Diffuse Controversy in Meetings

By Heather Baldwin

Few people enjoy controversy. Even fewer enjoy controversy at a sales meeting because it usually means the meeting is going to be long and potentially acrimonious. Nonetheless, controversial meetings are a reality and usually are necessary to solve big issues that crop up during the year. The good news is that meeting leaders can head off lengthy, heated discussions by taking one very simple step before the meeting – chatting with attendees to gauge their positions and concerns. Although this is easy to do, many meeting leaders don’t take this important step and wind up caught in the maelstrom.

Barnett Helzberg, Jr., author of What I Learned Before I Sold to Warren Buffet (John Wiley & Sons, 2003), was chairman of the board of a not-for-profit organization that was getting ready to meet on the most controversial issue it had ever handled – conversion of a boys school to a co-educational school. Helzberg visited with each member of the board individually to get their thoughts and feelings and share the potential direction of the institution. “This turned out to be very helpful in terms of getting everyone’s feelings privately to see if the change was feasible,” he says. “It gave me the chance to explain the reasons for considering the change and the chance to put it in a positive light.”

These visits also gave Helzberg an opportunity to learn about potential objections and board members a chance to voice opinions in private that they might not have felt comfortable expressing in front of the entire board. The result: The board voted unanimously for the motion without undue time and discussion.

Helzberg also has been on the other end of controversial meetings as a participant with a strong negative opinion about an issue on which the group was voting. He was ready to come to the meeting, vote no and defend his position to the end – until he received a detailed Q&A sheet from those who had planned the meeting. “The sheet addressed the pros and cons, even the difficult, nasty questions were included. The carefully written answers explained both sides of each facet of the potential decision,” he says. After reading all the facts Helzberg became convinced his position was not correct. “No time was wasted with my diatribe,” he says. “I voted for rather than against the motion.”

Even the fiercest controversies don’t have to mean protracted, argumentative meetings. Helzberg points out: If you do your homework, either talking individually to meeting participants or preparing detailed reading materials that discuss all sides of the issue to be addressed – or a combination of those approaches – you usually can get a quick vote and move on. And it’s almost guaranteed that shortening your meeting won’t result in any controversy at all.