Meetings Make the World
Marisa Guerin, PhD – October 5, 2020
There’s a mug sitting on my desk, the one that holds the pencils and the scissors, given to me years ago by a colleague at work. It says: “Please, God – NOT ANOTHER MEETING!”
It’s a humorous take on a view that is widely shared. For many of us, facing yet-another-meeting often merits an eyeroll, a deep sigh, and a mugful of caffeine. In recent months, we can add the need to tee up the Zoom call and make sure the lighting is right and the background not too messy.
But even though I don’t like to waste my time any more than the next person, the message printed on the mug is NOT, actually, my real feeling. The actual truth, in all seriousness, is that I have the greatest respect for the importance of most meetings.
Why? Two reasons.
From a social-psychological perspective, a meeting is the forum in which the most sophisticated of human communication skills are deployed in layered realities that shape, reveal, conceal and transform the dynamics of the group, with some outcome. It's the essence of human cooperation.
From a spiritual perspective, meetings are moments when humans participate in making the world – co-creators with the Divine. “Meeting” is similar to what Pope Frances means when he speaks of the importance of “encounter.” In his native Spanish, encuentro means a meaningful engagement with another person or reality, an important connection.
A meeting, as I am defining it here, is when two or more people…even up to hundreds sometimes…are engaged in speaking, listening, communicating, comparing views, deliberating questions, or making decisions, in real time. It can be in person, or virtual; it can last a few minutes or a few hours or a few days, or – like Vatican II – a few years. In a meeting, life is happening now, it is emergent, and un-predictable.
Either way, the bottom line of my message is that meetings change our world. This is not a metaphor; it is my deep belief. It matters a lot, what goes on in a meeting. Even the humblest staff check-in is the privileged forum where the idea, feeling, or concern in my being can jump across the space between us to trigger a response in your being. It doesn’t even have to be a verbal exchange. A meeting is where new possibilities come to life when the unexpected question gets asked or an intriguing new idea is suggested.
In meetings, the thoughts of one or many persons can get tested, turn into plans, and become a reality. An architect may be very smart, talented, and creative – but the architect’s vision can’t become a building without the successful completion of many, many deliberations that involve other people. Maybe a robot could take a concept and make a building if it is given the necessary resources and a blueprint, but that’s what the meetings are for, aren’t they?
Only people can navigate the politics of agreement, work out the complexities of the site within a community, sort out the financing, and manage egos throughout. The finished building – a beautiful new human space – inspires the pride of the architect, the steelworker, the landscaper, and everyone else whose collaboration on the project yielded success.
Just as consequentially, a meeting can be destructive. It can be the exchange in which an insight is squashed, a bold truth is shut down, or when the beginnings of cooperation are interrupted or ignored. It can be the kabuki theater in which people pretend to care about issues they are actually avoiding. Reams have been written about the communication dynamics that doomed the Challenger space shuttle and other fiascos in business and government. If you have been in a meeting that was overwhelmed by bullying leaders or fearful participants, you know how paralyzing it can be. Meetings can kill ideas just as effectively as they can give them birth. And for goodness' sake, If you have any say in the matter, please do cancel any meetings that are just not necessary.
Meetings do matter, and I make this pitch from a life of experience attending meetings, or designing meetings, or facilitating meetings, or researching meetings. It’s quite personal for me.
This is at least partly because I kind of grew up in an “organization” full of informal “meetings.” When you belong to a family unit of nine persons, you get used to paying attention to a broader field of stakes. You don’t expect that life is a constant interaction with you, yourself, alone, but rather an evolving adventure with others that must be wrestled into some kind of safe, working order for everybody. Not that parents are perfect at this – we still tell the story of the time Dad forgot one of my sisters and brought the rest of the gang home from the library in the car, leaving her to walk a teary mile or so on her own. It didn’t help at all that Dad and everyone else was surprised to realize she had been missing.
The occasional mix-up notwithstanding, communication in my family usually ensured that we kids felt
secure, knew what was expected, and had a degree of voice as well. I remember my father asking me at the age of twelve whether I wanted to transfer or not, since I had taken and passed the qualifying private school admissions test. Ever the economics professor, he asked me, “What do you think are the benefits of going? What do you think are the costs?” Either he gave me an unusual amount of say, or he was an expert at guiding the deliberation in his preferred direction (both?) -- but the fact that I participated in that decision most likely made the outcome a no-drama reality. I didn’t change schools.
I don’t know if it was my childhood, or my mentors in college and the workplace, or some other feature of my personality, but I eventually developed something like a sixth-sense about what was going on in a group of people and how to manage a meeting to some kind of conclusion. To my instincts, I added graduate level studies in human and organization behavior with a dissertation on the psychodynamics of workplace teams. Of all the things I have learned to do, I think meeting management may be the most-used skill set in my professional toolkit. It's psychological, it's rational, and it's spiritual.
Once, during my years as corporate VP of Human Resources I was in a conversation with my boss, the CEO. I confessed to being quite intimidated whenever he quickly sized-up company business realities by glancing at a page full of numbers. He responded, “Well, yes; but you can listen to a roomful of company managers and figure out what’s going on with them in a few minutes – I can’t do that.” It surprised me to hear him say that, since he was a reserved sort; maybe my confession enabled his. But in any case, I was grateful for the affirmation because I really did often feel out of my depth as a social scientist in a company full of chemists and engineers -- some of whom were not above disparaging what they called the softer skills. In any case, perhaps my contribution to the good the company could do in the world had something to do with increasing the odds that our meetings would be productive.
There is more to say about what makes a meeting fruitful and what makes it deadly, but those ideas can wait for another blog. In the meantime, if you cringe at the idea of adding up the years of your life you may have spent in meetings, I suggest re-framing the picture: Think of those minutes, hours, and days as the opportunities we each are given to spin the direction of the world towards something good… Hatching something new… Weaving new connections… Mending old ones… Learning together…Disagreeing and resolving differences... Hammering out plans and holding each other to account... Or just patiently tending what is in progress.
As Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God”….as God uses us to make the world, one meeting at a time.