GTSH8/6 Facilitating Communications in Meetings

Opening Reflections

Take  a Moment:

  • Reflect upon your experience of two or three recent meetings.
    • Score these meetings out of 10 on the following factors (where 1  is very poor and 10 is excellent):
      • How effective was the meeting?
      • How well did participants work together in the meeting?
      • How good was the outcome of the meeting?
      • How effective were communications during the meeting?
    • Why did you score these factors as you did?

Meetings and communication are inextricably linked; it is impossible to have a meeting without the communication process taking place. Whether understanding is achieved may be another matter. Consider Professor Wiio’s laws applying to the network of communications between all the people in the room. Where understanding is not achieved meeting participants will not be aligned and will find it hard to work together to make the meeting effective. Throughout the Growing the Servant Heart programme we have identified that meetings are important tools that enable the Christ-centred servant leader to help those whom they lead to achieve their full potential. It is important then, that meetings be helpful and effective and that the participants are able to communicate effectively.

The Role of Meetings

Meetings are used for two main reasons:

Efficiency of communication

Meetings are used so that everyone hears the same message and the originator only has to share it once. However, we’ve just spent time looking at the issues about one listener actually understanding what was intended by the speaker, let alone many listeners. In this case all the principles we have discussed still apply and the speaker needs to be a Responsible Speaker and the listeners each need to be Responsible Listeners.  However, the clarification process becomes a multi-faceted discussion, which can make understanding more difficult.

Harnessing collective wisdom

Meetings are used to gather information, share views, ideas and insights, identify solutions, draw conclusions and make decisions. They enable the collective wisdom of the team to be collaboratively applied. Such meetings, if run well, will be structured and have an agenda. However, as most people who attend meetings will have experienced, meetings are not always effective in achieving these things. This is mainly because the participants have different perspectives and modes of thinking. Thus their objectives and emotional reactions to what others say, and sometimes to the other people in the room, can be markedly different. With regard to these factors, individual participants are often not aligned in their thinking or objectives. So, for instance, one person is making a logical argument while another has a positive emotional reaction, another a negative reaction, and another may be triggered to identify alternative perspectives. All of this can be going on at the same moment. Participants who are not aligned and who are operating in different modes can easily end up working at cross purposes. How many of you have been in meetings that should have been short but have gone on far too long because of unexpected disagreement, alternative views and emotional responses.

The Basics of Managing Meetings

For meetings to be effective ensure:

The objective and purpose of the meeting is clear

Frequently the objective of meetings are unclear and whilst a meeting might seem to be the right thing to do, if its purpose is not clearly set out it will get nowhere. Because of lack of clear thought about the objectives many unnecessary meetings have been called, when all that was needed was an individual to take some action.

There is an agenda

Even where there is a clear objective a meeting needs a definite agenda that sets out the meeting time, location, its purpose, the stages that the meeting will pass through or items to be considered, and ideally time allocation. Even so-called “agendaless” meetings have agendas, although they are minimal. They have a purpose but otherwise the main body of the meeting has an open, format-free discussion section. This may be followed by a section to draw conclusions and agree actions.

The right people attend

Given the purpose of the meeting and the things the meeting needs to accomplish, the right people need to be in attendance. Avoid inviting people who have no purpose in being there. It does happen when the meeting is not well planned.

Decisions are made and actions are agreed

Towards the end of the meeting, or perhaps individual agenda items, the outcomes need to be agreed. That is, decisions are made and actions identified, allocated and agreed.

Outcomes are recorded

Most meetings need some written record, especially if decisions are to be made. Often a record of the decision making process will be needed for future reference. Sometimes it is necessary to revisit the decision weeks or years later and the record then becomes important. Remember, even if participants had perfect understanding and absolute agreement at the end of a meeting, memories fade and recollections become inaccurate. This is why meeting notes or minutes setting out understandings and agreements are essential. It can save much pain and upset latter on.

Effective facilitation is available

Meetings work best when someone acts the facilitator or chairman to guide the meeting through its steps, seeking to ensure that everyone participates and complies with any meeting rules.

