Ask your team a 3,000 year-old question


How many times have you settled into a team meeting or a conversation with a long-time colleague and thought, “Here we go again, the same old thing”. We shut down, because we are getting exactly what we expect to get. The same things are said, in the same way, with the same lack of results. The answer to this may be surprisingly simple and surprisingly old. Very old indeed.

For thousands of years, the Jewish people have celebrated the Pesach Seder, what most of us know as Passover. The dinner always begins with the youngest person at the table asking a ritual question: “Why is this night different from every other night?” The person leading the ceremony then asks four questions, designed to drill down to the real meaning of the occasion, the deliverance from Egypt and slavery.

The purpose of the first question, of course, is to focus the group’s thinking about why they are gathered and what it means to their lives. The purpose is to take people’s thoughts away from the food and the company for a moment and focus on the deeper spiritual meaning of the occasion. It creates mindfulness.

So what does that have to do with your meetings and team communication?

Too often we don’t really think about what we’re doing when we talk to each other. We simply do it the way we’ve always done it. That lack of mindfulness allows habit to dictate our behavior, rather than the action that might get us the best results.

  • When on a conference call, do you automatically mute your phone and start answering emails?
  • When the meeting runs long or gets badly off topic, do you just roll your eyes and accept it, or do you step up to table useless conversation and get back on track?
  • Do you know the purpose of the meeting and what it’s supposed to accomplish? If so, you can prepare and participate fully. If you don’t, you’re often unable to contribute to your fullest and really add value.

The partial answer to all of these situations is to be mindful. Without being disrespectful or sacrilegious, I often ask myself a simple version of the Seder Question: Why is this meeting (or conversation) different from all that have come before or since?

Every constructive interaction has a reason for occurring; some desired outcome that is unique to that event. If we can focus on that, rather than the empty ritual of meeting (“Okay, let’s hear a quick report from everyone so we can move on”).

If you are mindful as to the purpose and desired outcome of the meeting, you can accomplish several things that will positively impact the way your team meets.

  • If you know why this meeting is unique, you can edit your comments to what’s relevant and useful, rather than go on and on. Brevity and focus is always appreciated. They can ask more questions if they need more information. Mostly they’ll just be grateful.
  • If you really know why you’re meeting, you can properly prepare your thoughts and input in advance. They don’t want to hear about “X”, but they need your best thinking on “Y”. Prepare accordingly
  • If the reason for the communication is clear to everyone, it makes it simpler to keep things on track. As the meeting leader, it gives you a solid basis for saying, “I think we’re getting off track here”, or “That’s great, and perhaps another conversation for another time. Let’s limit ourselves to xxxx so we can make the best use of everyone’s time”.
  • As a meeting participant, it helps create an environment where you’re safe to ask if the current conversation is getting us closer to our desired outcome, or if it’s wasting precious time. I sincerely hope you work in a team where everyone is empowered to speak up and help guide the outcome

I find that when I ask, “why is this meeting different from every other meeting?” I can focus my efforts on what’s important. The answer to that question tells me how invested I am in the outcome, what I can contribute, what I have to learn, and how much attention must be paid.

Sometimes it tells me I have no stake in it, and could maybe spend my time and efforts elsewhere. That’s not a bad thing either.

So how is your next meeting unlike other meetings? What are you going to do about it?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.