If you're part of your company's leadership team you've likely been in your share of contentious meetings. So have you ever used a "talking stick?" If not, why? It surely saved the day in Washington this week.
The idea is simple - you pass the stick around the room and whoever has it has the floor. No one can interrupt. Get it?
The concept of the talking stick goes way back in recorded time. According to Wikipedia, it's "an instrument of aboriginal democracy used by many tribes, especially those of indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America." In Western Africa, chiefs adorned their sticks with gold leaf and other representations of its important and powerful role. In 16th century England, King Henry VIII used it to keep all of his wives in line. OK, just kidding about that.
But this is serious stuff. A government shutdown. Millions of lives affected. Things needed to be hashed out and no one wanted to listen to each other. So the stick was picked up by a bunch of U.S. Senators.
According to multiple reports, a bipartisan group of about two dozen of them worked out their differences over the federal funding deal using a talking stick as a tool to facilitate the meeting. And it worked! Well, except for that one emotional outburst where an esteemed member actually threw the stick at an honorable colleague. Luckily, he missed. But no worries - the group replaced the stick with a rubber ball. Washington, right?
Ball, stick, whatever...the bottom line is that the object helped moved the meeting forward and turned out to be an unlikely aid amidst the drama of the federal shutdown. The stick/ball became the symbol of democracy, just like that passionate Philadelphia Eagles fan who ran into a pole chasing the subway became a symbol of ...well...Eagles fans.
So what's it to you, anyway? You've attended a zillion meetings and you've got a zillion more scheduled. Your team is full of bright, passionate people who have ideas that they feel need to be shared if for no other reason than to show everyone else in the room how brilliant they are. You've also got a packed calendar and you're probably dealing with the same problem that we all have: those darned millennials. Again...just kidding. What I meant to write was managing a meeting fairly, productively...and on time. So maybe the talking stick is an answer.
Actually, there's a better solution than just a talking stick. I've actually seen it in action. A client of mine has, for years, used a simple windup timer during certain meetings instead of a stick. That way when someone in his very Type A leadership group wants to speak, the person before him hands over the timer - wound up for two minutes. When that time is up, the talking stops and the timer is reset and passed on to the next talker. It amazes me how anything got done in that senate meeting without people being timed but I'll just chalk that up to one of those mysteries that will probably never be solved.
Let's be clear: this kind of draconian tactic isn't needed at all meetings. In fact, most of the people that have to sit through my meetings are barely conscious, let alone alert enough to want to talk for a full two minutes and hold on to a stick. A timer isn't required at my meetings, but plenty of Red Bull is. That said, we all have important, contentious, emotional meetings from now and then over important issues like where to hold the Christmas party or whether to let Susan from accounting bring her husband who always drinks too much.
The talking stick, or rubber ball - or timer - is good to consider. It helped get the federal government back in business. Maybe it can help yours.