How to have hard conversations around the board table

Every association is faced with tough conversations in the board room. Here are several strategies to help ensure discussions go smoothly and end in a positive result for the board members and the organization.

Prep Your Culture

Creating a great board culture before the hard conversations arise is the best way to ensure things go well. Strategies to create a positive board culture include:

  • Providing an in-depth orientation to the organization for board members.
  • Facilitating “getting to know you” activities with board members so they get to know one another personally.
  • Having a shared mission and vision for your organization that everyone on the board knows and buys-in on.
  • Establishing meeting procedures and norms that encourages participation and mutual respect.
  • Prepping your board chair for dealing with dominant voices and encouraging participation.
Acknowledge When Something is Hard

When things start to feel difficult or emotionally charged in the board room, take a second to pause and acknowledge the issue is difficult and that there are multiple points of view. Let everyone know that their voice – even if they are in the dissent – is valuable to the conversation.

Table a Decision in Favor of Discussion

Sometimes decisions must be made quickly, but when that isn’t the case give the board permission to table the decision for that meeting in favor of discussion. Having a generative discussion to ensure all ideas, solutions and perspectives are heard and allowing time between this discussion and the decision for reflection and information gathering is one way to build buy-in.

Hear All Voices

Not everyone is comfortable when there is conflict or a discussion gets hard. There are many strategies to help even the playing field including breaking into small groups, calling on each board member to share their thoughts, sending out pre-meeting surveys to collect feedback, having board members write suggestions down on a sheet of paper, or conducting polls or paper votes.

Silence is also a good strategy. Have the board chair ask for feedback and then be comfortable with a minute or more of silence to give people a chance to think and respond can yield great participation.

Identify and Eliminate Options

After a lengthy discussion, there are typically several options on the table. Take a few minutes to outline the options and then eliminate at least one. This will focus the remainder of the discussion on the remaining 2-3 options.

Ask Good Questions

When you are stuck on a decision, start asking questions. What are the barriers and challenges? What do we already agree on? What information do we need to gather to make this decision?

Bring in an Outside Voice

If you are stuck, it is a good idea to bring in an outside voice. This might be an outside facilitator, or a content expert related to the project that doesn’t have any financial or business interest in the decision you are making.  This outside prospective can often move the board out of a rut.

Hopefully having these tools in your tool belt will make your next board conversation go well.