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A year after Bryan Paterson became mayor of Kingston in 2014, I was chatting with councillors about how he was faring. One veteran began by saying he was the best chair of council meetings in the past few decades, and although that might not seem a significant quality for evaluating a mayor, it was vitally important. Mr. Paterson was fair and gave people time to make their case even when it might oppose his own views.

Early this year, however, in a series of budget meetings on three consecutive evenings, Mr. Paterson slipped up. He shut down a councillor who was making an amendment he sensed would add nothing to implementation of the decision being formulated. The next time he saw her, he apologized.

“The most important virtue you have as a chair is patience, where you give anyone who wants to express a viewpoint the time to make their case,” he says in an interview. “I try to not lose patience. Being fair means giving everyone a little bit of extra room for views expressed contrary to my own. For everyone to perceive the playing field is level you have to tilt it a little bit against you.”

The same is true, of course, in the everyday meetings we attend at work. Everyone is in a rush, other work delayed for the meeting. But for a good decision, various viewpoints should be heard before everyone converges on a solution.

This divergence-convergence aspect of meetings is a central feature of strategy retreats and brainstorming sessions where it is carefully structured, often under the guidance of professional facilitators with ample time. We pay less attention to it in other meetings, to our detriment, particularly when bosses – who have more power over employees than Mr. Paterson has over independently elected councillors – drive toward a favoured conclusion.

Rose Patten, a longtime senior executive and now special advisor with BMO Financial Group, as well as chancellor of the University of Toronto and author of Intentional Leadership, says the divergence phase is critical when determining risks, particularly on corporate and volunteer boards. “There are always elements of risk and unless you can allow some form of dissent-divergence-questioning, you are taking a lot of risk. There is a lot of onus on the chair or whoever is leading or co-ordinating the meeting to enable this divergence,” she says in an interview.

There is often a desire to avoid conflict in meetings. “I think we have even been trained – those of us in leadership roles – to believe that success is gaining consensus. To some extent that is true – but not in a straight line. There has to be some zig-zagging that goes on where you watch for and even ferret out a different opinion or dissenting view,” she says. “We’re getting better. But I think for many years – decades really – our board rooms have been a lot of echo chambers.”

She says chairs must enable people to diverge, not just on boards but in meetings throughout an organization, in order to get better outcomes. If leaders see themselves as bosses – the person with all the knowledge and answers - dissent will be held back. She urges leaders to see themselves as navigators with teams as the heroes. That provides a mental framework for encouraging conversation and makes the discussion more inclusive.

In the quest for diversity, equity and inclusion, she feels we have done reasonably well on diversity and equity but we’re struggling more with inclusion. We have diverse people at the table but not all feel included – that they are valued. “That’s really about allowing divergence – and, of course, hoping for convergence. If you have diverse mindsets in any kind of group you have to expect differences in views. You have to allow those,” she says.

Bruce Withrow, the Barrie-based founder of Meeting Facilitators International, points out time must be allowed in meetings with special presentations for processing what has been heard. Participants have to figure out what has been omitted, what needs to be sharpened and what needs to be challenged further.

While divergence can be difficult, he feels chairs of meetings throughout organizations tend to fail more on convergence and ensuing action planning.

Convergence requires clarification. You need to make sure people don’t have different views of what has just been decided. It’s also vital to clarify what you are not going to do as well as what you are going to do. “You converge by saying ‘we are not going to do these things,’” he says in an interview. He finds it helpful to ask what will the group “pursue” – put time, money and effort into, which may not mean taking the idea all the way to completion. Commitments can be time-bound.

When considering options in the convergence phase, he warns against asking everyone for pros and cons, which leads individuals to “dig themselves into their pre-conceived foxholes.” Instead, list all the options and then discuss only the pros of each option, one at a time, before going back to hear the cons. That process increases the chance people might move to a new position.

He might also go around the table and ask participants which options they could support and then in another round which they prefer and why. That gives a better reading of the room – one option may stand out as having majority support and is also acceptable to all. This process also allows people to see a better solution than all the current options if some tweaks are made.

Mr. Paterson notes that when he was a councillor he wanted to simply have his own say and see the meeting move along briskly. But as chair, he realized he had a broader responsibility to ensure healthy discussion. Next time you chair a meeting, think carefully about divergence-convergence – and patience.


  • Labour economist Lori Melichar recommends a unique meeting: A once-a-month “Slow Hunch Jam.” Like musicians who come together just to jam and make music, her team riffs on hunches. Someone might say, “I wonder if ...” or “I have a feeling that ...” and others build on those notions.
  • Career advisor Alison Green says the worst way to tell a job candidate in the late stages of the hiring process that they are being eliminated from consideration is by video. The intention may be good, to be more personal, but they come to the meeting expecting positive news and instead must handle rejection face-to-face. She suggests sharing the news by email initially and offering a phone call for feedback.
  • Author Mark Manson says three critical life skills that nobody teaches you are “how to ask for honest feedback, how to take honest feedback and how to give honest feedback.”

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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