A Mindful Solution to Mindless Meetings

How the tradition of Buddhist debate can lead to more efficient and productive meetings

By Leah Weiss

Meetings are a way to arrive at solutions, voice opinions, share and receive team feedback. So why are roughly 59% of meetings a waste of time? Furthermore, meetings can cause companies to lose billions of dollars in revenue annually.

Why haven’t we yet found an antidote to mindless meetings? Maybe we’re not looking in the right place.

A Tip from Tibet 

The image of an ego-tripping narcissistic boss is fading fast. In its place is a leader who knows the importance of soft skills, like cultivating positive cultures and actively seeking team input. But we’re not there yet.

“In the West, we have this idea of a genius being an individual, sitting alone, and having this bolt of insight in their head,” the Dalai Lama’s main English interpreter Thupten Jinpa told me in a recent interview. “In the traditional Tibetan context, the greatest insights are really seen as emerging in the context of dialogical relationship. Two or three brains is better than one single individual toughing it out.”

That’s the kind of wisdom you get from soft-skilled scholars brought up in the tradition of Buddhist debate.

Just the Facts  

Buddhist debate is physical. It involves standing, hand-clapping, and shouting. It is a far cry from podiums and spotlights. But the objective of this debate is not to win; it is to arrive at the truth.

Arriving at the truth is done through a series of pointed questions with the goal of highlighting alternate possibilities to previously held truths. At the start of a debate, two participants engage in conversation. One asks questions and one answers. As the debate unfurls, observers become active participants and teams slowly begin to form.

Even though each side can have a handful of team members, this isn’t a free-for-all. It’s not a show of egos. The two participants that began the debate are the only ones to speak—but they do so after conversing with their respective teams members. Debaters only approach one topic during a debate in order to remain mindful and retain intention.

The interesting outcome of Buddhist debate is how quickly an assumption can be disproved, how new and clearer perspectives emerge, and how fast problems can be solved. This productivity and clarity is what we need to harness in boardrooms.

Simple Steps

Arriving at truth takes work—and practice. Learning to let go of long-held beliefs and personal or political agendas won’t happen overnight. We won’t wake up and become better team players. But we can start on that path by drawing some key elements from Buddhist debate.

These elements include:

  • Disproving held beliefs through fact-based questioning

  • Working with team members to arrive at answers to questions

  • Allowing the possibility that we might be wrong

  • Knowing that there is always more than one truth

It’s important to explore the concept of “not taking it personally” while adapting these tactics and as a corporate culture foundation. In order to share basic ideas, people should “learn not to take personally the views that they are proposing so that critique of that view is not taken personally,” Jinpa advises.

He also warns that “people do need to get used to having their views ripped apart without feeling like they’re being personally attacked. That’s an experience you have to learn.”

It’s hanging your ego out to dry (rinse, and repeat). It’s a valuable lesson, but getting comfortable with corporate mindfulness tactics does take practice.

When Strange Becomes Familiar

Prakash Raman is a senior consultant of executive development at LinkedIn. He trains the trainers and is always looking for ways to increase efficiency and build strong cultural standards. Prakash has ventured into the mindfulness sphere before.

He’s tried setting a meeting intention, checking in with teams on an emotional level, and quick meditations. But none of that felt quite right at first.

“Each time it has felt weird initially,” he reflected in an interview. And it is weird. Asking teams to meditate or set intentions is foreign. After a few tries with the same team, Raman notes that it becomes increasingly “less weird.” He’s also found that discussion emotions and taking a few minutes prior to a meeting to set intentions can increase meeting productivity.

Raman’s experience with mindfulness is echoed in Speck Design CEO Elisa Jagerson’s words. Like Raman, Jagerson has also brought mindful meditation to team meetings. “The practice is most effective when two things have occurred—first, that the team has been together for a while and there is some baseline trust between all of the members and, second, we have been in a regular cadence of ‘presencing’ so that the team is on the other side of any discomfort from the newness or ‘strangeness’ of the practice,” Jagerson says.

CEO of Grokker.com Lorna Borenstein has had much the same experience. “One of the ways we’ve started to incorporate mindfulness into our team meetings is to devote time to reflecting upon our mistakes,” she says. “The goal is to identify and share what we have learned rather than to simply enumerate successes. This is not easy! It takes practice.”

Practice does help when introducing “strange” or “weird” meeting methods. Yet, Raman, Jagerson, and Borenstein all noted that once the dust settles, the result of borrowing from mindfulness—whether in the form of debate or meditation—is more efficient and productive meetings.

Leah Weiss, PhD, is a researcher, professor, consultant, and author of How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind. She teaches courses on compassionate leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and is principal teacher and founding faculty for Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Program, conceived by the Dalai Lama. She also directs Compassion Education and Scholarship at HopeLab, an Omidyar Group research and development nonprofit focused on resilience. 

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