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Be a meeting whisperer: Conflict Management 101

4 min read


A simple reality of the working world is that meetings dominate our time, and the higher you go in your career, the more pressure there is to spend every waking moment in a meeting somewhere. I think we should cancel most of the meetings we attend, but what about the ones where you need to be present? What’s the most effective way to spend your energy?

In my consulting and coaching practice, I spend a lot of time facilitating executive meetings and board retreats. This causes me to constantly refine my awareness of meeting dynamics and how I can most effectively manage them — and coach my clients into doing the same. I do a really good job, but I have to come clean and tell you I have a secret sauce and that you can buy it at a bookstore.

“The PRIMES,” by Chris McGoff, is a lot more than a meeting-management book. It’s a field guide for people who want to dent the universe and make huge things happen. In his consulting practice at The Clearing, McGoff and his compatriots use the PRIMES principles to support the biggest organizations in the world in effecting transformation and change on a grand scale.

“The PRIMES” will help you accomplish great things, too, but in this and related posts, I’ll give you a CliffsNotes version that will help you tackle common meeting dysfunction. (Full disclosure: I periodically do consulting with The Clearing and helped McGoff edit “The PRIMES.” I’m not objective, and I’m a fan for a reason. This stuff really works!)

Secrets to conflict management

Sometimes, people in meetings get stuck, talking at one another. Once in a while, an actual argument erupts; other times. it’s subtle stubbornness between two perspectives that no one seems able to bridge.

There can be many reasons such donnybrooks occur; often, they happen because two “sides” simply struggle to see each other’s perspective. “The PRIMES” offers core principles for helping people reach a shared perspective, which is the key to moving past these kinds of roadblocks. A powerful and simple PRIME is Big Hat-Little Hat, which recognizes that one side might be wearing the “big hat” and looking at what is best for the larger organization, while the other side is wearing the “little hat” and focusing on what’s at issue for a smaller group.

In a meeting I recently attended, one department argued a need to enforce accounts receivable standards meant for all customers in the division, while another party argued for special accounts receivable policy to be developed for a small group of beta customers who were experiencing significant performance issues with a product.

If you’re the only one in a discussion like this who can see that folks are arguing apples and oranges from their Big Hat-Little Hat perspectives, then you can help the meeting progress by calling attention to this fact and naming their positions as big hat/broader focus and little hat/narrower focus.

You can do this effectively by drawing out the Big Hat-Little Hat PRIME. Using the example above, you can point to the standardization proponent and identify that the department is looking out for the company’s broader interests and wearing the big hat. Then, point to who’s arguing for the product group’s narrower interest and wearing the little hat.

Note that both viewpoints are important to the organization’s well-being, because we need accounting standards and happy customers for beta products. It’s important that when you do this, you don’t agree with either side but simply ask everyone to acknowledge that both perspectives are important. If you’re one of those in the argument, when you do this, you will gain immediate respect for “admitting” that the other side has a point.

Sometimes, simply naming the dispute this way is enough to allow people to break the meeting down into a Big Hat-Little Hat discussion and move forward. But sometimes, that’s not enough. In my next meeting-whisperer post, I’ll show you how to leverage the deeper principle hiding in Big Hat-Little Hat so you can manage even the most difficult altercation.

By the way, you can do this regardless of whether you’re running the meeting. Try it.