Learning to speak more honestly in meetings
Melissa was sitting in a meeting of church leaders, and she was ready to tell the truth.
“Before I say this, could you pass me the PayDay?” she said.
At that moment, the item she had requested — a PayDay candy bar with a grubby red, white and blue wrapper — sat in front of Jon. It had moved around the room in the past hour. I could tell: courage was winning over fear.
What does a candy bar have to do with courage?
At the opening of the meeting, I’d introduced the idea that courage was a gift that would be rewarded. Soon, I was watching grown adults vie for that PayDay. I know it seems a little silly, but it’s vital to find a way to speak more honestly with one another.
We meet often but not well. We attend long meetings that go nowhere. We meet to solve problems but leave pertinent concerns unsaid. We meet for healing but let fear drive out openness.
It is no myth that the real conversations take place in the parking lots and bathrooms. It’s true for me, and I’m trained to help people speak freely. I sometimes wait until I’m walking to the car beside a committee member to have the honest discussion I should have had in the meeting. Why? I didn’t feel safe to mention my concerns.
People have different reasons for keeping silent. Introverts may be internally processing and not want to fight for airtime. Others may sense that speaking about the elephant in the room is discouraged. Many may find that their fear of offending someone is greater than the value of sharing a sincere opinion. People with less power may feel that their voices are unwelcome.
How do we bring the candor expressed in informal settings into more formal meetings — where honesty can feed the potential for more lasting solutions? How do we motivate people to bring their voices into the room?
There are numerous techniques to structure meetings for effective outcomes. When I facilitate conversations, I love to playfully reward honest talk with a PayDay.
I start by saying, “Who will overcome fear for a PayDay candy bar? Who will give us the gift of your courage to speak the truth today?”
Then I pull out the promised reward. No one seems impressed. Typically, it’s been riding in the bottom of my purse for days. If the participants groan at the sight, I counter that fame goes hand in hand with this PayDay.
I explain: “Here’s how this works. You’ll know when someone is brave.
“For instance, one of you may say, ‘I like that vision statement, but I don’t love it. For me to love it, it would have to include something riskier, such as …’
“I expect one of you to shout out, ‘That deserves the PayDay!’
“A while later, someone may say, ‘I wanted to have a funeral for that practice a long time ago.’ If I see people around the table respond with wide eyes, I’ll know to walk over and put the PayDay in front of that brave person.
“There is only one PayDay. It sits in front of the last courageous speaker.
“You do not eat it. You bask in its glory.”
Many times, the participants aren’t convinced — until the first honest comment shifts the conversation and someone quietly passes the PayDay. The recipient grins, and the rest of the room gets it.
Then we’re off and running. The meeting gets more interesting and productive. People actually sit up, lean forward and appear more engaged, because the conversation seems more authentic.
Soon, some participants like Melissa are requesting the candy for themselves even before they speak. Recently, a quiet participant took the game so seriously that they raised their hand and said, “I have not received the PayDay yet, but when I do, could you not have it passed from the last person, but could you go get it and put it in front of me yourself?”
The simple delivery of a PayDay candy bar can minimize fear and motivate people to share new and diverse perspectives. It can help participants be more likely to address the core problem rather than just the presenting symptoms. Sometimes, this honesty can become “confession within community” and offer a chance at healing.
Seeing honesty take root, even in this lighthearted way, can create a confident momentum that builds on itself. After all, fear is not a theological concept. Casting out fear is.