9 common-sense rules for getting the most out of meetings

Dec 5, 2017 /

Veteran financier Ray Dalio has been in every kind of meeting: the good, the bad and the ugly. Here’s how he keeps his meetings focused and productive.

In 1974, Ray Dalio founded the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and it’s currently the world’s largest, managing roughly $160 billion. Besides its financial success, Bridgewater has become known for creating a unique culture of radical truth and radical transparency. Here is Dalio’s advice for how to run meetings that don’t go off the rails.

1. Make it clear who is directing the meeting and who it is meant to serve.

Every meeting should be aimed at achieving someone’s goal — that person is the one responsible for the meeting and decides what they want to get out of it and how they will do so. Meetings without someone clearly responsible run a high risk of being directionless and unproductive.

2. Make clear what type of communication you are going to have in light of the objectives and priorities.

If your goal is to have people with different opinions work through their differences to try to get closer to what is true and what to do about it (i.e., open-minded debate), you’ll run your meeting differently than if its goal is to educate.

Debating takes time and time increases exponentially depending on the number of people participating in the discussion, so you have to carefully choose the right people in the right numbers to suit the decision that needs to be made. In any discussion, try to limit the participation to those whom you value most in your objectives. The worst way to pick people is based on whether their conclusions align with yours. Group-think (people not asserting independent views) and solo-think (people being unreceptive to the thoughts of others) are both dangerous.

3. Lead the discussion by being assertive and open-minded.

Reconciling different points of view can be difficult and time-consuming. It is up to the meeting leader to balance conflicting perspectives, push through impasses, and decide how to spend time wisely.

A common question I get is: “What happens when someone inexperienced offers an opinion?” If you’re running the conversation, you should be weighing the potential cost in the time that it takes to explore their opinion versus the potential gain in being able to assess their thinking and gain a better understanding of what they’re like.

Exploring the views of people who are still building their track record can give you valuable insights into how they might handle new responsibilities. Time permitting, you should work through their reasoning with them so they can understand how they might be wrong. It’s also your obligation to consider their opinions with an open mind and decide whether they’re right.

4. Watch out for “topic slip.”

Topic slip is random drifting from topic to topic without achieving completion on any of them. One way to avoid is by tracking the conversation on a whiteboard so that everyone can see where you are.

5. Enforce the logic of conversations.

People’s emotions tend to heat up when there is a disagreement. Remain calm and analytical at all times; it is more difficult to shut down a logical exchange rather than an emotional one.

Remember, too, that emotions can shade how people see reality. For example, people will sometimes say, “I feel like (something is true)” and proceed as though it’s a fact, when other people may interpret the same situation differently. Ask them, “Is it true?” to ground the conversation in reality.

6. Be careful not to lose personal responsibility via group decision making.

Too often, groups will make a decision to do something without assigning personal responsibilities, so it is not clear who is supposed to follow up by doing what. Be clear in assigning personal responsibilities.

7. Utilize the “two-minute rule” to avoid persistent interruptions.

The two-minute rule specifies that you have to give someone that uninterrupted period to explain their thinking before jumping in with your own. This ensures everyone has time to fully crystallize and communicate their thoughts without worrying they will be misunderstood or drowned out by a louder voice.

8. Watch out for assertive fast talkers.

Fast talkers say things faster than they can be assessed, as a way of pushing their agenda past other people’s examination or objections. Fast talking can be especially effective when it’s used against people worried about appearing stupid — don’t be one of those people.

Recognize that it’s your responsibility to make sense of things, and don’t move on until you do. If you’re feeling pressured, say something like, “Sorry for being stupid, but I’m going to need to slow you down so I can make sense of what you’re saying.” Then, ask your questions. All of them.

9. Achieve completion in conversations.

The main purpose of a discussion is to achieve completion and get in sync, which leads to decisions and/or actions. Conversations that fail to reach completion are a waste of time. When there is an exchange of ideas, it is important to end it by stating the conclusions. If there is agreement, say it; if not, say that.

When further action has been decided, get those tasks on a to-do list, assign people to do them, and specify due dates. Write down your conclusions, working theories and to-do’s in places that will lead to their being used as foundations for continued progress. To make sure this happens, assign someone to make sure notes are taken and follow-through occurs.

Excerpted from the new book Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio. Copyright © 2017 by Ray Dalio. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster, New York. All rights reserved.