SUMMARY: Facilitating a meaningful team discussion is not something that comes easily for everybody, especially when the topics may be controversial or sensitive. The following are some strategies that may be helpful to engage team members in productive conversations while managing negative or problematic responses.

Tips for successful team discussions

Preparation

  • Review and be clear on the objectives and expected outcomes for your discussion. Write this up and share it with your team in advance of the discussion.
  • Ensure you have a meeting room that allows for comfortable collaboration among all members of your group. Help yourself focus effectively by doing a quick scan of what you are thinking and feeling before you go into the meeting. This can help you be aware of any negative thoughts that you may be bringing into the meeting, so that you have a better chance of not allowing them to influence your facilitation. Read Questions to Ask Yourself Before Engaging Employees to help you with this.
  • Consider if any organizational policies, procedures or resources are relevant to the discussion you will be holding and have copies at hand.
  • If relevant for your organization and the topic being discussed, appoint someone to take minutes and distribute them to the group following the session.
  • Send out discussion guidelines to participants in advance. The example below is provided courtesy of Mindful Employer:

    Discussion Guidelines:

    • Listen actively to others. Listen to understand what is being said. Do not "pretend" to listen while you are thinking of how to respond to statements others have made.
    • Handle conflicts appropriately. This means that no one is humiliated or ridiculed and disagreements focus on the ideas and not the individuals.
    • Be willing to work towards consensus. Keep an open mind that there probably is an acceptable decision that everyone can support, even if some degree of compromise is required.
    • Do not interrupt other participants. Be respectful to others at all times, even if you disagree.
    • Avoid one-on-one side conversations. This can be really distracting. Share your ideas and concerns in a respectful manner so that everyone has a chance to consider the options.
    • Be clear about next steps before you leave the discussion. Make notes of what you are responsible to do and by when and check your understanding with the rest of the team.
    • Respect confidentially where appropriate. In particular, do not share personal information that is discussed.
    • Once consensus has been reached, support group decisions and actions. If you feel you have a new idea or concern, bring it back to the team rather than discuss or gossip behind the scenes.

Know your audience

  • In some cases, it may be necessary to introduce yourself if some team members do not know you well. Write your name somewhere visible.
  • If team members aren't all familiar with one another, you may want to complete an icebreaker activity. Ideas for icebreaker activities can be found online at adult education websites.
  • Acknowledge potential challenges or past problems. If your team has had challenges in the past with discussions or has a history of not following through on what was agreed, participants may be sceptical about whether their involvement can make a difference. Being up front about wanting to do it differently can open up a new opportunity to connect more effectively.
  • We are all more engaged when we feel the subject is relevant to us. Find ways of making connections between the topic for discussion and your team members' work experiences. For example, highlighting that we all have days or periods in our lives where we feel distressed or are going through something difficult could be relevant to a discussion on workplace mental health.

Manage expectations

  • Generally, organizations must meet certain business objectives to remain viable. So when discussing strategies or coming to decisions with teams it is reasonable to ask: "Does the strategy or decision support employees in meeting their objectives or make things more difficult?" Of course, each employee must be clear on his or her objectives if this question is to be answered effectively. See Supportive Performance Management for more information.
  • By setting parameters up front in terms of available resources and time you can help manage expectations. For example, if your budget for a project is only $500 and each team member could only spend up to 1 hour a week of their time on the project, the discussion should focus on what is possible given these constraints.
  • When faced with a request for something that may not be possible due to cost or time, you might ask, "What is the ultimate objective of this idea?" When a measureable and relevant objective is established, ask, "How could we do this within our budget or time constraints?" Often if we can determine the underlying need or objective, we can brainstorm alternative strategies rather than just shoot down the original idea.
  • Strive to meet the stated purpose and expected outcomes of the discussion. If you can achieve this, then it is much more likely that the discussion will be successful. If you get stuck with difficult conversation, refer to the purpose and expected outcomes to re-focus energies.
  • If someone seems to be taking up more speaking time than seems effective, you can support them to allow others to speak by saying something like: "You have so much to offer, I am wondering if this is something we can follow up on later, and we can hear from someone else now?" Make sure you follow up with the person later to see if their interest is something that goes beyond the discussion.
  • You may find yourself not knowing a lot about a topic you are discussing. This is okay. Allow yourself to acknowledge this by saying: "I don't know much about that. Let's find resources to get us better informed."

Allow everyone to feel heard

  • Help each team member get the opportunity to add to the discussion. Give verbal acknowledgement to each person for his or her contribution.
  • Manage your own input and avoid long speeches. Be clear in thought when you have an opportunity to give your opinion.
  • Ask a lot of questions to ensure that participants understand what you are saying.
  • Make sure that you are listening - and that your team members see that you are listening. You can do this by restating the question, answer, or idea shared by a participant in your own words.
  • Ask whether you understood their words correctly. If they say no, invite them to restate their question or comment. Remember that when nervous, we may not say what we mean to say the first time. Give the participant the option of revising words used.
  • It is important to remember that many people learn better by doing rather than by being told what to do. Wherever possible, have team members come to their own conclusions through the discussion process.

Sometimes employees may spontaneously share information about themselves in a meeting, including information about their personal lives, their health, or disclosure of a mental illness. While sharing of information does allow us to know each other better, it can also derail a discussion, and can feel uncomfortable. If someone shares personal information, acknowledge their contribution to the discussion and show respect for them, particularly if they have become emotional. Offer them a tissue or water, and ask if they would prefer to stay or take a break from the meeting. Follow up with the person as soon as possible after the meeting to see how they are doing, and whether there is a need for further discussion, helping them access resources for accommodation or support, or managing the team's reaction, etc. Page 22 of the free tool Supporting Employee Success provides some suggestions for responding to questions or concerns from co-workers.

Provide feedback

  • If a participant appears to be struggling with an idea, comment on the positive ("Thanks for opening up that idea." "Thanks for taking this to a new level."), and then try giving a suggestion ("Can you build on this area?" "Can you consider this concept as well?").
  • Try using constructive criticism in the form of a suggested alternative with praise for effort, ideas, creativity, or participation. ("Thanks for that input--can you also consider how we could deal with the time pressures that we are facing?") Rather than: "That won't work because nobody has the time to do it.")

Improve understanding

  • Be careful to remember that your team members may not have had the exposure that you will have had to the concepts, acronyms, and jargon related to the discussion. Keep your language simple so that there are no barriers to understanding.
  • Avoid using overly technical terms and, when you can't avoid them, make sure you define them in a way that the 'new minds' can grasp.

Address negativity or cynicism

  • Some participants may think that their involvement will have little or no impact on lasting improvement. If this is the case, you may want to acknowledge this up front and ask for agreement that, in spite of what has gone on before, your group wants something different for this discussion.
  • If you can accept responsibility for what has not been perfect in the past-even if its success or failure was outside of your control-and sincerely state your desire to change things in the future, it may help get participants on board.
  • If a participant presents a negative statement, you may want to ask: "How could we do that differently?", "What would you think might work better?", "How can we do this in a healthier way?", "What would a positive outcome of this look like?"
  • If a participant pushes back against positive suggestions or that seems to be making unreasonable demands, explore what is underlying the person's pushback or demands with questions like: "What outcome is important to you? What would success look like here?", "If we did what you are suggesting, what would be the outcome?" "Is there another way we can meet that same outcome?"

    Sometimes people need more time to feel heard and understood before they can accept changes. If you are experiencing that some people have dug their heels in and no movement seems possible, you may wish to say something like: "I see that we have come to a bit of an impasse. Possibly we need further discussion on this topic at a later time." Narrow the topic down to the specific issue in dispute, and put it on the agenda of your next meeting. You can also approach the individual and offer a separate discussion to allow him or her feel heard and understood.

Resolve conflict

  • Any discussion will be challenging if two or more individuals are in a state of conflict with one another. Before working on effective team discussions, seek to resolve existing conflicts between team members. This process for resolving conflict can also provide more tips for facilitating discussions with teams.

Wrap up positively

  • Meetings that take up time without accomplishing effective results are a common complaint. Meetings that are well run and produce positive outcomes and clear decisions can be valuable to everyone on the team.
  • Thank your team for making an effort to provide input and be clear about how this contributes to team and organizational success.