Successful meetings, or: The Great Commandment of Communication

You've completed the room reservation in time. You've arranged for coffee and beverages. You've set up the agenda and mailed it in advance to all participants. All feedback has been incorporated, of course. All flip chart supports are loaded with fresh pads of paper.

As a true follower of Getting Things Done (GTD), you've tracked all those tasks as next action items and completed them, over time. You think you've also dealt with the 20,000 feet perspective on that little meeting project; covered all areas of your responsibilities.

Then the meeting begins. Discussion starts. After a while, you feel like you'd rather be amidst a bunch of howler monkeys during their mating season. Why isn't anybody listening?

Maybe, you've missed some of your responsibilities. You have dealt with facts, space and time, but maybe you were not paying enough attention to the

Great Commandment of Communication:
You shall listen fourfold and you shall speak fourfold.

Fourfold listening and speaking

There are dozens of communication models, starting from a simplistic «Sender S sends message M to receiver R» scheme to sophisticated theories covering the most subtle nonverbal expression of mental states.

Simplistic models aren't that helpful. Elaborate ones could give you guidance if you got enough time to apply them thoroughly to analyzing and mastering the respective situation. The problem is that you never get that time, though.

For practical purposes, I've found that I can get the most out of a discussion when I focus on four aspects of each message, whether I'm listening or talking:

  1. Facts and Data
    When we speak, we love to assume that we just tell the facts. As listeners, we take pride in perceiving ourselves as gold panners, patiently looking for the fact nuggets in the sands of Blah. Facts and data are an important aspect of every message. But they're just 25%.
  2. Self-disclosure
    When we speak, especially in meetings, we also love to assume that we behave just like a news anchorman or woman, «delivering» a message. But we're doing much more, were also talking about how we feel today; whether we're relaxed or fraught; happy or angry (or indifferent); wide awake or tired. As listeners, we can sense these status indicators - if we choose to listen to this quarter of the message, too.
  3. Relationship
    When we speak, we express how we see our relationship to our listeners, too. Do we talk on a par with our listeners? Do we look down on them? Up to them? Do we express friendship? Appreciation? Do we keep our distance? As listeners, we may be eagerly waiting for signs the speaker cares about our relationship. It is easy - but not recommendable - to ignore this part of a message.
  4. Appeal
    When we speak, especially in meetings, we're urging the listeners to do or to think something as well. As listeners, we usually can sense those underlying appeals and we may even feel uncomfortable if we can't figure out the 25% of a message that tell us what somebody «wants» from us.


The Great Commandment of Communication in Meetings

Just consider this: everybody has their personal preference on what aspect of the communication matters most in any given situation. Any speaker may prefer one of the four aspects. Any listener may do so as well. This yields 4 x 4 = 16 possible combinations of speaker-listener preference combinations, any time. Had we chosen a more complex communication model, that number might even be a lot bigger.

Anyway, 16 combinations are already too many to deal with in an improvisational fashion. Think about the commandment before the meeting: You shall listen fourfold and you shall speak fourfold.

Facts and data are what you want to obtain most eagerly in a meeting. When listening, don't miss good facts and data just because you're craving for signs of one of the other three aspects, or worse, because you feel your ego was hurt by another aspect of a message. When you're the speaker, remember that most people hunger for factual information, so don't make them play bullshit bingo. There are people (like Mr. Spock, of Star Trek fame) who are nearly incapable of focusing on anything but facts and data, whether they're listening or speaking. Take that into account, if you happen to have a coworker like that. They are not rude by intention, they mean to serve you well.

Self-disclosure in meetings isn't very popular, but despite that, quite common. It's just sometimes not presented in the ways you'd expect it as a listener. E.g., how many times have you been hit by somebody else's cynicism in a large meeting only to find that the very same person deeply cared for the issue when you talked to them in private? That's because cynicism is an indicator of pain, of values that have been hurt. In case you know the TV series House, M.D., you've seen that behavior and background exposed by the protagonist. If you're the speaker, be more straightforward with expressing values and attitudes, instead of being ironic. If you absolutely disagree with the very purpose of the meeting, say so in advance, but only once and shut up during the meeting.

Relationships are used and abused throughout any meeting. Speakers may try to coax or force others towards things their listeners otherwise would never ever consider doing. That's clearly manipulative. Keep in mind that relationships have been established before the meeting and will last, hopefully, after the meeting, too. Mark Horstman and Michael Auzenne have compiled hours and hours of podcasts teaching why it pays to and how to build strong relationships over time, so you can and will benefit from them when you're in need. Big meetings are not occasions to shape relationships, but to make good use of them and to strengthen them; this applies to any kind of relationships, as master networker Christine Comaford-Lynch explains in a recent interview with Tim Ferriss. As a speaker, express your appreciation for your listeners. As a listener, keep in mind that while you may disagree with the hot topics at hand, the relationship will last beyond that meeting. It is probably more effective to use an excellent relationship for convincing somebody in a one-on-one meeting than referring to it in front of a whole group.

Appeals are, for some, the very reason to attend a meeting at all. As a speaker, it may be your goal to get your message out. As a listener, you may want to see your interests covered and safeguarded by the speaker; some listeners won't even stop questioning everything until the speaker abides. In general, meetings abound with appeals, so there is no need to encourage you to come up with them or to recognize others making them. Instead, what most of us need is to pay more attention to the Win-Win game. All too often, alleged «wins» rather look like sham-packaged disadvantages. Consider in advance and carefully what your listeners will actually be satisfied with; when you're the listener, try to figure out whether there is actually something to gain for you. But beware: often, infamous tactics like the Red Herring are used to divert your attention from considering actual benefits, so that a a bad option looks more appealing. Keep out of the muddy waters of such tactics. When in doubt, learn from the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, how to appeal to others without appealing (no pun, but koan intended); research on YouTube for some interviews that feature him.

Try this

During the next meeting you're attending, note down the three most provocative statements you get to hear. Also, note down those of your statements that others feel strongly about, in a positive or a negative sense.

Then, review what you were hearing or saying in terms of

  1. Facts and data you were presented or presenting,
  2. Self-disclosure by yourself and others,
  3. Relationships and how you and others saw them,
  4. Appeals that were made by you and others.

Do your findings explain some of the trouble in that meeting?
Let me know your findings and your opinion in the comments below!


Considering these 4 aspects of communication is commonly credited to Friedemann Schulz von Thun, a German psychologist (yes, he is still alive; but no, unfortunately his immensely practical books haven't yet been translated into English). He calls his model the Square of Communication.



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