Meeting effectiveness is reviewed

As observed in the Leading through Others module, it is very helpful to gain feedback on the meeting process so that improvements can be made. This can be in the form of a simple feedback questionnaire that scores effectiveness in terms of a few key factors. For example:

    • How clear was the meeting’s purpose and objectives?
    • How good was time keeping?
    • How well prepared were participants for the meeting?
    • How effective was the meeting process?
    • How effective was the meeting in making decisions?
    • How necessary was the meeting?

 

The feedback questionnaires should be periodically reviewed by the team as a whole with the aim of improving the process. However, having the basics right does not ensure that effective communication takes place, nor that the meeting will be efficient and effective in achieving its objective. We will now look at one approach to help make meetings more efficient and effective, while allowing all the participants the freedom to express their ideas, concerns and enthusiasms.

De Bono’s Thinking Hats – A Team Process

Thinking Hats is an approach to meetings, particularly ones aimed at finding solutions and agreeing decisions, which can help them be much more effective and timely. In the Leading Teams with a Servant Heart lesson we identified that teams need effective processes.  De Bono’s Thinking Hats could be one of the processes that enables meetings to work well.

The scheme was devised by Edward de Bono who is internationally regarded as an authority on teaching thinking as a skill. He had faculty appointments at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London and Harvard. He describes this approach to meetings in his book Six Thinking Hats® published by Penguin (ISBN 978-0-14-029666-2). If you want to adopt this approach to meetings and decision making then reading this book is essential. It’s not a long book and it is an easy and enjoyable read.

De Bono’s Thinking Hats approach has been used around the world in many different national cultures. It recognises that in a meeting the participants have a number of legitimate needs and reactions such as: the acquisition of information, logical thought, emotional response, “light bulb” moments where new ideas emerge and so on.  In a meeting these all get mixed up as one person provides information, another makes a logical deduction and third responds emotionally. This all-at-the same-time-mix reduces the effectiveness of meetings and can be the obvious cause of conflict as opposed to collaboration. The difference in thinking styles between individuals at one time can add to the confusion that prevents effective communication.

Conflict in meetings is made worse in western cultures because our general thought processes tend to be adversarial. We argue for our point of view. This is seen so clearly in courtroom situations where winning and not necessarily truth and justice are the goal of both the prosecution and defence counsels. In meetings this culture can extend the duration and make it difficult to arrive at a decision. This is because the goal is not to mutually find the best decision but to persuade everyone to go with what I think is the best decision. This is not a Kingdom of God perspective.

Take a Moment:

  • Reflect on your own national culture and consider how it affects the way meetings might work in your situation.
  • How does this compare with what you have learned about leading with a Christ-like servant heart?

 

De Bono’s thinking hats is an approach that allows all the participant’s reactions, and minimises adversarial conflict, by seeking to align everyone’s thought processes at each stage. Because at each stage the thinking process is aligned, the opportunities for misunderstanding are reduced and communication becomes more effective.

The benefits are directly in line with the goals of the Christ-centred servant leader:

Better focus

The meeting participants collaboratively focus on the same thing at the same time with the objective of achieving good and appropriate outcomes. Thus it releases them from having to argue their case in order to win. The win becomes better decisions and a good outcome for the team. As we saw in Leading Teams with a Servant Heart, in highly effective teams members subordinate their own goals to that of the team. Members win when the team as a whole is successful.

Improved effectiveness

Teams who use this approach testify to the fact that their meetings are shorter and more effective. It is said that it seems as if “decisions make themselves.”

Enhanced clarity

The hats allow the meeting participants to adopt the same kind of thought processes at the same time, which reduces confusion and enhances clarity. This in turn improves the quality of the communications, reduces lost time and conflict.  All of which leads to a more collaborative and effective meeting. Greater ownership The hats give everyone the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings clearly and in a way that as understood by the other participants. The meeting is able to accept contrary views as valuable inputs and allow them to be weighed appropriately in arriving at a conclusions. Consequently, using the hats increases the sense of ownership of the outcome amongst the participants.

Breaks through cross-cultural barriers

The testimony of many is that the thinking hats approach is an aid to cross-cultural communications. The structure aligns the thinking processes with basic human perspectives and outlooks (Neutrality, pessimism, optimism, emotional feeling, creativity) which are found in people regardless of national cultures. Thus each hat provides a declared and understood point of commonality which is a platform for understanding others in the meeting.

