Last week I wrote about how to prepare for your meetings so that you make the most out of them. Even if you stop there, your meetings will be much more effective and it will be easier for you to get the outcome you are looking for.
However, there is another important part in unlocking the full potential of your meetings to work for you – and that’s, of course, what happens in the meeting itself.
To get to the results you want, you will need to lead your audience through three distinct phases. Each of them is important and relies on the previous ones (and the prep work you have made) to be successful.
I want to make it super clear that although you have a specific outcome in mind, in most cases the best strategy is to start with listening, and not with stating your desired outcome right at the beginning of the meeting. You can start by stating the objective of the meeting, as in “today we are here to make the following decision”, but it’s usually not recommended to start with the outcome itself: “the right decision is X and I will show you why”.
Phase 1: Listen
If you have done your preparation right, you now know exactly what you are hoping to achieve from the meeting, and potentially have an idea of what others are hoping for or need to hear in order to get to the outcome you want. But you don’t know for sure, so now is the time to listen.
Take for example a meeting with a large potential customer who is asking for a feature request as part of the deal. You talked to the relevant salesperson and understood the feature more or less. It makes sense, but you have more urgent things on your backlog. So in your prep for the meeting, you realized that you want to do this, but only in the next quarter.
Now is the time to listen. There are two things you need to listen to: first, did you really understand the feature they need? Sometimes the details matter and it becomes something completely different. And second, how urgent is it for them? You don’t need to ask it bluntly, instead read between the lines of what they say.
To be able to fully listen, you need to focus just on that, not on responding. For this part, it will serve you best to almost forget the outcome you wanted to get to, and truly listen in order to fully understand the other side. Ask clarifying questions and reflect on what you understood to make sure you got it right.
Phase 2: Look for a win-win solution
Before responding, now is the time to reconsider your outcome and see if it still makes sense, given everything else you have heard so far. Note that we are not in the business of convincing people to do things that are not good for them, we are in the business of finding win-win solutions. So you want to make sure you are moving forward with a win-win approach in mind.
Ask yourself as objectively as you can, as if you were in the other person’s shoes, is this a good solution? If you think it is, move on to phase 3 below. But if you are not sure, you have some more work to do.
First, understand where the mismatch is. To continue the example from above, let’s say the customer explained that this feature plays a key role in their ability to get the value they want out of your product. If you simply go now to say “great, so you will have it in 6 months” it just doesn’t seem appropriate. You see the gap immediately.
To be able to move forward, you need to frame it for everyone.
First, acknowledge what you have learned: “great, so I understand that you need this as part of the core process of your work with the product, right?”. This goes a long way for people to be able to accept any follow-up suggestions from you. If they feel you understand them fully, it’s easier for them to trust you that you are doing your best to help them get what they want, not just what you want.
Next, frame the gap – first to yourself and then to the other side. In our example, you no longer debate whether or not this feature is important. The only question is when can you deliver it. So say it out loud. There are nuances, but you can say something like “I believe I understand what you need and I agree that it is important. Let me ask a few more questions to better understand where I can fit it in”.
Now comes the trickiest part in the analysis: ask yourself what can potentially lead to the conclusion that your predefined outcome is the right one. For example, if you know the customer needs this feature on the first day they start using the system, you want to assess together with them when is that expected.
In our simple example, the crux of the matter is that they only need it when they will actually start using the product, and not when they sign the deal. In large enterprises that can be a very different timeline, and since you have gained their trust up until now by fully listening to them, there is a higher likelihood that they will be more flexible and willing to help uncover a win-win solution.
With that understanding in mind, you can say something like: “so ideally (without committing to anything, just thinking out loud) you want to have this feature ready as soon as you start using the product, right?”, and assuming they agree, you can go on and say “let’s try to understand when is that expected”.
If your case is more complex, and the first attempted solution doesn’t yield the desired results, you need to repeat this step again and again until you find something that is good enough for everyone. It’s not easy to do it in real-time in the meeting itself, but the more prepared you are the easier it is.
To make it easier, you might want to add to your preparation a deeper understanding of your real boundaries. In our example, you can come prepared in advance with what is the nearest time you can deliver this feature if it comes to that. It doesn’t mean you are aiming for it, but this is the farthest you can go, so if they need it sooner you simply cannot do it.
Don’t be afraid to take a moment to think this through if you need to. You can say “let me organize my thoughts for a minute” and only then continue. Of course, you can’t take forever, but sometimes even a few seconds can make a difference.
Phase 3: Make a Suggestion
The last phase is where you are leading the discussion towards a decision or an agreement. In phase 2 you were able to close the gap (even if you had to repeat it over and over), so in this final phase, you need to summarize everything and make the final suggestion for everyone to agree on.
The last step of the preparation phase was to “pave the way” for your audience. This is the time to summarize it and update it based on what you have learned and agreed upon in the discussion so far. If you had the story already built before the meeting, it should be relatively easy to update in real-time and lead everyone to say yes.
That’s how the magic works. There’s a lot of work and thought behind it, but it’s yours to make.