As someone who facilitates over 100 meetings a year (sympathy cards welcome), I have the occasion to ask my clients who work or volunteer in the Jewish non-profit world, “what makes a meeting a Jewish meeting?” The answers rarely vary much: an abundance of food, plenty of passionate disagreement and informal post-meeting meetings that happen in the parking lot after the official meeting has concluded. In other words, as participants in Jewish communal life, we tend to cater to our shared need to eat, argue, and avoid hurting each other’s feelings in public.
Are those actions based in Jewish values and culture? Sure. We like to eat. As Hillel and Shammai modeled for us, we appreciate a rich and robust exchange of opposing ideas. And avoiding embarrassing others is a critically important Jewish value. But I think that we could be doing even more to bring some Jewish principles into the millions of collective meeting hours that we spend as professionals and volunteers in Jewish organizations, and even for Jewish professionals in secular and corporate settings.
Author Dave Barry once observed, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” I contend that there are three Hebrew words that, if we apply them liberally and consistently to our meetings, could move our organizations and our people to meet their potential – and beyond.
- Binah. Hebrew for “understanding,” binah is really about making distinctions. The rooster is said to exhibit binah when he crows at dawn, which is a fine line between the end of night and the beginning of day. When my husband Michael and I first became parents of twins, we quickly developed binah between types of cries (hungry, tired, wet) and even between children (was it him? Was it her?). We need to demonstrate binah when we decide whether what we want to accomplish actually requires a meeting, or could be done some other way that doesn’t take people away from doing more productive work, being with their families or something else that’s more important. If your meeting is focused on getting participation, creating a common understanding, doing collaborative problem solving, energizing a group about ideas, gaining commitment, engaging in critical decision making, or building support – go for it. If you’re planning a meeting simply to rubber-stamp a decision, to make a quick decision, to complain, to assert your power, or when a phone call or email would suffice, skip it.
- Kavanah. While there are many interpretations of this word, I choose the meaning “intention”. We are expected to pray with kavanah – to be mindful that we are speaking to God — as opposed to simply going through the motions robotically. On Rosh Hashanah, it is not enough for us to hope that our synagogue is close enough for us to hear the shofar being blown from a distance, while we sit at home, likely digesting our festive meal. No, we are expected to actively intend to hear the shofar, not by accident or by luck. Kavanah should also be the expectation for our meeting participants. They should intend to attend – not just happen to be free that night. They should intend to contribute – not just get lucky that the facilitator asked them the right question at the right time. And they should intend to get something out of the meeting – not hope that there’s a benefit to them. How can we make this happen? Well, not by wishing – that’s for sure. We need to use our kavanah and clearly set the expectation that meetings will include meaningful work and important discussions that require the unique perspectives of those people who are invited. We need to set a higher bar for our meetings – not the low standard that we typically employ, saying apologetic things like, “it won’t take a lot of time” or “you won’t have to do much” or “please — just show up”. We should tell participants what to bring, what to read, what to know and what to be prepared to do on every meeting notice to make sure that people have what they need to make the meeting intentional, and productive.
- Chochma. This means wisdom, but a very special kind: it is wisdom with unlimited potential, filled with inspiration that comes seemingly out of nowhere. In fact, chochma is considered the life-force of creation. It is the spark of an idea that turns into something amazing. Too often in our meetings, we crush chochma without even knowing it. How do we do this? First, by assuming that the people who attend are smart only in the ways we’ve already decided they are. If you’ve ever heard (or said) something like, “David’s good for the analytical stuff, but he’s not our guy for big picture thinking,” then you’re not creating space for individual chochma that you might not know about. Second, we do this by withholding information for fear that sharing everything we know will complicate decision making. This limits the chochma of the group. Third, we do this by spending far too much meeting time discussing the problems (what’s not working, what the challenges are, and what we need to be careful about) and not nearly enough time discussing the possibilities. This limits the chochma of the organization. Instead, let’s act as if everyone is clever and insightful in both the ways we can see and in those we can’t see – yet. Let’s trust that knowledge is power rather than ignorance is bliss. And let’s uphold that our meetings are opportunities to learn from what’s working when it’s working well rather than simply a time and date in our calendars to rehash old problems and recycle old solutions.
Peter Drucker famously commented: “Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings the better.” As long as our meetings are simply places to eat, bicker, and save the really meaty conversation for the parking lot, I have to say that I agree with him. But if we can bring some new distinction, intention and wisdom to our meetings, we can make sure that the hours upon hours we spend in them are valuable uses of our time, our energy, our money, our mission and our people.