The Thinking Hats

The idea of the hats is simply a visual code for the kind of thinking the meeting participants together, or an individual, needs to do at a particular time.  It enables the meeting participants to be on the same page and engage in the same activity, thus reducing conflict and confusion. Each hat has a colour because de Bono’s intention was that it would give a visual clue as to what the hat was about.

White hat:

White is a neutral colour and the white hat is neutral and objective. It is about facts and figures and the provision of information.

Yellow hat:

Yellow is a bright, cheerful colour, suggesting a positive outlook. So, the yellow hat is about an optimism; what is good about an idea and about its potential.

Black hat:

Black suggests seriousness and so the black hat is cautious, looking for risks and weaknesses in ideas.

Red hat:

Red suggests emotion and anger, and so the red hat is about emotional response.

Green hat:

Green suggests fertile growth and newness. So the green hat is about thinking creatively and generating new ideas.

Blue hat:

Blue is a cool colour symbolic of the sky which is above everything else. The blue hat represents the control and direction of meeting and thinking process determining the use of the other hats.

Aligning ones thinking to the nature described by a particular colour hat is described as “wearing” that particular hat.

Aligning Meeting Participants

The hats can be used in a number of ways.

The alignment in thinking brought about by all “wearing” the same colour hat at the same time helps the thinking process. This is because everyone in the meeting is pulling in the same direction because they are deliberately adopting the same type of thinking process.  This helps the communication process because aligning participant’s thought processes make it easier for them to communicate.

The facilitator might use them to define the stages of a meeting as information is received, ideas are created and so on. They would do this by either predetermining the sequence in which hats would be used or saying, for instance, “Let’s do some black hat thinking now” when it’s time to identify the weaknesses of a proposed course of action.

Stepping through the hats in a predetermined sequence allows the person with great emotional reservations about an idea to hold them in check until the red hat time. In the mean time they can participate effectively during the other stages of the discussion.

A participant could tell the rest of the meeting where they are coming from by saying, for instance: “Wearing my yellow hat, I think that is great idea because it has these other possibilities too….” This means the listeners know how to respond to the comments being made. The declaration about wearing the yellow hat also tells the other participants that the speaker is aware of what they are saying although they may be out of step with rest of the conversation. So declaring the hat one is wearing helps remove some of the communication barriers and sources of annoyance and conflict.

Granting Permission to Speak

The hats give people permission to think in certain ways and express those thoughts. This requires that others in the meeting accept the resulting observations as legitimate. This attribute of using the hats can help those who are hesitant and unsure of themselves. Imagine a junior manager in a meeting which includes the CEO.

The CEO offers an idea.

The junior manager has strong reservations about this idea. Would they normally speak up? Probably not.

However, the red and black hats give permission for the junior manager to declare their reservations and prepare the CEO to accept the comments as a positive contribution. Thus the hats enable both communication and participation. In short they facilitate effective collaboration.

This means, of course, that the senior people in a meeting play to the rules. This would be a natural outworking of a Christ-like servant heart on the part of those in the meeting who are leaders. It is also an expression of true collaboration in a Christ-centred servant leadership environment, where position and status are set aside and the goal is that others are enabled to operate at their full potential.

The Hats in More Detail

Now let’s look at the six hats in more detail.

The white hat

The white hat is about neutrally and objectively receiving information. Information is the input that allows us to understand situations and provides the platform from which we can make informed decisions. It includes assessment of the information which allows for participants to express their opinions about its validity. White hat thinking also seeks missing information.

Wearing the white hat is about the processing of facts and figures, receiving data and identifying missing information. It allows for the recognition of at least two qualities of information: That which is true – the checked and proven facts and; that which is believed to be true but still requires verification.

However, there is a spectrum of validity of facts ranging from always true to never true with usable levels in between, for instance, most times true, sometimes true and very occasionally true. Being able to categorise facts in this way allows participants to set aside emotional reactions and to assign actions to verify the data. In a collaborative meeting this will unite participants in the manner in which they deal with the data because the quality of the data is openly recognised.

