Enabling Free Discussion and the importance to Disagree and Commit

One key goal to strive in decision-making meetings is providing an environment of free discussion. People need to feel encouraged and safe to share their opinions and be assured that personal views will never outweigh the better idea. The greater the disagreement on a topic, the more free the discussion needs to be. Our shared responsibility is to steer the conversation towards the most meaningful goals, while still making sure that it is free, and everyone can voice their opinions.

A ship showing its steering wheel in highlight. The sea can be seem ahead.Steering the discussion while giving a voice to everyone and appreciating diverging opinions is not an easy task. But, much like steering a ship, it can be learned -- Photo by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

The Role of the Moderator

For every meeting, it's useful to have a person who is responsible for leading it or one for each section separately. This person does not have to be the one with more knowledge on the subject, but rather the one with more stake in what is the output of that meeting.

What we're looking for here is someone who understand what is important in the output. That will ask the right questions. At the same time, the people we need to be more active are the ones that will actually be engaged in the work. One of the key roles of such moderator is keeping the discussion on track:

The free discussion model it shows four quadrants on two axes:
   Participants and moderator the axis go from inactive to active. When the
   participants are active, and the supervisor inactive the discussion is on
   track. When both are inactive, the discussion is sleepy. The moderator
   should become active to put the discussion on track when the participants are
   inactive. When both are active the discussion is off-track. The moderator's effort at a meeting should go into keeping the discussion on track, with the participants bearing the brunt of working the issues

In other words, the moderator's goal is engaging all of the participants and keeping the discussion on track. We all come from different backgrounds and have vastly different experiences. Which means that people will react in distinct ways to confrontation and to having someone give an opinion on what they should work on. Dealing with such distinct reactions makes an honest and meaningful discussion harder to achieve. This sometimes lead people to run away from having coworkers with diverse backgrounds. This kills diversity and blinds them to different ideas.

Confrontation & Diversity are essential if we want the best ideas to win. So we need to be the ones encouraging instead of fighting them. And here are some ways we can do that:

  1. Ask the right questions at the correct times: The moderator understands what we want as an output, so she should know what questions need to be answered by whatever decision is taken from the meeting. Ask honestly curious questions, do not make them rhetoric, do not attempt to provide an answer.

  2. Approach conflict as a collaborator, not an adversary: We hate losing more than we like winning.A perceived loss triggers attempts to reestablish fairness through competition, criticism, or disengagement, which is a form of workplace-learned helplessness. Whenever conflict come, what needs to be on both sides is the question “How could we achieve a mutually desirable outcome?”

  3. Empathy should be on the table: We all have needs for respect, competence, social status, and autonomy. Recognizing these deeper needs naturally elicits trust and promotes positive language and behaviors. We need to anchor everyone on the fact that we have shared goals we may disagree on how to get there, but we're still capable people and want to be treated like humans. We're highly social beings. We need to understand that and value empathy and social skills. Making people understand that others have beliefs, hopes and anxieties "Just Like Me" is key to more meaningful and rewarding discussions.

  4. When in large groups, always Breakout: Our anxieties and fears play a significant part at making us shy away from giving controversial opinions in large groups. We quickly default to the opinion of the majority or of the strongest voice. Some people are naturally more assertive and talk more, this will inevitably hinder the more introverted participants from sharing their true ideas. Breakout Sessions helps us in many ways to deal with this:

    1. People know they are expected to be active;
    2. Participants will be encouraged to share their ideas, being less prone to herd mentality and from fear;
    3. It gives the small groups a sense of "we're in this together" which is useful for empathy and collaboration;
    4. Allow people some time to work on the issues on their own, less influenced by what is presented. We can also ask people to individually work on the issues before or during the meeting and regroup the ideas later.

If this seems uncannily similar to building Psychological Safety in your team, it's because it is. The goals are the same; we want people to feel encouraged to take risks. To bring something more to the table.

Environments that feel safe, supportive, and nonjudgmental help people find their voice. It is easier to share when you see that every one else is doing the same versus just one or two talkative people. Or, when somebody asked for my opinion because she was genuinely curious or when we have a good enough relationship with the other folks to know that they wouldn't actually think we are incompetent, even if we say something stupid. Fostering disagreement will bring the best ideas to the table, but there is one additional benefit that is even more important.

Allowing People to Commit to the Decision

Everyone on a team ultimately shares the same goals. While people have different opinions about the best path to take, part of working well together is placing trust in decision-makers and in a fair process. If we can perceive the process as appropriate, we can "Disagree and commit" for the sake of moving forward quickly.

It's important that everyone involved can give the decision reached by the group full support. This does not necessarily mean agreement: so long as the participants commit to back the decision, that is a satisfactory outcome. If we can't reach this stage, then we need more free discussion.

The ideal decision-making process. Shows a state diagram with three
   states: Free Discussion that can transition to Clear Decision. Clear Decision
   can transition to Full Support. If Full support can't be achieved, more free
   discussion is needed The ideal decision-making process.

The need for Disagreement and Commitment comes from the need for better ideas and better execution. These are the main reasons why the participants need to be the ones active in the discussion. When moderating, we must, no matter how hard, refrain from taking active participation in anything other than making the participants more engaged and providing useful data. As much as we'd like to think ours are the best ideas, that is hardly the case. Even when it is, we need commitment in order to get anything done, so people need to arrive at them and trust the process. Focus on free discussion, and you will get both.

Yes 😉 , this is very similar to Amazon's Disagree & Commit leadership principle.


This post is part of a series about meetings. I've also written on: