How to Have Productive Discussions About Difficult Topics

Having meetings to go through and discuss lessons learned, controversial ideas and future opportunities can be challenging for meeting hosts and attendees. You want participants to feel free to speak their minds without the meeting devolving into unproductive friction. Healthy debates within the workplace are important and often necessary to get to the best decisions, but it takes a mindful approach to these discussions to ensure that the meetings stay on target.
If you’re hosting a meeting and know the topics you have on the agenda are going to need difficult discussion, you can set the meeting up for a healthy and productive debate by following these four simple tips.
Set the stage
Kick off the meeting by acknowledging that the topics you need to cover are challenging, and how you want everyone to participate. Lay out what you hope to achieve by having the discussion, and that it isn’t about laying blame. You should also let them know what kind of behavior will and won’t be accepted, making it clear that personal attacks, blaming and retribution won’t be tolerated. Let participants know that you welcome each and every one of them sharing their thoughts and feelings during the meeting.
Start with questions
Spend time thinking up one of the problems you want to discuss, and then think of how to frame the discussion around a question. The better the question, the better the discussion you’re likely to have.. The question shouldn’t be leading, biased or share your opinion on the matter. The question should be focused enough that it leads to discussion. For example, asking “what can we do to improve client experience” is a very broad question, instead you may want to start with “our last client experience survey showed that we rated low for satisfaction with how quickly we responded to client problems, what are some ideas around how we can improve our response times?”
Invite everyone to participate
If you notice there are certain people that aren’t participating, invite them to share their thoughts. It is important not to call people out in a negative way when inviting them to speak, you don’t need to call attention to their lack of participation by saying something like “I noticed you haven’t said anything about this.” One great way to invite others into the discussion is by leading with what value you believe their answer will bring, for example you could say “I know you have worked at several of our competitors before, do you have any insights on best practices” or “you have a lot of experience in operations, and I would love your thoughts on what you think the operations impact might be of going in this direction.”
Dissect and debate decisions
As the host of the meeting, you are responsible for helping make sure that you think about every side of the discussion. Sometimes this means that you have to play devil’s advocate yourself or you can ask a meeting attendee to have the role of playing devil’s advocate during the meeting. However you want to do it, you need to get everyone engaged and consider all sides of the topic. Only by analyzing every piece of a solution will you figure out whether it is the best answer.

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