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Gail S. Williams
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Gail S. Williams

Gail S. Williams directs the Leadership Alchemy Program at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Generous Listener

I do not believe that a leader could, or should, be meeting free. My goal is to ensure that I attend only those meetings where I can make a notable contribution and/or need to garner key information that cannot readily be obtained elsewhere.

Admittedly, I have minimal patience for poorly run meetings and my lack of poker face, coupled with a high level of candor, makes my displeasure and frustration clear. I find it very useful before the meeting to ensure I am clear about the intended outcome and my contribution. During
meetings, it is often useful to remind people of this intended outcome. In contentious decision making meetings, a leadership move that often facilitates agreement is to highlight our areas of agreement. In the theory that "whatever one focuses on expands," the more meeting attendees focus on their disagreements, the more they tend to disagree.

Another critical leadership skill is to use clear, precise language. What is really being requested? What promises have been made? What needs to happen to satisfy these needs and expectations? It is sometimes tempting to declare an end to meetings without the necessary clarity. This can lead to a culture that over promises and under delivers. I much prefer the opposite -- under promise and over deliver -- ensuring one keeps focused on the customer's true needs.

Another leadership skill essential for achieving a good meeting process and outcome is to ensure that all of the parties understand each other. The person I most value in a meetings is the generous listener, the person who identifies when the parties are talking past each other and corrects the situation by asking a powerful question or paraphrasing their understanding. Genuine curiosity is an asset in any conversation. A well constructed question that is future oriented and asked from the mindset of curiosity (and not judgment) enhances understanding and accomplishment. Why questions tend to focus people on the past. How questions often move people into solutions much too quickly. What questions tend to be future oriented, and thus more powerful.

If I find myself in a meeting that is non-productive, I "name the elephant in the room" and try to fix the process to enable the meeting to get back on track, always with the intended outcome in mind. I admit that over my 35-year career, I've excused myself from a handful of meetings that were poorly run, rather than sit there in frustration and waste my time.

By Gail S. Williams

 |  October 8, 2009; 4:28 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: 'Let's Meet as Little as We Can!' | Next: Poll: Do Awards Help Leaders?

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Thank you, Gail Williams! your piece reminds me of some of the components of "Speech Act Theory": clear requests: who what by when; authentic promises: sincere, reliable and competent. Leaders would relieve a lot of suffering if they become competent in all components of Speech Act Theory. As an Exec Coach I introduce my clients to this regardless of the 'presenting issues' ~ they are often astounded by the power of speech act theory

Posted by: joannl | October 9, 2009 10:02 AM
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