To Run Better Meetings, Make Friends with Anxiety
by Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff
Meetings are as common as dirt and about as popular. Often they stir a lot of anxiety, especially when people disagree, avoid critical issues, or blame the leader for what they dislike. Paradoxically, you can grow your capability for leadership by increasing your tolerance for disorder, ambiguity, and tension.
Here are the perspectives on managing anxiety that we have found most useful for people who run meetings.
1. Use the Four Rooms of Change Concept
Claes Janssen, a Swedish social psychologist, made an inspired leap in the 1970s. He devised a model of human development you can learn quickly if you are willing to reflect on your own experience.
In the Contentment Room, everything is fine, the world secure, soft lights, music, and easy chairs. Pause . . . Breathe deeply . . . Relax . . .
But then something happens! A thunderstorm. An earthquake. We interrupt this music to bring you a breaking story: fires and floods coming your way. We are inundated with messages we would rather not hear, overwhelmed with information we cannot absorb. We seek refuge. And the nearest way out is through the door marked Denial.
In the Denial Room, we hunker down on a hard bench in the corner. The room is windowless, the air heavy and hard to breathe. We sit on our feelings. We smile with tight lips. It’s better not to know. So we act as if nothing is happening. We are angry for having got into it. In fact, we’re overwhelmed with feelings—fear, apprehension, excitement, and above all the urge to move.
Suddenly we look around and realize that in our agitation we have fled Denial and gone through the door marked Confusion. Anxiety is the décor of the Confusion Room. Bright lights flash. Music, sometimes louder than we can stand or softer than we can hear, stops and starts at random. We see walls covered with writing we can’t decipher.
No exit strategy seems obvious. But now we have a lot to work with. We are aware that we want out. We know that we feel frustrated. As we struggle for clarity, new patterns emerge, possibilities we never considered before. Little by little, without our pushing on them, doors to the Renewal Room start popping open.
In the Renewal Room, everything seems possible. But wait! Is it? We must choose. Will we pick the city or the woods? The mountains or the sea? We settle for a path that attracts us, turning our back on all others. In no time we have walked ourselves back into Contentment, albeit with a new sense of purpose.
Based on decades of experience, we believe that the Confusion Room, with its high anxiety, provides the most useful space in which to work when Renewal is your goal. In Contentment, nobody needs to do anything. In Denial, nobody wants to do anything. In Confusion, everybody wants out. That is the place where people wonder whether they will agree on a goal, be heard, solve the problem, make the decision, fashion the plan, cooperate, learn, and still make it home for dinner—and the place where leadership can make a big difference.
You need only two or three minutes to introduce this concept at the start of a meeting. Hearing that you consider both denial and confusion normal makes it easier for others to do the same. We often hear people say, “Guess we’ve been in denial about that until now.” Or, “I’m living in the Confusion Room.” Such insights made public go a long way toward keeping groups whole. If they stay whole, they keep working.
2. Just Stand There and . . . Breathe
A natural tendency when you’re anxious is to hold your breath, which increases the stress. Taking two or three deep breaths is a helpful way to lessen the symptoms. There will be a moment in the near future where you have to make a decision and have no idea what to do. Here’s something to try:
Just stand there.
Contain your feelings. Be aware of your agitation, your fear that things are getting out of hand, your impulse to fix it fast. Wait. Look around. Exhale as much air as you can. Take a big, deep breath. Hold it a few seconds. Repeat as needed, until somebody says what needs saying.
Try it. You’ll be amazed at what you can do by exchanging the CO2 in your lungs for oxygen.
3. Check Your Negative Predictions
Negative predictions often cause a great deal of anxiety. You jump into the future, thinking, This is going to fall apart. I can’t pull it off.The group is going to blame me. Or, I’m going to fail. While the scenario isn’t real, the feelings are.
What to do? First, check your own thoughts. If you’re making a negative prediction, pull yourself back by thinking, It hasn’t happened yet. The best way to approach such situations is with curiosity. What will this group do? Remember, you can always act, change direction, or call a break. The fact that you wait 30 seconds does not limit your options. You’ll feel relieved, and the group won’t even notice.
4. Track Your Inner Dialogue
To follow our own streams of consciousness while leading meetings is to explore a vast underground river. It’s amazing how often we fall into mind-reading, imagining others’ motives and attitudes. Why is she working her Palm Pilot under the table? Maybe she doesn’t want to be here. Maybe nobody wants to be here.
