Applying Sherry to Meetings

Just a thought.  Earlier I posted about Sherry Turkle’s distinction between “connection” and “conversation.”  Yesterday, while discussing university politics with a colleague, it struck me that Turkle’s insight about technology helps me understand why so many of the endless meetings we have (and you probably have at your work too) amount so little.

Large meetings—especially those of the “town hall” type—are a lot like status updates and blog posts.  In my experience (at multiple universities and in the business world), you spend most of your time listening to people offer their observations and perspective on a given situation.  Frequently, people repeat points that others have made, but with slight variations to make it “their own.”  Rarely do these comments build upon one another in a sustained manner that brings insight to the issue at home.  Sometimes they have rather little bearing on the topic at hand.  Usually, they tell you more about the speaker than the issue.  (And, yes, I’m as guilty as anyone else.)

The real problem with these kinds of meetings is they often don’t help us move forward in our work.  With so much data presented at a equally high pitch, it is nearly impossible to figure out what is important.  Rarely is there a significant exchange in these settings, where someone can ask a followup question that leads to deeper probing of the issue, which are followed by digging deeper still.  We feel good because “we were heard”, but that’s often the only outcome.

To use Turkle’s categories, these meetings are full of connections–little bits of discourse that maintain relationship, but do not advance understanding or knowledge of the other.  They rarely inspire self-reflection or deep insight into problems.  As with status updates and tweets, we spend so much time wading through inconsequential information, there’s no space for digging deeper.

Conversation, on the other hand, is long-form, dialogic, and risky.  It requires listening and vulnerability.  Yet, it is great because it teaches us about one another and binds us together.  That’s why conversation is the core of friendship.

But conversation is not just about friendship.  It is also the core of tackling problems in business and administration.  To solve complex problems, we need time to dig into the issues. Some of this is done solo, but much of it involves pooling our insights and building off of one another’s realizations so that we can discover things that would be impossible to discover alone.  We then go off and try solutions. Then we return to the table for ongoing conversation as the process continues.

Such conversations, however, depend on trust.  We need to be confident that the others with whom we are working really desire solutions and have the best interests of the organization at heart.  Trust cannot be built in short bursts, but requires sustained relationship and shared risk taking.  Or to put it another way, the conversations we need to solve problems depend upon conversation.  If we only start talking when a problem arises, we are already doomed.

Perhaps we need to stop having meetings and, instead, sit down and actually talk.

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