Effective meetings

Similar to communication, meetings can be considered as a primary process for organizational life. As a result, it is essential to keep meetings effective because they can have significant contribution to the productivity and the success of an organization. In general, meetings can be categorized into 5 types:
  • Informational: The main purpose of the meeting is to provide the information to the attendants.
  • Problem solving: The attendants work together to find solution for a specific problem.
  • Decision making: The attendants discuss together to make a decision on a specific issue.
  • Planning: The attendants work together to provide planning for an objective or a project.
  • Feedback: The main purpose of the meeting is to react or evaluate an issue or a situation.

Effective meetings

From my experience, most of the meetings are not very effective. Here are several popular complains that I usually heard about meetings:
  • People come to the meeting without knowing about the purpose of it.
  • Irrelevant people are invited to the meeting.
  • People do not know what are the expected outputs of the meeting.
  • Attendants are not prepared for the meeting.
  • Sometimes the meeting ends with no outcome.
  • Meeting takes longer than expected.
  • There are no follow-up actions after the meeting.
Effective meetings
In general, meetings are effective when they:
  • Are held only when needed
  • Have a specific purpose and expected results
  • Are held at an appropriate location and time
  • Have the right participants
  • Have a clear agenda
  • Start on time and end on time
  • Stick to the agenda
  • Encourage everyone’s participation
  • Have balanced and productive discussions
  • Have minutes and distribute them
  • Have follow-up plan if it is required

Effective meetings
In my company, we have adapted some of those ideas to create some kinds of “templates” for effective meetings. There are two templates: one for meeting invitation and one for the structure of the meeting.

The template for meeting invitation suggest that the invitation should have the following information:
  • Purpose: Why do we have this meeting?
  • Background: Some background information about the topic of the meeting. This can be optional.
  • Agenda: Agenda with time frame is strongly encouraged.
  • Expected outcomes: Whether it is a document, a plan, a solution or a decision.
  • Homework: What attendees should do to prepare for the meeting.
Here is the template for the structure of an effective meeting:
  • Purpose, expected outcomes and agenda: Even though these information are available in the meeting invitation, they should be confirmed again by the facilitator at the start of the meeting.
  • Follow-up from last time: If this is a follow-up meeting, the facilitator should update the attendants with the progress of follow-up actions since the last meeting before going to the main agenda.
  • The main agenda: Now it is time to follow the items in the agenda.
  • Conclusion: Sum up and compare the actual outcomes with the expected outcomes.
  • Follow-up plan: Decide on what the next actions are or when the next meeting will happen. This can be optional.
  • Taking notes: This step happen from the beginning to the end of the meeting. Each meeting must have a note-taker role appointed. Note-taker will send meeting minutes to all stakeholders right after the meeting.
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Tips for effective communication

The previous post is all about theoretical knowledge of communication. In this post, I will make it more practical by suggesting tips that can be used to improve the effectiveness of communication. The tips will be categorized into 4 sections: conversation, listening, writing and emails.

