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Decisions and consensus are not reached in some settings. If the exchange of ideas has stalled and if all point of views are clear, then change settings towards a cosy and warm atmosphere.


Location: a normal meeting room

Meetings as balancing acts

‘I don’t understand why you aren’t giving us the information!’ I had lost count on how often I already heard this reproach. Positions were clear and all arguments were exhausted. The game was over.


We had started our meeting half an hour earlier. And the stakes were high. The team was about to implode and levels of trust between management and team were at an all-time low. In the two earlier meetings, the manager had not been present, even though the team had requested so. Now, to the great surprise of all, he had settled down in one of the chairs.


In order to open up the discussion, I had decided to remove the table. It didn’t want a wooden no-man’s land besides which participants would be able to trench deeply in their seats. So people sat in an open circle, exposed to one and other. For the rest the meeting room was simple, nothing that could really help smoothen the discussion.


The bottom line for the discussion was: ‘will everyone stay in the team?’ The willingness to stay on board would depend largely on the willingness of the manager to disclose some details of last year’s operation and to come up with a compelling proposal for the coming year.


But even without a table the discussion hopelessly derailed. We were going nowhere as argument after argument was shot down by the opposite party.


So I asked for the bottom-line: ‘Please tell me, are you in or are you out?


I realised my question would not be welcomed. Stating openly in front of the manager you wanted the team to implode was quite something. But stating the opposite might put you into trouble with your teammates.


And indeed, everyone looked at me. In silence. Waiting to see who would be the first one to move.


I had foreseen this. I wanted to stop the discussion, and I wanted it to stop with everyone knowing what was at stake for themselves and the group. Stopping with unfinished work was exactly what the group needed at this moment as decisions were nowhere near.  


Location: in a bar nearby

I invited everyone for a break in a bar nearby. The group was standing around a high table, with some drinks and some snacks and chatting away about weather, the kids, the latest movies, sports, etc… The atmosphere was warm and cosy.


Fairly quickly, the big topic crept in. But the tone and the way participants discussed had changed from the discussion in the meeting room. The whole group, including the manager were kind to each other. But they were also frank (of course they were, they all knew their positions by now). And within some 10 minutes, as if falling out of the sky, the miracle happened and the group found an agreement on how to move forward. The rest of the decisions were easily made afterwards.


Location: at the office / a few days later

A couple of days later, I asked participants how they had experienced the meeting. Most of them had mixed feelings but they all liked the outcome. When I asked them about the bar, they all stressed how positive that discussion had been. Not only because of the good atmosphere, that was something to be expected from a decent bar, but also because of the frankness of their discussions.


And it works: starting in a meeting room, getting frustrated and them moving towards a more relaxed environment, were finally decisions are being made. It works because of how we all react unconsciously to different environments. The setting in the meeting room encouraged divergent thinking, accentuating details and differences. Whereas the setting in the bar encouraged convergent thinking, blurring the details, geared towards bonding.


And it’s by balancing the two spheres that groups are enabled to bridge the divide and make great decisions.

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