Monday, September 20, 2010

Preparing for a 'showdown'

A mentee once asked me "What do I do to prepare for a showdown?"

A 'showdown' is a meeting that is expected to be confrontational. Attendees have very different opinions of or approaches to something. It is also usually considered by the participants as "high stakes" (so we aren't talking about figuring out "where to go for lunch today?"). Showdowns also occur when their is a perceived power imbalance between participants or emotional baggage between participants that aren't necessarily tied to the meeting topic.

So what to do when you have to participate in a crucial meeting with layers upon layers of related and unrelated challenges? Here's the advice I'd give the mentee:

  1. Be prepared - take the time to seriously prepare for this meeting. Do your homework! This means 2 things: 1) make sure you know your material cold. 2) Learn as much as you can about everyone's point of view before the meeting starts. I am a big fan of "having the meeting before the meeting" so to speak. I advocate going to as many attendees as possible beforehand and invite them to share their perspective with you in order for the actual meeting to be more efficient and productive. This will also allow you to focus and be prepared for the issues likely to arise. (It's not guaranteed that everyone will share all their concerns with you beforehand - but you can try!)
  2. Be open - being open to others' opinions will have 2 very powerful effects. First, it will go a long way to diffusing a tense meeting. Showing that you value other people's opinions will put other participants at ease and actually afford you some "goodwill points" towards your argument. Secondly, by being open to new information you might actually learn something and perhaps even change your mind! Or an even better result would be for folks with opposing viewpoints to work together to formulate a 3rd path forward which takes into account everyone's input. This can only happen with an open mind and a positive attitude.
  3. Be confident. This doesn't mean being arrogant. The more you've prepared the more confident you will feel. And the more confident you feel the more naturally open you're likely to be during the meeting. If you are not confident that your approach/solution is valid it's unlikely anyone else is going to be arguing for or agreeing with you. In fact, if you aren't confident going into the meeting that's a worthwhile feeling to pay attention to and explore. Perhaps in the back of your mind you aren't sure and need to do more research or propose a different way forward. So go in there and be confident or do something different until you do feel confident.
I like to start 'showdown' meetings with a direct and sincere invitation to everyone to have an open mind. I state that everyone's perspective is valued and needs to be heard and considered. I then "confess" that while I'm certainly coming into the meeting with a preference I am open to having my mind changed. The last thing I do by way of introduction is ensure we all agree on a clear and crisp description of the problem at hand and invite everyone to alter or improve that description. The point is to start off on the same page about the problem. If I'm not leading the meeting I still try and make sure all these points come across early on.

Of course the above approach doesn't work 100% of the time. Nothing is guaranteed. You may find someone there that's bent on making you fail. Many times in real life "other considerations" prevail over working through a showdown most logically. We tend to label these "other considerations" under the banner of 'politics'. Even in the face of politics the above steps are still going to give you the highest probability of rallying the crowd to your side and leading you towards success.

If you have other suggestions for dealing with 'showdowns' I'd love to hear them!

No comments: