Meetings: Getting Them Right by Getting Them Wrong

Today the eyes of the world are turned to Hamburg and the expected meeting between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. For our friends in the Church of England, the opening meeting of the General Synod is possibly more to the forefront because of the thorny questions that are to be discussed later. Media pundits have informed us that it won’t be words alone that everyone will be watching for, but body language and the other little giveaways that signal winning or conceding. All very entertaining at one level, and fruitful ground for the business psychologist and teacher of management techniques to exploit, but not necessarily the point.

Most of us have unconsciously absorbed the idea that we ought to win an argument; and we go into meetings determined to present our case as persuasively — or forcefully — as possible. Thus, we wait to see whether Mr Putin or Mr Trump will ‘triumph’. We do not wait to see who will prove the most wise, prudent or constructive, whose vision for the future offers the best hope for humanity, who is willing to concede something in order to obtain a greater good for us all. We think in absolutes, in terms of winning or losing, national or personal self-interest, and I think that may be why we so often get meetings wrong. We miss the opportunity they give us and settle for something much less.

No one, alas, is going to ask the opinion of an obscure British nun, but I’d like to suggest that there is a way of getting meetings right — basically, by getting them wrong. If we go into a meeting prepared to accept that the other party has reasonable grounds for holding his or her opinions, is as keen as we are to obtain the best possible outcome for everyone (and go on believing this no matter how irritating or confused may be their way of expressing themselves); if we really listen to the other, then try to respond constructively, even if it means we have to shift our own stance, then there is a chance that something good will be achieved. This isn’t at all the same as saying that we should bow to every wind or abandon what we believe to be true and necessary. It is much more what St Benedict alludes to in chapter three of the Rule, a way of discerning. That word is so much used by ‘religious’ types that we have probably forgotten that in origin it means to separate, to distinguish. For a meeting to be successful, we have to distinguish between the accidents of froth and presentation and the substance of intention and content. We have to exercise judgement, and that is best done coolly and with an awareness of the consequences for others.

I shall certainly be praying today for the meetings of the G20 members, especially that between the leaders of Russia and the USA. I hope they will have the courage to get things wrong so that they can get them right — for all of us.

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