Last week, I had to lead a very difficult meeting of angry people - angry because they felt that they had been ignored about some serious issues and that the firm's leadership had not been listening to them. Previous attempts at a meeting had been difficult, at best, with some very uncivilised shouting going on, some literal finger-pointing, and a lot of blame passing. I was asked to run the meeting because we agreed that an external person in the room might improve behaviour, and because having a 'neutral' in the chair might be seen to be more fair to those attending.
I spent quite a few hours planning the meeting - thinking about the concerns that existed and trying to imagine how conversations might progress. I spent some time with some of the attendees from the Board. Most of all I talked about managing expectations. Attendees were angry and would want to say so. I suggested that we accept that and allow some time at the beginning of the meeting for people to vent (so long as it didn't get personal).
In the end the meeting went surprisingly well. In my introduction (I always like to have a short introduction to meetings to explain why the meeting is happening, what we are hoping to achieve, and how long we are going to spend doing it), I accepted that management communication had been poor and that frustration was understandable. Happily those attending were able to move past that very quickly - and the meeting turned into a positive and effective forum.
Now of course I am going to say that this is because I did it well! Mostly, however, it went well because we were prepared. We had all put the necessary time in to structure the meeting and we had worked on our own expectations - and discussed our understanding of the expectations of those who would attend. We outlined those expectations right at the beginning - and summed up at the end, proving that we had met most, if not all, of those expectations.
In short we had prepared properly. I work with lawyers who spend ages preparing for a trial or a hearing - but can often approach internal, firm, meetings with no preparation, no expectations, and no understanding of the issues to be discussed (and usually not having read the papers). Even if some of the attendees of a meeting are inevitably going to act in that way, it is important for those running meetings - especially difficult meetings with difficult people - to be thoroughly prepared.
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