Communication

Tips for better conversation
  • Think before you speak: Some people response very quickly to other’s saying or questions, thinking that it would make them look smart. However,  a careful silence moment for preparation can make us sound more intelligent and prevent mistakes.
  • Be receptive to new ideas: By saying “Tell me more” instead of “That’s stupid” when hearing something that you do not agree to can help you to get more information and move the conversation forward.
  • Ask questions: This show that you are interested in the topic.
  • Listen as much, if not more, than you speak: You can not learn from the conversation if you are the only one who speak.
  • Use eye contact: Eye contact shows that you are engaged in the conversation. It should be noted that for some cultures, it is rude to maintain eye contact with the speakers. For other cultures, such as in the US, maintaining eye contact shows that you are a trustworthy person.
  • Mirror the other person:  Repeat what the other say in your own words “So you mean that …”.
  • Have an exit strategy: Sometimes, good conversation is a brief one, leaving others wanting more.
Tips for active listening:
  • Pay attention: This can be done by keeping eye contact with the speaker and avoiding having distracted thoughts. Research also shows that people listen more effectively when they do nothing else at the same time. So no multitasking while listening, including taking note. In addition, the body language of the speaker should also be checked to see if it actually matches with the message or not. If they do not match, the message should be confirmed with the speaker.
  • Show that you are listening: This can be done by nodding occasionally or by other facial expressions such as smiling. In addition, such small verbal comments as “Uh…”, “Yes…” should be used to encourage the speaker.
  • Provide feedback: This can be done by asking questions or reflecting what has been said by paraphrasing.
  • Defer judgment: Preparing for counter arguments while listening is strongly not recommended. This is also consistent with the first tip about no multitasking while listening. In addition, it is very important not to interrupt the speakers with counter arguments. Interrupting can be offensive and aggressive in some situations.
  • Silence can be a beautiful thing: It is totally fine to have a moment of silence for some preparation before you start your turn to speak.
Tips for effective writing:
  • Picture the receiver in your mind before you begin to write: This can help you to select the words and expressions that can be understood by the readers.
  • Choose simple words: For words that have the same meaning, simpler one should be used. For example, “car” should be used instead of “automobile”.
  • Be polite: It is always good to be polite in your writing.
  • Trim redundant words or phrases: “Having thus explored our first option, I would now like to begin to explore the second option that may be open to us.” should be replaced by “After considering option 1, I would like to look at option 2”.
  • Choose strong, active verbs: Instead of writing “It would seem to me that we might…”, “I suggest…” should be used.
Tips for emails:
  • Be concise: The shorter the email is, the better it is. It is also a good practice to have only one topic for one email.
  • Communicate “action steps” first, not last: Make the request in the first line (or even in the subject) of the email. Repeat the request again at the end if the email is long.
  • Number the questions or ideas: When there are multiple questions or ideas in the email, they should be numbered. This can help the recipients to address those questions or ideas more quickly in their replies.
  • Include deadlines: If the request in the email has a deadline, it should also be included in the email.
  • Use “FYI” for emails that have no actionable information: This is more convenient for the recipients to prioritize their emails.
  • Tell them that you will get to it later: This can minimize the anxiety of the senders and prevent them from sending the email again.
  • Avoid sending “Thanks!” emails: This can be arguable. Some people prefer receiving replied email with just the word “Thanks!” but for some people, this type of email is quite spammy because it has no value information.
  • Check before “Reply All”: This is to avoid sending sensitive information to some recipients who should not receive it or spamming unrelated recipients with irrelevant information.
References:

Bruno Kahne . (2008). Lessons of Silence. Available: http://www.strategy-business.com/article/li00076. Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Jocelyn K. Glei. (2010). Email Etiquette for the Super-Busy. Available: http://99u.com/tips/6975/Email-Etiquette-for-the-Super-Busy. Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Mind Tools. (2012). Active Listening: Hear What People are Really Saying. Available: http://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/ActiveListening.htm. Last accessed 26th Nov 2012.

Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan (2009). Organizational Behavior. USA: Flat World Knowledge, Inc.

Communication

During my bachelor degree at University of Technology, Sydney, I had a course called “Engineering Communication”. That was a compulsory course for all engineering students and it was a 6 credits one. Basically the course taught us a lot of knowledge about communication as well as good practices to have effective communication not only at work but also in our daily life. It has been nearly 10 years since I studied that course and I still appreciate it. The course does not only improve my communication skills but it also helps me to acknowledge the significant importance of communication, both at work and in my daily life. As a result, I would like to write about this interesting topic, may be in several posts. I will begin with the general knowledge about communication in this post. Discussion about good practices and tips for effective communication will be provided in the next post.

1. Understanding communication

According to Webster’s dictionary, communication is a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. The following diagram explains the communication process:
Communication process
A communication process must have at least two people: a sender and a receiver. The sender has some ideas in his mind and he translates the ideas into words by encoding the message. The medium of this encoded message can be spoken words, written words or signs. This message is transmitted to the receiver and the receiver decodes the message by assigning meaning to the words. However, the understanding of the receiver about the message may not be the same as what the sender means. This problem is caused by noise. Noise is anything that interferes with or distorts the message being transformed and it can be both external or internal. External noise is noise that is in the environment such as distractions whereas internal noise occurs within the sender or the receiver. For example, the sender may be too upset to encode an accurate message or the receiver may be too nervous to pay attention to the message.

