time we got perspectives from public health, current farm to school programs, educational curriculum, local farms and food businesses, hospitals that might support this work, and how this relates to other local food system work. You could see how all of us were gaining a fuller sense of the current situation from multiple related dimensions and starting to feel the potential if all these elements could work in an aligned way.

Another way I see meetings in a “cathedral building” view, is that the process of the work (i.e., the quality of the conversations…the way we treat each other) is itself creating the world we want to see. I find it meaningful to be part of a global community of innovators (e.g., through Art of Hosting and NCDD) who are working to “rehumanize” and bring life back to our organizations and institutions, creating conditions for each person to experience fully contributing and working together effectively. As we create new ways of meeting that enable people to show up not just in their role or professional titles, but as full human beings, the lifeblood of authentic communication, connection, and creativity can flow again.

After working with many organizations, across business, government, and the non-profit sector, I have seen how traditional meeting structures and organizational cultures can lead to “co-stupidity” as Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence institute says. And like him, I am inspired by the quest to see how we can come together and achieve “co-intelligence, which involves “diverse people working really well together in ways that make things better from a bigger picture perspective.”

In a video blog, Tim Merry, names the price of what we take as normal ways of working, saying: “it is unacceptable to me that we create organizational structures and systems that de-humanize us and cause emotional and psychological damage to people. This over professionalism of our work places undermines our capacity to connect authentically and access different perspectives which would enable us to overcome some of our most pressing a seemingly intractable problems.” He speaks of the need for structures that support the quality of relationships among people so that we can get things done in ways that don’t fragment us, undermine our confidence, or undermine our sense of being in relationship.”

Meeting structures, i.e., how we design and host conversations, are a key vehicle for making things better from a bigger picture perspective, for each of us as fulfilled people, and for our communities and organizations.

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