Teams argue. Stalemates happen. What distinguishes effective groups from all the others is that they do not avoid difficult conversations, and disagreements don’t wreak havoc on their relationships. I remember a French engineer once told me about his team: “We argue like heck and then we go have a beer.”
But what happens when you can’t reach consensus in a meeting? How do you move forward? Below are seven actions that I’ve seen groups take to make progress when they get stuck:
Stay with the conversation. It’s important to trust one another and the process. As the character Patel says in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end.” Often it’s useful to acknowledge what’s happening. You might say something like: Okay, this is a difficult conversation. Let’s just stay with it until we get to a good place. Let’s also remember that at the end, we are still going to be colleagues; our relationships don’t need to be affected by this discussion.
Outline a clear process for working through the issue. The conversation will go better if people know it’s not going to be a free-for-all but that it’s being managed in a deliberate, thoughtful way. Talking about how to work through tough issues helps people slow down and stay on track. But, of course, sometimes you don’t realize in the beginning that a stalemate is going to occur. That’s when you need to step in and lay out a way to work through the issue: Okay, I have a suggestion about how we proceed from here. I suggest we capture everyone’s ideas and concerns, check for clarity and understanding, and then take suggestions from the group on how to resolve the impasse.
Visually capture the essence of what has been said. Displaying the conversation by taking notes on a white board ensures that people’s comments are captured. People can stop worrying about their input being lost and focus on finding a way forward. Mind mapping is a powerful way to take notes on discussions that jump around and aren’t linear. A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. When done right, people can look at the graphic and instantly know what’s been said, something that the brain can’t do with lists. Without this visibility, people keep repeating their comments, often with increased volume and drama, which leads to anxiety among the group.
Step in and suggest a path forward or ask others to. When a conversation is going nowhere, step in and offer your sense of where the conversation stands and suggest where it might go next. This is also an opportunity to utilize the wisdom of your group: Nancy, Jim, and Hamid, I’d like each of you to take a couple of minutes and share your thoughts about our conversation and how we might proceed.
Broadening the participation and talking about conversational process provides a moment of reset for everyone. Bringing other voices into the conversation also tends to lighten up the mood. Stepping away from the arguing for just a few minutes will be welcomed. Just be sure to come back.
Encourage the group to assume positive intent. Keep the conversation as kind and as gracious as possible. Ask people to not react defensively and to suspend their right to be offended. This will create psychological safety and will encourage people to say what they are really thinking.
Remind the group that patient, attentive listening is a must. Listening is a critical variable in any difficult conversation. Set aside technology. Give each person the group’s full attention. People are willing to be vulnerable if they feel they are being heard.
Avoid voting. You may be tempted to put the issue to a vote. But that’s rarely the right answer. As Lawrence Susskind wrote in Breaking Robert’s Rules: Consensus-Building for Group Decision Making, “Majority-rule decisions almost guarantee an unhappy minority — and instability. After all, an unhappy minority will often bide its time, awaiting an opportunity to sabotage the group’s outcome. Consensus building allows a group to reach the best agreement it can find, not one that is barely acceptable to a majority.” Rather than voting, agree to strive for consensus and keep the process open until everyone is satisfied with the solution.
Consensus does not mean unanimous, which, while powerful, can be difficult to achieve. A more reasonable standard is agreement or harmony. Ask people to decide whether they want to go with option A or option B and then ask if anyone feels like they can’t live with the choice that the group is leaning toward. Ideally, those in the minority will acknowledge that while they preferred the other option, they’re willing to align with the group’s wishes. Make sure that no one feels this choice is a showstopper — that they simply can’t live with the decision. If someone does, press pause and spend 15 minutes seeing if there’s a way to deal with the individual’s concern. If at the end of that time, you haven’t made progress, the person agrees to meet offline with a couple of other team members to find a way to manage their concern. In other words, the group commits to finding a solution, and the person commits to not holding up the group’s progress indefinitely.
When It’s Two People
Sometimes it’s not the entire group that’s stuck but just two people. It can be helpful to intervene, especially if the disagreement has gotten personal or emotional, or if their impasse is holding up the entire group.
Start by summarizing each person’s position, perhaps writing it on a white board, and check to ensure that you’ve done so accurately. Ask the group to state the benefits of each person’s view, and then any concerns. Ideally, the two people directly involved will participate as well, but at times it’s better to allow them to just listen.
With the pros and cons of each position out on the table, ask the group to think out loud about how both sides can be accommodated. This process often allows the individuals who can’t agree a chance to reflect and think about alternatives. One or both people might need a break before moving forward. Finally, ask the two people where they stand now that they’ve heard the group’s discussion and how they think they might move forward.
Advice in Action
I recently had the opportunity to put this advice in action with a group of 30 factory workers who were at an impasse: some wanted to increase the number of units they produced during each shift to earn production bonuses (which they called “tripping their incentive plan”) and others wanted to keep the status quo because they feared the faster pace would be stressful and unmanageable. Prior discussions had ended in a stalemate and caused hurt feelings and residual animosity that lasted for weeks.
To clear the air, we began the meeting by creating the following agreements:
- We will not “trip the plan” unless everyone is OK with doing so; and we will not resort to voting where the majority wins.
- We will keep the conversation as relaxed and as gracious as we can.
- We will try not to offend each other, and we will give up our right to be offended by what someone says or asks.
- One person will speak at a time while everyone else listens attentively and patiently.
- We will capture every concern, idea, and point of view on a flip chart until everyone agrees that every issue has been surfaced and heard.
During the discussion, one person shared that they were living from paycheck to paycheck. Another person wanted to start saving for their kids’ college tuition. A couple of the older workers were worried about being able to keep up physically. Someone else thought that increased productivity would lead to fewer jobs for the factory. This level of honest speaking created a deeper understanding of the other’s viewpoint, which is the first step in finding a light at the end of the tunnel.
Once people had listened to one another and the situation was fully described and captured, a smaller subgroup agreed to meet and see if they could resolve all of the issues so a decision could be made. That group agreed that if the decision was to “trip the plan,” it would be an experiment for 30 days, at the end of which if people’s concerns were not addressed, the group would agree to return to the previous levels of production. Thirty days later, everyone was comfortable operating at the higher rates, no one was whining about the change, and several equipment changes were made to address concerns that surfaced during the initial discussion about raising the production levels.
Many of us have been raised to avoid confrontation. We’ve also learned to be nice rather than to be candid. Yet, we know that on the other side of difficult conversations is progress and a sense of accomplishment. You can get there by raising issues, staying in conversation, and trusting yourself and others on your team.