The Power of Debate in Meetings to Drive Business Forward

the power of debate in meetings

Meetings: Valuable or Valueless?

What’s more frustrating than sitting through endless meetings and coming out on the other end asking: What was the point of those? As technology introduces even more ways to communicate offline, you would think we’d see the quantity of meetings decreasing. However, the opposite has been shown.

Research shows meetings increasing in length and frequency. In the 1960s, executives spent less than 10 hours in meetings. Now, executives spend about 23 hours a week in them.

And although no one loves a day jam-packed with meetings, what’s really at the heart of the frustration is lack of quality. HBR found that 71% of senior managers think most meetings are “unproductive and inefficient.” And we too are in support of less but better meetings.

What’s the Point of Meetings Anyways?

The reason we have meetings – real, in-person, everyone-around-one-table meetings – is to discuss what can’t be properly discussed in an email or a quick phone call. Meetings should be made to decide on something that deserves more than a disjointed video conference. Because as advanced as technology is, it’s still hard to gauge emotional reactions or read a room across a screen.

Meetings are where we, as people, we can hash things out. Where we have an opportunity to voice opinions, to disagree, to argue, and then, to negotiate, to empathize, and to see anew – cultivating alignment and coming to decisions that everyone in the room can get behind.

The Power of Debate

We believe good debate can transform meetings from lackluster events into something people can actually walk away from and say, well, that was useful. We’ve seen productive debate in action in our own studio for years.

Here’s What We’ve Learned

1. First thing’s first: a clear meeting objective

Every meeting must have a clear objective. No matter how obvious the goals might seem to be, always reiterate the meeting objective before the it begins. Reminding people why everyone is there from the start can help ensure debate is directed. And if the meeting doesn’t have a clear goal? Don’t have it.

We find it’s also helpful to have a designated leader. In all of our client workshops, we designate a facilitator. This person asks hard questions, fosters productive debate, encourages quiet voices to speak up, and is able to step in to redirect when needed. It takes true leadership skills to make sure people feel empowered to speak, respected, and clear about what’s at stake – transforming the time normally wasted into time for engaging discussion.

2. If you don’t have a contrarian, play one

In most groups, there’s likely one person who questions everything. “But is that really the right approach? Not to play devil’s advocate, but…” We say, play it. It’s easy for groups to get caught in group think and sway towards one single idea.

Hashing it out might uncover that not everyone is as aligned as they think they are. In fact, when we conduct workshops for clients, leaders often discover misalignments quickly when we help open up conversations no one’s been having.

And even when aligned, questioning common assumptions, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and thinking through a new lens can help test what you believe as right. We’ve found that debate allows businesses to step away from the challenge at hand and see the problem in a new light – enabling new and better solutions to emerge.

3. Debate requires respect

As advocates of arguments (where’s the fun if everyone agrees all the time?), above all else, we are advocates of respect. Fostering a culture of respect is integral to productive debate. With respect at the table, we’re more likely to share opinions, open up to new ideas, and embrace different ways of thinking.

And as an agency who prides itself on our client relationships, we believe that in-person communication is essential to building respect. As is respecting people’s time. We all work hard – no one wants their time wasted.

That’s why people are more likely to engage in meaningful ways in meetings if they feel their time is valued. So erase pointless meetings from the calendar and put more thought and work into building meetings that matter.

The Power of Meetings

In many of the meetings we have with our clients, big decisions are made that define the trajectory of a brand and business. We propose shifts that require full leadership alignment and backing. And especially at the early stages of a project, our role is sharing what we see and opening up a conversation. What we’ve found is that it’s often in these conversation and in the debates they encourage where our greatest insights are uncovered.

Within our agency, debate is one of the best ways we come to creative solutions for our clients – questioning, being questioned, and leveraging other people’s ways of seeing to make our own solutions better. Debate helps us help our own clients push back against the status quo, embrace unique opportunities, and look forward, not backward.

Rethink debate into your meetings and see meetings as a new opportunity to drive your business and brand forward.

Emotive Brand is a San Francisco brand strategy and design agency.

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