There is another approach to grading information quality. That is using a ranking based on a recognised intelligence grading system. The information/fact is graded according to two sub-divided parameters:

Reliability of the Source

A             Always reliable
B             Mostly reliable
C             Sometimes reliable
D             Not reliable
E             New Source/Unknown reliability

Validity of the Information

1             Confirmed (by other sources)
2             Probably true
3             Possibly true
4             Doubtful
5             Improbable
6             Cannot be Judged

Thus information from a well-known and reliable source but which has not be confirmed might be graded as A2 or A3. Where as if it was confirmed by a second source it would be graded as A1. Credible information from a new source could be graded E2 or E3.

For the white hat to function a neutral, dispassionate attitude enabled by the collaborative, open and agreed categorisation of facts is required.

The red hat

Wearing the red hat gives permission to participants to examine and express their feelings about the matter in hand. This is important because it recognises that we are emotional beings and so respond emotionally to facts, ideas, conclusions and situations.

The red hat gives permission to have an emotional response, a feeling, and have all the participants understand what is going on, to accept it and take it into account. The negative feelings someone might have are legitimised and can be put on the table without fear of censure. When they are in the open they become facts that are owned by the meeting for due consideration. The individual concerned does not have to keep coming back to them. When the red hat is taken off it gives the participants permission to move on.

De Bono advises that there should never be an attempt to justify the feelings or provide a logical basis. That they exist is a fact that has to be taken into account by the meeting. He also identifies two types of feeling:

    • Ordinary emotions
      These are feelings such as fear, hatred, dislike, suspicion and the like.
    • Complex Judgments
      These include emotional factors such as hunches, intuition, personal taste, aesthetic feelings and so on.

Both are included in the red hat emotions, although it will be helpful to understand to which category a red hat observation belongs.

The black hat

De Bono describes the black hat as the hat of survival, the hat of caution. It is about identifying the dangers and weaknesses, obstacles and downsides, risks and potential problems concerning the issue under discussion. In that sense it is about a negative perspective. It has a pessimistic outlook, but deliberately so.

Wearing the black hat gives permission for participants to think negatively and share their observations without fear of being labelled as being negative, unhelpful, not on side and so on. If deliberately used as a phase of the meeting then everyone is thinking the same way, looking for the issues. Black hat thinking turns this negative activity into a positive contribution to the process as ideas are tested for flaws and weaknesses.

If someone raising a negative issue in a meeting declares that they are “wearing their black hat” everyone knows to see it is a positive contribution without the need to begin a counter argument. The issue is something that needs to be addressed and resolved. Black hat thinking is not about argument and counter argument. Its purpose is to declare and record the points where caution is required for the benefit of everyone.

Black hat thinking asks questions such as:

    • Does this fit with past experience?
    • Does this fit our policies?
    • Does this fit our goals and purpose?
    • Does this fit our ethics,
    • Does this fit with a Kingdom outlook
    • Does this fit with God’s plan and purposes?
    • Does this fit our resources?
    • Does this fit our abilities?
    • Does this fit the facts?

 

(The above may be a helpful checklist)

De Bono warns that black hat thinking can be over used and dominate thinking in western cultures, and then it becomes unhelpful.

The yellow hat

Wearing the yellow hat gives permission to deliberately be optimistic, to look for the up-sides, the benefits of a situation or suggestion. It is deliberately positive and constructive.

Yellow hat thinking ranges from the practical and logical to dreams and aspirations. It seeks to find value and benefit supported by soundly based optimism. It can also declare observations which rely upon a less soundly based optimism, provided this is clearly qualified and labelled, so everyone knows. Such thinking can speculate about the possibilities. Such speculation feeds creativity.

The green hat

Green hat thinking is about alternatives and new ideas; seeking innovative ways of achieving goals. It’s about leaving the well-trodden pathways of thinking and finding alternative and innovative ways to achieve the goal. It’s about changing perspectives and gaining different outlooks.  So the Green hat gives permission to look at things differently.

