By Rochelle Kopp, Managing Principal, Japan Intercultural Consulting
This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese, that originally appeared in the Japan Times
Setting ground rules is something that meeting experts say should be done at every meeting, but in actuality very few people actually take the time to do so. However, ground rules are especially important when people of different cultural backgrounds are meeting together, because inherently they will have different ideas of how to behave in a meeting. Establishing ground rules ensures that all the participants are on the same wavelength in terms of the way to proceed.
One area in which ground rules should be established involves the use of technology. Cell phones have become a major distraction in meetings, as many people seem to feel no compunction about jumping up from their seat and bolting from the room the moment they receive a call. This tends to send the message that they are more important than the other people in the room, and that the call that is coming in is a higher priority than what is being discussed in the meeting. One useful ground rule is to ask all participants to turn off their phones at the start of the meeting. Of course, there are bound to be some people who will resist doing this, because they believe that they are likely to be receiving an emergency call. For such people, they should be asked to at least turn their cell phone to vibrate rather than ring (known in Japanese as “manner mode”), and to only take those calls that are of vital importance.
Another distraction to meetings is people checking their email on their cell phones, or in the case of the U.S., on devices called Blackberrys, which receive forwarded email messages in a similar way to how cell phones in Japan work. It’s not unusual nowadays to see people checking and responding to email messages in the middle of a meeting, holding their cell phone or Blackberry furtively under their desk. Of course, one can’t be truly present in a meeting if one is also replying to messages. A useful ground rule would be to turn off all cell phones and Blackberrys, and store them out of reach so there is no temptation to turn them on.
Other useful ground rules involve the way people interact in the meeting. Particularly when there are non-native speakers of English and native speakers participating together, I find that it is useful to set ground rules relating to how people speak. This can help to prevent the common problem of the native English speakers getting carried away with themselves and starting to hold rapid-fire exchanges among themselves, leaving the non-native speakers out of the conversation. Key ground rules in this connection would include speaking slowly, avoiding slang, and not interrupting. These sound simple and obvious, but can easily fall by the wayside when people start to get excited about what they are talking about. Also ground rules for the non-native speakers such as “it’s always ok to interrupt to ask a question” can be quite helpful. If there is a group that meets together frequently, it’s useful to set aside time to develop a list of such ground rules that can be applied to all meetings. For example, I have worked with teams that design such ground rules, put them on posters, and hang them in all their meeting rooms. The rules are pointed to as a reminder at the start of every meeting. This kind of very simple approach can be surprisingly effective in helping teams improve the quality of their conversations in meetings and ensuring that all participants are comfortable.