Communication is important due to the following reasons:
  • In most organizations, communication is considered as one of the most important soft skills that employees should have and it is assessed in most performance appraisal evaluations.
  • Researches have shown that from 50% to 90% of a manager’s time is spent on communicating.
  • Poor communication also has significant impact on productivity. According to Bauer and Erdogan (2009), 14% of each workweek is wasted on poor communication.
  • Miscommunication is a causal factor in approximately 70% to 80% of all accidents (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009).

2. Types of communication

There are 3 types of communication:
  • Verbal: Verbal communications take place over in person or over the phone. The medium of the message is oral.
  • Written: The medium of the message in written communications is printed.
  • Nonverbal: In nonverbal communications, the messages are transmitted via eye contacts, tone of voice, facial expressions, postures, touches, body languages or even the distance between the sender and the receiver.

Research has shown that only 7% of a receiver’s comprehension of a message is based on the sender’s actual words, 38% is based on para-language (the tone, pace, and volume of speech), and 55% is based on nonverbal cues such as body language (Bauer and Erdogan, 2009). Another interesting fact is that our average speaking speed is just approximately 150 words per minute whereas the listening speed is about 400-500 words per minute. This simply means that the audience has more than enough time to hear and as a result, their minds may wander during the conversation.

In communication, the distance between the speakers is also important and this varies from culture to culture. The following chart shows the relationship between the distance and the intimacy level between people when communicating in Western culture:
Communication distance
People have intimate distance when they are really close to each other such as couples. Personal distance is for friends and family members whereas social distance is the distance that one keep with strangers. The distance between people while communicating can tell the intimacy level between them and vice versa, people adjust the distance according to the relationship between them. However, this can vary from culture to culture. For instance, people in such Asian cultures as Vietnamese or Chinese may stay closer when communicating and the chart above may not be applied to them.

3. Communication channels

Different communication channels have different levels of information richness. The following table illustrate that:
Information richness
The key to effective communication is to match the communication channel with the goal of the message. The following table suggests the usage of written communication versus verbal communication depending on the scenarios:
Written communication versus verbal communication

4. Barriers to effective communication

There are a lot of barriers to effective communication. In this post, I only discuss the four barriers that are important in my opinion:

Selective perception
Selective perception refers to the fact that we automatically filter what we see and hear to suit our own needs. This process happens unconsciously and it can act as a time-saver to help us process huge and complex information. However, it can also lead us to missing important or urgent information.

Information overload
Information Overload
In this information age, we are bombarded daily with so much information that we can take in. Those information can come from many sources: TV, newspapers, magazines, mail, emails, faxes and the world wide web. Research shows that information overload can significantly impacts our efficiency, creativity, and mental acuity.

Emotional disconnects
Emotional disconnects
Emotional disconnects happen when the sender or the receiver is emotional upset. A sender who is emotionally upset may be unable to present ideas or feelings effectively. Similarly, a receiver who is emotionally upset tends to ignore or distort what the sender is saying.

Semantics
Sematics
Same words can mean different things (or sometimes, nothing at all) to different people and this is called semantics. This usually happens with the usage of acronyms. For example, in my company, we have a project called DFS, which stands for Dragon Fly System. This same DFS acronym may have different meanings for different companies: for an IT company, DFS can stand for Distributed File System whereas for another company, it can stand for Department of Financial Services. Semantics can also happen in the usage of buzzwords, business jargons or technical jargons. For instance, the word “driver” can be understood as a person who drive a car but as a technical jargon, it also means “a computer program that operates or controls a particular type of device that is attached to a computer”.

5. References

Bauer, T. and Erdogan, Berrin., 2009. Organizational Behavior. 1st ed. Flat World Knowledge, Inc.