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cancerous caucusing

I was involved in a group once that had some of the most amazing meetings, and some of the most frustrating meetings of my life. I’m also bummed that I was part of the problem. As a group, we formed a team cancer. A cancer in the form of a caucus.

Creative Commons - Richard Rutter
Creative Commons – Richard Rutter

It would start innocently enough – one person, not wanting to interrupt the entire team’s flow with a question, would text a teammate. A Q&A turned into a conversation that wasn’t just clarification, but was direction-changing. The side conversation would grow, a group text would be started, and before half the room was aware (including the leader of the team), the other half was distracted, not engaged in the room, and had made a “team” decision online. Most of the time, the caucus was only feeding each others’  frustrations rather than dealing with them openly, in a healthy manner. Once someone finally realized (if from the non-text group portion) or fess’d up (if from the caucusing portion), tensions mounted, conversations had to be repeated, time was wasted, and team synergy was lost.

Caucusing in a meeting is a death sentence for a team. Here are a few quick ways to avoid such a painful prognosis.

If you’re leading a team meeting:

  • Have a “topless” meeting. This means no laptops or electronics allowed for either the entire agenda or at least for the portion of the meeting where you know you need everyone engaged in the conversation. Put a basket out for smartphones and have a team covenant to leave phones there during the most controversial topics for the team.
  • Call it what it is. Tell the team at the beginning of the meeting that while you may not all come to a consensus today, you’re going to reach the decision as a full team, with everyone engaged in the SAME conversation. Invite questions for clarification so no one feels like they’d be interrupting. Everyone doesn’t have to start in agreement, and healthy teams disagree sometimes!
  • Read body language and facial expressions. If people are disengaging from the conversation, crossing their arms, frowning, ask an open-ended question directly to the individual to pull them back in. Study up on what the experts say about non-verbal communication.

If you’re a participant in a meeting:

  • Be the participant you’d want as a leader. It’s a Golden Rule application in our daily life.
  • Walk in ready to listen & ready to talk. Promise yourself to stay open-minded about others’ opinions and ideas, and if you need clarification or disagree, be bold enough to politely insert your idea or questions into the conversation. If you know the agenda ahead of time, study up.
  • Learn how to disagree. This article is a great read on the topic.
  • Squelch the side-bars. If a teammate sends you a text, leans over to talk about the discussion on the floor, etc, stop it right then and there. Politely redirect them back into the room with an encouraging, “I see what you’re saying. If that really matters to you, you should bring it up to the team now so it can be part of the discussion.”

If we learn how to discuss things in a healthy way, with the whole room, our teams will sharpen one another in the process. Plus, we learn about each individual’s values and communication styles. Not to mention we’ll avoid the deadly cancer of the caucus.

What are some of your tools to keep discussion healthy?

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