February 24, 2023

Guerilla Communication with Solution Focus - how to lead a meeting without leading it

Guerilla Communication with a Solution Focus

You have been sitting in this meeting forever, bored out of your mind. It’s an important meeting and you really need to be there. But it meanders from grandstanding via unproductive disagreements into the nothingness of “yes, but….” You be the only one conscious of the waste of time, but you don’t want to enter the game by offering yet another contradiction. What to do? Smile meekly and wait until it is over? That’s not an empowering choice either, is it? So here are some options for taking charge without “taking charge” that come from Solution Focused Coaching but are applicable almost anywhere:

Use the “Columbo Method”

If you are as old as I am, you remember Peter Falk as the disheveled detective who would always ask the most important question en passant, as he was just leaving the room. Using the same air apparent confusion, you might say: “Sorry, I may be missing something here – could someone remind me of the deliverables of today’s meeting? I must have forgotten to write them down?” And then don’t let go. Channel your inner pitbull and don’t “understand” what you are here to do until it is very clear.

Invite rich descriptions of the desired future

Let’s say the meeting is about a project that is in trouble. The risk of defensiveness and “blamestorming” rather than “brainstorming” is very high. Ask questions around “who will notice what when it is getting better?” rather than questions around “what went wrong”. Whenever someone mentions what went wrong, comment in the direction of: “Ah, ok and what we’d like instead is … -- I wonder how our customers would be noticing that we are making progress?”

Stay out of “yes, but” games

In less than useful meetings we often have “yes, but” games going on. Someone will say something, the next person will contradict. A game we play to illustrate this point in our training for Solution Focused Coaches is about planning a picknick. In the first round, someone suggests that we go on a picknick and everyone has to comment with a “yes, but”: “Yes, but it is raining.” “Yes, but we don’t have anything to eat.” “Yes, but I don’t have time on Wednesdays.” In the next round, this is replaced by “Yes, and”. “How about we go on a picknick?” “Yes, and I think we should bring some umbrellas.” “Yes, and I will bring sandwiches”. You get the picture. So, instead of contradicting people directly, build on their ideas: “Ah, ok – and with this idea, I think we might also take care of …” Even when you have concerns, voicing them this way will get you heard more easily.

Make incremental change visible

Most changes happen over time and not as a revolution. As this is a slow process, the small improvements that are happening over time are forgotten. People start focusing on what is “not yet” there rather than also focusing on what is “already” there. Both viewpoints are correct – it is simply much more motivating to build on an existing platform and become “even better” than it is to feel as a failure because you are not yet at the end point. Learning always happens incrementally. One way of making these small achievements visible is by scaling them. “On a scale of 0-10, where 10 is that we have reached our goal, where are we now?” “At a 5! Great – can we recap? Why a 5 and not a 0?” If this sounds to “therapy talk” to you, you don’t have to mention the numbers to scale. How about “before we move on, can we recap what we are building on?”

Experiments help consensus

Sometimes meetings go on forever because people are afraid of “final” decisions. The idea is that “we have to get it right”. If you phrase meeting outcomes as “experiments” and build in a scheduled evaluation, you might shorten the discussions. You could mention the best 2-3 solutions and ask which is the one that “we want to try first”. That way you get out of “yes, but” games and no one has to go out of the meeting as a “loser”. Even if the experiment is not based on your solution, you can give it a shot, knowing that if it does not work, you can suggest your solution as an alternative

These four little “guerilla tactics” can be very useful to build your reputation as a productive team member and team leader, especially in intercultural environments. I once mentored a German software engineer, let’s call her Maria, who was working in an international environment. German culture favors clear and intellectually sound contributions with little cushioning. Maria contradicted freely, rolled her eyes and did not refrain from letting anyone know what she thought of their contributions. In short: she was inviting defensive “yes, buts” all over the show. I mentored her in a Solution Focused way. I invited her to describe what she wanted instead of what she did not want, asked her about situations in which this was already happening and enabled her to build on these successes. She caught on to what I was doing, and we also discussed how to use Solution Focused Guerilla tactics. This was a game changer for her career. Instead of being the abrasive German who nobody wanted in their meetings, she became a sought-after project team member and eventually a leader in her company.

If you want to explore more how you can use coaching skills in management, why not look at our course "Coaching for Managers and Leaders" (mainly offered inhouse) or come to one of our free meetups and exchanges!

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