What Makes a Discussion "Productive"?

When you are having a discussion–face-to-face or via electronic media–with another person or a group, what factors contribute to make the discussion “productive” or not? What do you use as the basis for evaluation as to whether the discussion was worth it?

Here’s what I think:

  • Alternatives are Identified and Explored … When the purpose of a discussion is to make a decision, it is very good to get all of the alternatives and options on the table quickly. You don’t want to prematurely settle on one solution, and thus move ahead on something that is sub-optimal in dealing with all of the evaluation criteria people have. Clearly identifying alternatives through free-flowing brainstorming and mind mapping is critical to effective decision making, and thus to productive decisions. Follow-on conversations can then happen immediately or over time for the intent of exploring alternatives and providing a way for making a decision between competing alternatives.
  • Ideas are Critiqued, Not People … Not all ideas are brilliant, but in expressing that view, we need to be careful to critique the idea and not the person who advocated it. If an idea is long-held by someone, they will become attached to it, and when you call someone’s idea “ugly”, they can take offence (and thus reduce further involvement in the discussion). Prefacing your critique with softening words like “I’m so glad that you shared that idea, and here’s my different take on it … ” can go a long way to smooth human relations. Tone of voice, subsequent words of encouragements, and so on can also help. One of the benefits of separating the idea and alternative generation stage from the critique and evaluation stage is that it can create some social and time distance for the person who proposed the idea/alternative and their hearing of its critique. And, hopefully too, once they’ve seen the breadth of ideas and alternatives that have been proposed, they will feel less attached to their idea as the sole way of achieving the overall decision and outcome that is desired.
  • A Clear Decision is Made at the End … At the end of a productive discussion, a clear decision on moving ahead needs to be made. The decision may be made by a leader/manager, or by group consensus. Whatever the approach, a decision is essential for moving forward. People aren’t left hanging.
  • People are Willing to Discuss Again in the Future … A productive discussion should result in two things: (a) a clear decision, and (b) increased capability for the group to discuss things again in the future. If people have been put down, stamped on, and told that their ideas are worthless, although a clear outcome may be reached, their capability and willingness to go through the process again in the future will be much diminished. This is Stephen Covey’s “production” vs. “production capacity” idea in action. Encouraging people to go through a process of discussion and evaluation, making it clear through spoken words and non-spoken cues that people are valued even when their ideas don’t turn into anything … all these help with getting people to come back to the table for another discussion in the future.

What do you judge a productive discussion?

0 thoughts on “What Makes a Discussion "Productive"?

  1. Quick, write down the first three answers you think of to this question:
    “What is stressful about going to a meeting?”
    Michael, as I read through your note above, I found myself nodding in agreement. “Yes, Yes, Yes,” I thought to myself.
    My guess is that anyone reading this post has a reference point for attending an ineffective meeting…I acknowledge you for giving us something we can use!

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