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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Meeting objectives

Alan Palmer considers the benefits of shorter meetings, quicker results and better relations

03 JULY 2014 | ALAN PALMER


Meeting-on-Arrowed-table
Photo: Istock

Many years ago as an enthusiastic but green strategy consultant, I worked in London for a US group, which also owned an actuarial firm. One day I was given the news that I was going to be working on an assignment with my actuarial colleagues, previously kept hidden from my view in a distant wing of our building. 

I viewed this prospect with some apprehension; even if I hadn’t yet come face-to-face with an actuary, their reputation in the area of communication preceded them. To my immense relief, I quickly discovered that there was very little foundation for this reputation; but I also discovered that no-one was more assiduous in painting this unflattering portrait of actuaries than actuaries themselves. Every day I was regaled with a fresh joke, each designed to highlight some social shortcoming on the part of actuaries, each recounted to me, with relish, by an actuary.

Contrary to the popular belief that the random sprinkling of talents has resulted in some people being naturally good communicators and others not, effective communication skills can be acquired by anyone

Many years ago as an enthusiastic but green strategy consultant, I worked in London for a US group, which also owned an actuarial firm. One day I was given the news that I was going to be working on an assignment with my actuarial colleagues, previously kept hidden from my view in a distant wing of our building. 

I viewed this prospect with some apprehension; even if I hadn’t yet come face-to-face with an actuary, their reputation in the area of communication preceded them. To my immense relief, I quickly discovered that there was very little foundation for this reputation; but I also discovered that no-one was more assiduous in painting this unflattering portrait of actuaries than actuaries themselves. Every day I was regaled with a fresh joke, each designed to highlight some social shortcoming on the part of actuaries, each recounted to me, with relish, by an actuary.

This went well beyond the traditional British penchant for self-deprecation. I eventually concluded that the constant stream of jokes was part of a worldwide conspiracy on the part of actuaries to set low expectations with regard to their ability to communicate, so that almost every time they spoke those expectations would be wildly exceeded.

I don’t know if – and here as I’m writing for a magazine called The Actuary I feel legitimate in switching to the second person – you are still engaged in this conspiracy, but if you are, it strikes me as being wholly unnecessary.

Human beings, whatever their profession, are very frequently ‘challenged’ when it comes to communicating with others, and actuaries are neither more nor less blessed in this respect than the population at large. 

In other words, expectations are already low. And, contrary to the popular belief that the random sprinkling of talents has resulted in some people being naturally good communicators and others not, effective communication skills can be acquired by anyone – even (whisper it softly lest the conspiracy be undermined) by actuaries.

I used to have my feet planted firmly in the ‘good communicators are born not made’ camp  – probably because I believed I’d been born without them and this conviction excused me from having to acquire them – but I was forced to change camp when I met a man who, rather inconveniently for my belief, had spent 20 years ‘making’ effective communicators.

The man in question, now my colleague Philippe de Lapoyade, developed the approach. Philippe has devoted his life to the study of professional relationships and his fascination with the subject led him to spend many years observing and analysing the attitudes and behaviours in meetings and conversations, which not only produce concrete results but do so rapidly and efficiently and with a positive impact on the relationship between the parties.

He was able to condense the results of his observations down into a simple but comprehensive framework for communicating more effectively. In hindsight, it turned out that what he had done was to solve a problem that had previously seemed intractable. He had worked out how systematically to speak to other people in a way that is on the one hand clear and direct, and on the other, polite and courteous. The discovery was a significant one because it turns out that if you ask any human being, of any age, sex, profession, function, management level, and even of any nationality or culture, how they like to be spoken to, you will invariably be told “direct but polite, candid but courteous”.

The problem of how to do this had seemed an intractable one because most people believe that they’re condemned to make a choice, that they can either be direct, but will then inevitably, be curt and abrupt, or that they can be polite and courteous but will then necessarily end up beating around the bush. Squaring the circle is being both direct and courteous.

The first 30 seconds of a meeting is absolutely crucial to its productivity and to its impact on the relationship between the parties. In particular, it’s critical that within 30 seconds, you’ve told the other person exactly what you’re hoping to obtain from them by the end of the meeting. Doing so is the only way you can conform to the universal human preference for directness, as long as it’s accompanied by courtesy. It’s also the only way to generate trust and respect because until you’ve told the other person what you want from them, they will regard you at best with wariness (if they don’t know what you want) at worst with distrust (if they think they know what you want but you haven’t yet admitted to it).

Lastly, identifying immediately what you want from the other person by the end of the meeting is also the only way of ensuring the meeting is efficient and productive. 

A meeting is like a production line in a factory in that it exists to produce a concrete finished product – and, as in a factory, you won’t get the result you want if you haven’t defined and agreed the parameters of the finished product right from the start.

The observations by my colleague Philippe of effective behaviour patterns in meetings allowed him to identify a simple, three-part structure for starting a meeting that will allow you always to be direct about your goal within 30 seconds, while never appearing curt or abrupt.

The elements of this structure are – in order of preparation: 

i) My meeting objective 

ii) The inputs I’ve prepared that make it reasonable to hope I can achieve my desired outcome

iii) My state of mind relative to the announcement to the other person of my chosen meeting objective. 

This order is reversed when you actually state your introduction to the meeting: i) my state of mind, ii) what I did to prepare and, iii) my meeting goal.

The meeting objective you choose and announce must be the concrete result(s) you hope to obtain from the other person at the end of the meeting. You mustn’t confuse ends with mere means (not “I want to discuss…”, “I want to demonstrate…” but “I’m hoping that you 

will tell me…”, “I’m hoping that we can produce…”); and you mustn’t confuse meeting goals with broader business goals that won’t be realised at the end of the meeting but only next week or next month or next year. 

Your inputs must, at this stage – before the announcement of the objective – contain no arguments, no conclusions, nothing with which the other person can disagree. You should simply be looking to create curiosity, openness, an eagerness to know more. And your ‘state of mind’ about announcing the objective is exactly that, it’s how you feel looking forward to the announcement of your chosen meeting goal, it’s not how you feel, looking back, about the situation that led you to call the meeting.

As an example, an actuary who applies this to what may be one of the most challenging kinds of meeting he or she faces  – announcing bad news to a client – might find themselves constructing an opening like this: 

“I’m conscious that what I have to say in this meeting will come as a very heavy blow to you and I don’t like being the messenger of such news. At the same time I want to do everything in my power to ensure the meeting’s a constructive one. 

“I have to tell you today that I’ve just identified a hole in the pension fund of some £25m. I’ve prepared a detailed analysis to explain my conclusion; and I’ve also developed some recommendations about what we now need to do to fix this.

“What I am looking for in calling today’s meeting is first for us to agree on a draft plan for closing the hole within an acceptable time-frame; and second for you to make a commitment to turning the draft plan into a definitive one and to implementing it within a month. How do you feel about that as a goal?”

Direct and straight to the point, yet polite, courteous and respectful. Starting the meeting like this will probably result in the other person leaning forward, literally or metaphorically, and saying something like “I’m listening. Tell me about it.” And that’s a pretty good way to start even the toughest meeting.