If you don’t have conflict in your meetings, you’re probably doing them wrong

Have you ever been to a working meeting where everyone just sat around and nodded? Would you describe that meeting as “good” or “successful”?  My guess is… no.

The fact is, debate and conflict are important to having great meetings.


“Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”

― Christopher Hitchens

If your meetings involve too much agreement around what one or more dominant individuals are proposing, then you’re clearly failing to access the collective wisdom of the group. Only through carefully orchestrated debate do the best ideas bubble to the top.

Megan Kuttiamkonath, IT Project Manager at Sutter Health, weighs in.

“The fact is, I actively seek out conflict when I have several ideas that my team needs to address. We wrangle and turn them over as we seek different perspectives and ideas.”

Leaders looking for debate should foster a comfortable environment where people feel safe throwing new ideas around. This means encouraging junior staff to speak up and asking your more boisterous team members to limit their ideas to one or two. Fundamentally, you need to establish a sense of trust where people are allowed to be wrong.

Keep in mind a few best practices when encouraging healthy discourse, lest your meeting turn into a shouting match:

1.) Keep things positive

Discussion should be positive and in the interests of moving an idea or concept forward. At the outset of your conversation, the meeting organizer should set expectations for the kind of comments and feedback they expect while at the same time resisting the urge to overly stifle creativity. She should point out that she reserves the right to cut individuals off if they sense them being overly critical or failing to create a sense of trust.

2.) Its about the idea, not the person

This can be difficult in the midst of conversation, but its fundamental to debate ideas based on their relative merit versus who can argue with the most ferocity. We have a natural tendency to ascribe higher value to our own ideas and may cling to them in the face of challenge. Resist this urge. Keep an open mind. Remember, your goal is to get to the best solution. It takes a team to do this. One bad idea may lead to two good ones.

3.) Ask open ended questions

Nothing helps guide someone’s thinking and diffuse tension quite like open ended questions. Doing so acknowledges a perspective, while also asking an individual to consider a new idea alongside their current one.

4.) Don’t wade in too quickly

If you’re a leader or prominent influencer, you HAVE to wait until everyone on the team has had an opportunity to weigh in. Why? It allows soft spoken members of your team (people with amiable or analytic personalities as well as junior staff) to speak without feeling quite as self-conscious. Giving them a chance to feel engaged before stronger personalities get involved boosts their confidence and encourages them to become involved in the discussion.

In addition, as the boss, your opinion has special, implicit weight. Simply by offering your take on an issue anchors the ensuing conversation around it, potentially overshadowing the potential input of others.

“Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.”
― James Surowiecki

Published by

Darin Herle

I call Victoria BC home, am a proud father of 2 and husband to 1. Trackmeet co-founder, Cub Scout leader and baseball fan.

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