Rethinking Meetings: how beating everyone beats the purpose

Have you ever been in a meeting where you had to sit through someone’s monologue while wondering why you even bothered to turn up? Or a meeting where people talked over each other throughout without arriving at a decision?

Unfortunately these patterns are very common in meetings and often lead to frustration, inefficiency, and eventually the loss of interest.

Personally, I have partaken in many meetings and, in some cases, one too many! Some of the metaphors I would use to describe the good, the bad, and the ugly ones are: ‘treasure hunt’, ‘tag’, ‘truth or dare’, ‘tug war’, ‘hide and seek’, ‘Simon says’, ‘poker’, ‘Wrestlemania’, and ‘Call of Duty’, to name a few.

Now take a minute to think about the last work-related meeting you had. Think about how your meeting played out, what role you played during this meeting, what roles others played, and how this made you feel, think, and behave.

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe that meeting, what would it be?

The word ‘metaphor’ comes from Greek meaning ‘to transfer’ or ‘to carry over or across’. Lakoff and Johnson, in Metaphors We Live By, explain that we experience the world around us through metaphors. In fact, and as the title of their book implies, we live by these metaphors. But what if some of the metaphors we happen to live by are not good for us personally or professionally? And how important is it to be aware of the metaphors that structure our daily experiences if we wish to change certain aspects in our lives?

I am one of the co-founders of L3b, which is dedicated to harnessing the power of play to help individuals and groups unlock their potential for creativity, communication, and collaboration at work and beyond. In a previous article titled How Will You Play 2018, I explain how our work with teams and organizations has helped us develop creative strategies to understand the dynamics and processes that shape individual and group behaviors in any given setting, especially at work.

Basically, we ask the question: what if we start to think about the routines and habits that produce our daily behaviors and actions through forms of play? What if our actions are the product of meta-games (meta from Greek meaning ‘situated behind or beyond’) that we consciously or unconsciously partake in on a daily basis?

Metaphors! Meta-games! What’s next? Metaphysics? Far from it. In fact, what I am proposing here has concrete implications for helping teams and organizations better understand their work dynamics and interactions.

One particular setting that we help our clients explore and transform is their meetings, whether managerial, staff, creative, brainstorming, organizational, or any other kind. On the surface, we often experience meetings as either engaging, boring, a waste of time, productive, exciting or creative. However, upon taking a closer look at the dynamics of any meeting, using metaphors and meta-games, we can see that these exchanges usually follow certain patterns or forms.

Here is a concrete example from Lakoff and Johnson of a metaphor that can govern the way we argue which is ‘Argument is War’. The authors explore how this metaphor is reflected in everyday language through a wide variety of expressions: Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I’ve never won an argument with him. You disagree? Okay, shoot! If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out. He shot down all of my arguments.

Lakoff and Johnson stress that we don’t just talk about arguing in terms of war; in fact, we may actually experience it that way since we can ‘win’ or ‘lose’ arguments. We may consider our interlocutors as ‘opponents’ whose ‘positions’ we need to ‘attack’ while using several ‘defense strategies’ to gain and not ‘lose ground’. This verbal ‘battle’ that may take place during various forms of communication, especially at work, reveals this metaphor of ‘Argument is War’.

That is why it is important to reflect on the meta-games and underlying metaphors that may be at play during meetings.

So here’s the main idea: if we can choose metaphors to describe what our current meetings look like, we can, by the same token, choose other metaphors to describe what we would like our meetings to become.

Lakoff and Johnson wonder what our culture would look like if we understood arguments not in terms of ‘War’ (winning or losing, attack and defense) but instead as ‘Dance’, where participants in discussion see themselves as performers and where the goal is to perform in a “balanced and aesthetically pleasing way.” The authors contend that in such a culture, people would regard arguments differently and engage with each other differently.

What culture do we want to foster in our organizations and companies in the 21st century to better respond to an increasingly complex and adventurous new world? Consequently, what meta-games and underlying metaphors do we want driving our meetings in order to enhance creativity and collaboration in the workplace?

I have a suggestion. But before I make it, I would like to share with you a very interesting discovery.

