Have you ever had an experience like this? You hold a meeting that should be a fairly straightforward discussion, and all of a sudden…wham!  One of the attendees seizes on a minor point, sinks his teeth in, and holds on like a Pit Bull.  Others join the fray, and the meeting turns into a heated argument about something only distantly related to what it was meant to be about.

Why does this happen and what can you do to prevent it?

A partial explanation lies in Parkinson’s law of triviality, also known as bikeshedding, which states that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. Confronted with something complicated they don’t know much about, people feel on firmer ground arguing over something small on which they can hold a definite opinion.

But there is something else going on here.

In any meeting there are two kinds of things happening. There is the analytical or logistical content of the meeting. This is what the meeting is about according to the items on the agenda: the issues to be discussed, the ideas to be generated, the decisions to be made.

Then there is the emotional or social content of the meeting. This usually doesn’t appear on the agenda at all. It’s how much time is spent during or prior to the meeting, building rapport and trust amongst the participants, ensuring they are comfortable to say what they think and to admit what they don’t know.

It looks a bit like this.