You Can’t Solve A Problem If You Can’t Talk About It

Why do we have meetings?

No, that’s not a rhetorical question. I’m not bemoaning the time wasted in pointless meetings — I’m talking about good meetings, meetings that actually need to happen.

Those meetings are all about solving problems. Brainstorming, generating fresh ideas, going beyond the work individuals can do alone. Handling complex business problems requires bringing different skills, perspectives, and stakeholders to the table. As a leader, your job is to facilitate the dialogue that gets people thinking together in real time at that table. Great dialogue unlocks the creativity, productivity, and results that make a difference for your business.

Orchestrating that dialogue isn’t usually too difficult…except when it is.

Think about this: have you ever left what seemed like a reasonably effective meeting, only to find out later that important things were left unsaid — things that might have led the group to a fundamentally different solution to the original problem? Worse, what if you never found out at all and just went on thinking everything was peachy when it wasn’t?

In over a decade of team coaching, I’ve seen this happen countless times. While the specific circumstances are always unique, all the roadblocks to effective dialogue really boil down to just two fundamental challenges.

Challenge Number 1: Everyone has a different perspective

How often have you gone into a discussion thinking, “This one’s a no-brainer — the answer is clear as day,” only to find that, lo and behold, other people see it quite differently? Or perhaps they even agree on the approach but for different reasons. The reality is that everyone has a unique perspective on almost everything.

That’s a good thing! If everyone saw things the same way and drew the same conclusions, having meetings would be a total waste of time. This brings us to a simple but profound truth: the whole point of a meeting is to explore different perspectives and combine them into even more insightful and creative approaches.

When you only have two or three stakeholders in a discussion, it’s easy to make sure everyone’s perspective gets heard and considered. It gets exponentially harder as the number of people in the room increases. With five or six people, there are usually a few who dominate the airtime and others who struggle to get their thoughts across. By the time you have ten people or more, it’s nearly impossible for everyone to get a fair hearing. And of course, it’s all even tougher when the meetings are virtual.

Luckily, addressing this challenge is as simple as using the right meeting mechanics. With some fairly simple tools and tricks (which I’ll write about in a future post), you can make sure all perspectives get a fair shake, at least in meetings that involve about ten people or less.

But that’s not our main focus here…because the real difficulty comes with challenge number 2.

Challenge Number 2: We don’t want to damage our relationships

After years of observing and coaching teams, I believe we each have something like a little AI program in our heads that filters what comes out of our mouths. Its job is to make sure we don’t say anything that would offend, embarrass, or anger others or expose ourselves to humiliation or criticism. In other words, this AI program is there to keep things safe and comfortable, so our relationships remain unharmed.

The problem is that this program is running all the time, but we’re largely unaware of it. It works so automatically that we don’t consciously notice what it has chosen to filter out, and we don’t have any objective view on how well it’s calibrated. Everyone’s calibration is different, and almost by definition, wrong to some degree. A few people let too much through their filter, but most hold back things that would have been helpful and perfectly comfortable to say and hear.

Everyone knows many things get left unsaid, but few realize how big a problem this really is.

Why is it such an issue? Because we can’t solve a problem if we can’t talk about it…and we can’t talk about it if we can’t name it!

I’ve coached many teams that spent hours wrestling with a business problem, only to confide in me later that the real issue was something else — something no one felt comfortable naming. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that real issue was an “Us” problem.

It vs. Us and the Three Buckets

If you look around a typical organization, you’ll find that everyone is busy discussing “It” issues: things like budgets, projects, milestones, work plans, and sales figures. They try as hard as possible to avoid discussing the “Us” issues: the people, team, or leadership problems that are so often what’s really holding the business back.

The result is that every organization has what I call the Three Buckets of topics:

  • Bucket 1 contains the things we talk about openly, and it’s constrained by our poorly calibrated filters.
  • Bucket 2 is for things that get talked about, but only at the bar with your work friends. Bucket 2 is often full to the brim — a bad sign.
  • Bucket 3 is full of things that never get talked about at all, except perhaps with a close friend or partner outside your organization. You might have no idea what’s in Bucket 3 because no one likes peering into it, much less talking about its contents.

In any busy company, Bucket 1 is of course full to the brim of “It” issues. So, we while away our days on email, Slack, and Zoom, discussing these problems and ignoring the existence of the other two buckets. If you ignore them too long though, they just might overflow and spill their toxic contents in the least productive way.

What can you do about it?

To keep Buckets 2 and 3 from getting too full, do these five things.

1) Start with the Diving Platform principle.

Most folks have no problem jumping off the one-meter diving board — that is, tackling low-risk topics that are unlikely to upset anyone. To find the courage for the ten-meter platform though, they need to work their way up. Forcing them up the ladder and pushing them before they’re ready is likely to be counterproductive.

Instead, start with a two-meter jump, then three, then five — i.e. increasingly ‘risky’ feeling topics. As people get accustomed to having these conversations and seeing they’re not so scary, they’ll soon be happily climbing up the ladder to surface five-meter or ten-meter issues on their own.

2) You go first.
As the leader, you have to be the role model here. Set the example by bringing up a sensitive “Us” issue in a respectful, productive way. Let the silence hang. Allow people to see that no one died, the world didn’t end, and it wasn’t even as upsetting as they probably expected. If you do this consistently, they’ll follow.

3) Put all the tigers behind air bars.
To open up about the sensitive things, people need to feel that they’ll be safe from ridicule, criticism, and retaliation. The easiest way to create that psychological safety is to create an environment in which no one is attacking another person, just sharing their perspective. This means enforcing a strict “no interruptions” rule so everyone has plenty of time to tease out and explore their thoughts on the topic. The riskier the topic, the more time folks will need to process and share their views.

A good way to ensure this space is to ask everyone to maintain a minimum 15-second air gap before they follow on from what another person has said. That’s right, 15 whole seconds of silence between each contribution to the discussion. This gives people the space to choose their words carefully and speak their truth without anyone feeling attacked.

4) Debrief afterwards.
Once the issues have been surfaced, ask people to reflect on the conversation. Were there any emotional casualties in the room? Or was it actually much less scary than they imagined? Did it release some tension? Will the team be able to move ahead with its work more efficiently and effectively? Most likely, they’ll say yes to all these questions.

You can wrap up by reminding them of the golden rule of meetings: we can’t solve the problem if we can’t talk about it. Encourage them to keep practicing this whenever “Us” issues come up.

5) Rinse & repeat.

For this to make a difference in your company, it has to become a permanent part of the culture. Keep at it and consider building it into your regular meeting process in the form of a ritual.

Rob is an expert sleuth and guide in the murky world of ‘leadership.’ Three-time CEO, and a strategy and leadership advisor to more than 50 CEOs globally.