Our inner dialogue never stops. We worry that we’re moving too fast or too slowly. We wonder what the quiet people think. We worry about having too much information or not enough. We wonder if we really have the right people, given what they are saying and doing. Of course, ours is not the only inner dialogue. Add one for every person in the room. Consider it normal. Contain your anxiety. Recognize it, accept it, and consider it part of your job. Are you reacting to something in the room, or just what’s in your head? Give yourself a reality check. Stay open to possibilities.
5. Experiment with Silence
In our facilitation workshops, we sometimes ask people to stand up, close their eyes, and imagine leading a group. We have them say out loud, “Does anyone have anything to add?” Their imaginary group says nothing. They are to stand in silence, eyes closed, and to raise a hand when they feel they must say something. In every group the first hand goes up in about 6 seconds. In 20 seconds, a quarter of the group members have raised their hands. About 90 percent of hands go up within a minute. A few people, however, will stand mute until their legs buckle. If you are among them, you can skip this practice tip.
If you are not, here’s your homework for your next meeting. When a group falls silent, pause and notice the moment you feel you must speak. Could you just stand there quietly and wait for 20, 30, 40 seconds more? Of course you couldn’t. Thirty seconds is two lifetimes. But you don’t have to endure such agony. Just try holding your tongue while counting slowly to 10. It will seem like an hour. However, you will do no damage to the group. You might, just might, leave enough space for someone to say something that could change everything.
6. Get People Moving
Nothing relieves anxiety better than physical movement. When people want to run from the task, that’s the perfect time to invite them to get up—and keep working. We ask people to post their own flipcharts. We solicit their help in taking notes, leading conversations, summarizing what they hear. We suggest that people who need a break take it at any time. Sometimes it even makes sense to go for walks outside.
7. State the Obvious
The legendary Gestalt therapist Frederick S. Perls once stopped suddenly during a public lecture after several provocative comments. “Right now,” he said, “I have nothing to communicate.” He fell silent. There was a long pause, filled, said the meeting transcript, by “uneasy, random laughter.” Perls waited several seconds. “Now,” he said at last, “you see, what I just did was a typical little piece of Gestalt therapy. I just expressed what I felt, and through this expression I managed to go on. I reestablished contact. I felt a warm laughter. I felt that you were with me at this moment. I was able to finish this unpleasant situation, this bit of discomfort that I and maybe you felt, when I became silent.”
Anytime you state the obvious, wait five or ten seconds for a reaction.
8. Consult the Group
Now and then we find ourselves leading groups with no idea what is going on and no idea what to do. Our strategy in these situations is to just wait. Nearly always, somebody does know what to do. When nobody does, we use our best tool of all. We stop meetings that are going nowhere and ask people what they want to do. Fortunately, we make this move rarely. It’s reassuring to know we can do it, though. In your next meeting when nothing is happening, just say, “Hold it. We don’t have to keep doing this.” Then ask people to say whether they wish to continue the meeting.
9. Grow Yourself by Listening to What You’d Rather Not Hear
In each meeting, we seek to stretch our capacity for tolerating statements we don’t believe, ideas we oppose, and interaction styles that make us cringe. As we experience our potential for negative predictions, mind reading, stereotyping, mistrust, and anxiety, we find it easier to accept that this is where groups usually start.
The more we learn to live with uncertainty and remain curious about what’s to come, the better prepared we are to value each group’s struggle. The more we learn to hear all views without reacting, the more a group is likely to express all sides of polarized issues.
10. Know Why You Are There
So much goes on during a meeting that we need to anchor ourselves in the meaning of each gathering if we are to know when to stand still and when to act. Before every meeting, ask yourself, What am I here to contribute? What are the central ideas on which I don’t compromise?
Then you can remind yourself of the goals, as you remind yourself to accept the fact that anxiety is a natural and inevitable traveling companion when stakes are high, issues complicated, perceptions diverse, and answers uncertain.
Marvin Weisbord, a fellow of the World Academy of Productivity Science, and Sandra Janoff, a psychologist, are co-directors of the Future Search Network and co-authors of Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There! Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter (Berrett-Koehler Publishers). This article is adapted from that book. To learn more, visit www.bkconnection.com.