In one of his talks on why playing games is mandatory, clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson refers to the work of the Affective Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp nicknamed ‘the rat tickler’ for his study of play and laughter in rats in particular, and mammals in general. A very interesting discovery made by Panksepp reveals the following: rats are very playful, especially during a specific developmental stage in their lives. And like many other mammals, they like to wrestle during that stage; they like to play rough-and-tumble.

Take two rats who are ready and willing to play and put them together in an arena. Now what happens is that the rat with even a slight advantage in size over the other, say 10% bigger, will win every time and pin its playmate down. This makes the bigger rat the authority figure. Panksepp observed that if the bigger rat wins every time, the smaller rat will stop inviting it to play unless the bigger rat allows the smaller rat to win at least 30% of the time. In play, this is called self-handicapping, which involves the voluntary curtailing of one’s abilities to allow another player to triumph during a certain activity. As social animals, rats know that they need to do this to keep playing with each other. And when this happens, rats playing together develop social skills as well as open or create a space for experimentation, boundary-testing, and exploring thresholds of pain, strength, and ability. In other words, through play, rats explore and discover new possibilities of being together.

Now you might be asking yourself: what does this have to do with me or my work?

To go back to the suggestion I promised you earlier, I have to perform a little play on words. In other words, use metaphor! If we believe what Lakoff and Johnson say, then we conclude that there are many metaphors that structure our experiences and relationships with others especially at work.

Now let’s be honest, the current prevailing work ethic pushes us to consistently ‘stay on top of things’ and to always ‘come out on top’. Well, these phrases are themselves metaphors that drive our interactions at work. Lakoff and Johnson call these ‘orientational metaphors’ since they are based on spatial orientation and have their basis in our physical experience: ‘having control or force is up’ and ‘being subject to control or force is down’. As an example, consider the following statements: He is under my control. I am on top of this situation. He’s in the high command. He ranks above me. The physical basis for these metaphors is size since in a physical fight, the victor is usually larger in size and often ends up on top, literally, just like rats.

Now if you replace ‘size’ with, say, ‘debating skills’, ‘extroversion’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘charisma’, ‘assertiveness’ or ‘work position’ (notice that position also has orientational and physical bases), those with even a 10% advantage may be able to continuously corner or shoot down other peoples’ ideas in any given meeting. Basically, a few will continuously come out on top of any conversation. Extroverts in particular shine during meetings at the expense of those who are more patient in their thinking and take the time to process things internally before rushing to suggestions or solutions. The more extroverted, talkative, or spontaneous (even by a small margin) may dominate a discussion and inadvertently short-circuit the creative process.

The negative consequences of this, as you can imagine, are many. Those with a slight disadvantage may at one point decide not to play anymore. Their interactions during meetings may become more passive, docile, rigid, or absent altogether. The lighter participants in the meeting may very well have a creative edge regarding the problem at hand. Yet, the potential to play around with possibilities is reduced and many great ideas may never see the light during that meeting.

To change this, we need to think about the meta-games and underlying metaphors that shape our meeting exchanges. One metaphor I propose for meetings is ‘Rough-and-Tumble’. You may of course choose others. The goal is to foster during meetings a safe and playful space for different participants to take risks and explore new possibilities.

So when a team is ‘grappling’ with an idea (again, here’s a term which implies ‘wrestling’ that has a physical basis) seeking an innovative solution, if the dominant figures do not self-handicap 30% of the time or more, others will not invite them to play any longer. To grapple well with ideas as a team requires a playful spirit where ‘power’ is voluntarily handicapped by the most dominant figures in order for the ideas of other players to momentarily come out on top. It’s in such playgrounds where rough-and-tumble is welcomed that creativity and collaboration emerge.

So, for your next meeting, what metaphors do you think will best help you and the rest of your team members feel safe to freely and comfortably share ideas? What meta-games can best achieve this? And how can you use this to foster a playful culture at work?

What we do at L3b, especially when we work with teams, is to open up through play a safe and enabling space, a third space, where participants can experience role-playing, role-reversals, reciprocity, perspective-taking, and constructive self-handicapping to grapple together with ideas, take risks and seek new ways of working/playing together.

This is why at L3b, we believe that Play Seriously Works.

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