How HR can take the fear out of meetings

It’s often assumed that HR professionals should be ‘good’ at meetings and be comfortable in any situation. But Jenny Bird and Sarah Gornall argue that this is not always the case, and offer some tips to overcome that fear.

However well-seasoned and experienced an HR professional is, some meetings still trigger a frisson of apprehension, undermining the ability to take on board what others are saying, think clearly and achieve a successful outcome.

There are many reasons: awkward personalities, tight timing, pressure from above, public accountability, high stakes, politically fraught agendas… alongside internal stories about the expectation that HR brings a calm head and sorts out the mess.

So how can we build resilience, prepare more effectively at a personal level and increase our chances of productive outcomes?

The only person over whom we have any real control is ourselves, so that’s the place to start in setting up for a win-win in difficult meetings. Whatever the context, be it redundancy, performance management, conflict resolution, here’s some techniques to settle the mind, frame the conversation and focus on success.

Visualisation

Psychologists and neuroscientists seem to agree that taking the focus away from searching for a solution releases flow and higher-level thinking. Visualisation of successful outcomes also helps.

Before the meeting, visualise the positive outcome you’d like to achieve. Imagine people leaving the room satisfied with the outcome. How will they walk? What will their faces look like? How will you be interacting with them?

Breathe slowly, allowing this picture to grow in your mind. Notice how your body feels. Direct your breathing towards it. Practice your visualisation. Reconnect with it immediately before your meeting.

During the meeting, remember the outcome you visualised. When you are unsure how to respond, first pay attention to your breathing, then focus on the desired outcome and the image of people leaving the room in a positive way.

Only then reply. The impact will be to distance your mind from searching for solution and relax your body. Your unconscious will get into flow and access its own innate knowledge and inventiveness, directing what you say to the positive intention and leading to a better outcome.

Make things interesting

When we tell ourselves something is difficult, we are more likely to experience it as difficult. We interpret other people’s opinions as blocking and we tense up. We interpret things in a negative way, which influences our facial expression, tone of voice and language. Others react to what they see and hear. We slip into a negative self-reinforcing cycle.

When we approach a meeting with a mindset of curiosity, testing assumptions for evidence and believing that others have underlying good intentions, we are more likely to create the space for constructive dialogue and a collaborative outcome.

Our body and pace of speaking relax, allowing others to relax too. Open questions encourage others to explore and explain their thinking more fully. Acknowledging what they have said helps them to feel heard. They become more open. We move into a positive self-reinforcing cycle.

You don’t have to do all the work. In general, listen first, speak later. If you have to address a performance issue, ask them how they perceive the issue and use open questions to allow both of you to explore their perceptions.
This is sometimes known as giving them rope to hang themselves and might just be allowing them space to see other perspectives.

This coaching approach, springing from real interest in the other person’s perspective, may allow them to recognise flaws in their thinking or other ways their behaviour could be interpreted. Leave space for both of you to think. Play back what you are hearing, coming from an open and exploratory place.

Framing the meeting as a place for finding out where everyone is coming from, and for reaching a common understanding, is likely to set up a positive self-reinforcing cycle. An interesting meeting.

Identify triggers in advance

Everyone allows irritation to emerge at times. This clouds our own ability to think clearly and drains us emotionally.

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Other people avoid engaging with us and may get defensive, making a positive outcome less likely. They may be the source of irritation themselves, or it may be that what they’re doing reminds us at an unconscious level of something in our past and we respond by kicking back verbally.

Thinking about the pattern of our responses, using feedback from other people to expand our awareness of how we appear to them, can help us to identify behaviours which repeatedly hook us and trigger an auto-response rather than a well-chosen approach.

Awareness helps us to avoid leakage from one event or person to another, and to build strategies for more mindful self-management.

Hooks and humps – and how to avoid them

In our book How to work with people … and Enjoy It! there is a whole chapter on things which can get in the way of constructive communications and meetings.

Mismatched communication, old patterns, assumptions, lack of understanding of others’ perspectives, poor or confused feedback can distort clear communication. And all these things have positive alternatives when we pause and consider what we really want to achieve and what we have in common, rather than what divides us.

So, our framework for success is:

  • Visualise and believe in positive outcomes
  • Listen first: speak later. Stay curious
  • Hear and acknowledge
  • Say what is true. Keep factual and offer specific behavioural feedback
  • Be willing to hear feedback and mindful of your effect on others
  • Focus on shared objectives or values
  • Believe in win-win.
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