It’s best if both speaker and listener are wearing green hats at the same time. Offer visionary innovation to someone in black hat thinking mode and it will simply generate a litany of “Why you can’t …

Wearing the green hat says we are now going to deliberately look for new possibilities without censure. Considered analysis of those possibilities happens when wearing the red, black and yellow hats.  This means in the green hat mode that there need be no argument about “pie in the sky impossibilities”. As we shall see in the next module such impossibilities, even if of no immediate practical benefit, can stimulate an innovation which delivers great benefits.

Green hat thinking is creative thinking. In the next module we will look at some tools to assist in such thinking.

The blue hat

De Bono describes Blue hat thinking as “thinking about thinking”. It’s about facilitating and directing the flow of the meeting and keeping the meeting’s focus. It asks: “Which hat do we need to wear now?” The facilitator, wearing the blue hat, is like the conductor of the orchestra. They call for particular kinds of thinking when the flow of the meeting demands it.

The facilitator may start with a plan as to the way the hats will be used but find it necessary to call up additional thinking of a particular kind. For instance if the green hat stage generates something unexpected but attractive the facilitator may need to call up more black hat thinking to test the idea,. Conversely, if black hat thinking identifies a significant issue with an idea, more green hat thinking may be needed to see if the issue can be dealt with.

Blue hat thinking also monitors the thinking and makes sure that the rules are followed. For instance at the red hat stage, when negative feelings are expressed, these must be accepted and not argued against. It’s yellow hat thinking that examines and tests negativity by addressing the up sides or green hat thinking that finds alternatives.

Blue hat thinking includes summaries, overviews and drawing conclusions. It stops arguments and insists that an issue being argued over is recognised and set out as factor that has to be considered wearing the other hats.

Blue hat thinking is not limited to the meeting facilitator. Anyone can offer blue hat observations and suggestions but its good practice to recognise the kind of thinking and declare it when the comment is made.

Using the hats

We will now look at a possible meeting flow using the hats by way of example:

Stage 1: Blue hat

Outline the purpose and goal of the meeting

Stage 2: White hat

Collect and receive information. Analyse and evaluate it in terms of its reliability, validity and value.

Stage 3: Green hat

Based on the purpose of the meeting and the inputs received, green hat thinking shapes the options that achieve the declared purpose.

Stage 4: Red hat

This allows the emotional responses to the green hat solutions to be declared and registered by the meeting. It addresses questions such as “Does it feel right?” and expresses concerns or delights about the options.

Stage 5: Black hat

This considers the green hat solutions to see if they meet the purpose. What is wrong with the option? Are there any problems that might prevent the solutions from being realised?  Are they in line with Godly, kingdom thinking, bringing honour and glory to God?

Stage 6: Yellow hat

What are the opportunities and upsides and benefits of the alternative solutions?

Stage 7: Blue hat

The closing stage. Blue hat thinking summarises the findings of the meeting and seeks to draw conclusions. Once the conclusion have been reached, wearing the blue hat everyone reviews the meeting asking: “How did we do?” “How can we do better?”

Ongoing: Blue hat

During the meeting blue hat thinking will have steered the participants through the meeting’s steps to a conclusion. Where necessary, in each stage, other hats may be called up to address an issue. For instance, if in stage 1 the wording of the purpose turns out be ambiguous the green hat thinking  would be called up to refine the wording and black hat thinking to test the revised wording before moving on.

General

The hats do not have to be used in the order set out in this example and some hats may be repeated. For instance, a second cycle of green, red, black and yellow hats may be planned because it is anticipated that the ideas generated in the first pass may need refinement before a conclusion can be reached.

Also because a hat is called for does not mean that lots of time need to be spent on that stage of thinking. For instance if at the red hat stage no one has any emotional reactions, perhaps no more than a minute or two is required.

Reflections

Take a Moment:

  • Identify a safe and straight forward meeting that you can use to practice using the Thinking Hats. (You may find it helpful to set up a meeting you have specifically designed just to practice using the thinking hats approach)
    • Make sure you have the meeting basics set up
    • Think through how you might use de Bono’s thinking hats (a pre-planned flow is recommended).
    • Explain the rules to the participants (give them a copy of the overview in Appendix A).
    • At the end evaluate the meeting.

 

Even if you don’t use the Thinking Hats get the meeting basic right.

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