Facilitation Skill # 2 – Controlling Discussion
“It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.” – Yogi Berra
Based on actual surveys of FMEA team leaders, the most common concern is how to control discussion during team meetings. This article will provide insight into this critical facilitation skill, and is a companion to the previous article in this series: Facilitation Skill #1: – Encouraging Participation.
I’ll begin with two definitions, using the Oxford English Dictionary.
“Control” is defined as “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.”
“Discussion” is defined as “the act or process of talking about something in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas.”
What’s the The essence of controlling discussion?
A facilitator must know how to encourage discussion, how to limit discussion and when to switch gears. The key is to learn to gauge when discussion is useful and productive to the FMEA objective, and when it is off-topic or has gone on too long. If the discussion is meaningful and on target, it should continue. If the discussion does not further the FMEA objective, it should be ended in a respectful, but firm, manner, and the team redirected to the focus areas.
Why does discussion need to be controlled?
The time of subject matter experts is very important. As FMEA facilitator, you need to honor the time of participants by keeping the meeting moving expeditiously towards its objectives, and not allowing discussions that are off-topic. If FMEA team members feel their time is being wasted, they will not show up at future meetings, and the FMEA will not get properly done.
What are “off-topic” discussions and how can they be addressed?
Any discussion that takes place during an FMEA meeting that is not on the topic being addressed can be characterized as “off-topic.” Discussions in an FMEA meeting should be relevant and fruitful to the topic that is being addressed.
There are three common types of discussions that are off-topic to the FMEA objectives.
- A “war story” is a colloquial term that refers to personal anecdotes that may be interesting or entertaining, but are not essential to the meeting topic. They distract the team, lengthen the meetings, and should be discouraged.
One way to address “war stories” is to ask the person who is telling the story to defer the discussion until after the meeting. This should be done with respect to the person being addressed. Never call out or embarrass any person in front of the team.
- A “side conversation” is when two or more meeting participants engage in conversation not intended for the entire group. Side conversations should be minimized.
Side conversations can be addressed by calling on one of the people in the side conversation, and asking if the they would like to bring the conversation to the entire team. If so, and if it is relevant, they can discuss with the team. Often, the side conversation will cease when it is brought up.
- The third type of off-topic discussion is any discussion that is not advancing the FMEA process. This can be talking about anything other than the subject at hand. For example, if the team is discussing the cause of failure, and someone is sharing ideas for the company picnic, that discussion is off-topic. Likewise, if the team has already determined the cause of failure for a given function and failure mode, and someone begins to discuss failure for a completely different function, that is off-topic.
When encountering discussions that are not relevant or are not advancing the FMEA process, the facilitator will need to determine if the discussion might me relevant to another portion of the FMEA. If so, the topic can be duly noted, and the discussion deferred until it is more appropriate. If not, it should be ended. A simple, “can we carry on that discussion outside of the meeting?” usually suffices to end the off-topic discussion in a respectful manner.
Is “controlling discussion” part of our human nature?
Based on years of experience in leading engineering teams, it is clear that controlling discussion is not necessarily part of our human nature. Just recognizing this can be helpful to create the skills to respectfully control discussion in team meetings.
Conversations amongst friends can often ramble and change subjects quickly, darting down paths that are sometimes humorous and interesting. This can be quite enjoyable and fun. Let’s call this tendency part of our human nature.
In order to be a successful FMEA team leader, one has to control the discussion towards the objective of the FMEA. This can run counter to human nature, and the skills will need to be practiced. At all times, the team leader needs to be professional and respectful.
I’m not saying that momentary or spontaneous laughter or enjoyable discussion has to be immediately halted. It can add levity to the meeting tasks, and builds comradery. What I am saying is that FMEA team discussions need to be kept on the aims of the FMEA, in order to accomplish the objectives and to respect the time of the subject matter experts.
Are there other techniques to control discussion?
Reference the article titled “How to Facilitate Successful FMEA Projects.” In this article, there is a section about meeting participant “norms.” These norms should be agreed to at the beginning of the FMEA meetings. When discussions are off-topic, you can refer the person or the group to the appropriate norms. For example, if a person continues to engage in side conversations, you can refer to norm #11 “Engages in no . . . side conversations.” If someone is dominating the discussion, you can refer to norm #5 “Listen carefully to all ideas.”
Question to readers and listeners
What other techniques have worked for you, in controlling team discussions? Please feel free to share any ideas you have by sending an email to email@example.com. Ideas from readers will be shared in future articles or podcasts.
Wherever possible, it helps to get to get to know the team members you are facilitating. This can be done before meetings begin, during breaks, or after meetings. People are more likely to participate and accept reasonable controls from a team leader if there is a personal connection.
FMEA facilitators can generate deep discussion and stimulate creative ideas by asking probing questions. Probing questions are direct questions to an individual or group to stimulate thinking, and used to open up discussion and to bring it to a deeper level.