Asking Versus Telling: Gaining Commitment to the Meeting Agenda

Today we find ourselves attending more meetings than ever before with less satisfaction. Recent research shows that on average most professionals attend a total of 61.8 meetings per month (1) with over 50 percent of this meeting time being perceived as wasted. (2) With trimming of the workforce not the workload, it’s no wonder actions aren’t followed through and people do what they can to avoid attending meetings. Yet some meetings are working. Plans are being created and actions are followed through. What are these meeting leaders doing differently?

Like many contemporary leadership roles, the person managing the meeting structure has the choice to either ‘tell’ or ‘ask’ his/her team members what needs to be done. This can be equally applied to running meetings. Being a meeting leader or ‘facilitator,’ our major objective is to get groups to buy in to the meeting structure that we’ve designed, and ultimately commit to the resulting actions. Since managers are frequently the meeting leaders as well, they can either tell people what to do or ask them what they think should be done. In all my years as a professional facilitator, I have found the best route to leveraging a group’s intelligence and gaining commitment to action is through the ‘ask’ on getting their ideas and the ‘tell’ in defining the ‘purpose’ and providing feedback on ‘how’ the dialogue should proceed.

Here’s what I do to help a group commit to the agenda:

  1. You state the purpose and the process steps (the ‘tell’) for each agenda item.
    • Understanding the purpose of the agenda item enables members to understand why they’re talking about the particular subject.
    • Understanding the ‘process’ enables members to know how they’re going to achieve the purpose. If it’s a new group, you may want to also explain why you’ve sequenced the steps in the discussion the way you have (i.e. “We’re going to analyze the problem first before we brainstorm solutions so that all members enter into the brainstorm knowledgeable of exactly what the problem is.”)
    • Defining ‘process’ with new groups is also helpful, as many groups bring a lot of ideas to the table but don’t really know how to structure those ideas in a logical way. Facilitators create and guide the meeting ‘process’ (i.e. a series of discussionary steps you believe the group needs to follow to achieve its purpose for an agenda item, plus refereeing the rules the group feels it needs to ensure full and respectful participation.)
  2. Determine if the group agrees with the purpose and/or process (the ‘ask’)
    • Facilitators know that groups commit better to purpose and/or process when they’re involved in defining it or at least having a say. ‘Telling’ members how you want to structure a conversation or why they need to agree to the ‘purpose’ of an agenda item could create some resistance if members lack buy-in.
  3. Deal with any resistance to either the purpose and/or process.
    • Ask the group ‘what specifically is it about the purpose (or, process) of our discussion that you’re concerned about?’ hear the input and seek to modify where applicable and there is group consensus.
    • If the issue is the ‘process’ and the group starts to get into a debate as to what they should be doing you may feel the group needs to experience your process before you begin to modify it. Tell them that you’re willing to change the process if after a suggested period of time (i.e. 30 min.) they feel the process isn’t working. If they agree don’t forget to stop the discussion and test the process after 30 minutes.

N.B. ‘Process’ is a series of discussionary steps you believe the group needs to follow to achieve its purpose for an agenda item, plus refereeing the rules the group feels it needs to ensure full and respectful participation.

Your ability to engage members in defining the how and what of an agenda will determine the degree of buy-in they will demonstrate towards owning the agenda and any resulting outcomes.


(1) A network MCI Conferencing White Paper. Meetings in America: A study of trends, costs and attitudes toward business travel, teleconferencing, and their impact on productivity (Greenwich, CT: INFOCOMM, 1998),

(2) Robert B. Nelson and Peter Economy, Better Business Meetings (Burr Ridge, IL: Irwin Inc, 1995)