Management and Leadership
How Do I Run a Panel?
How do you respond when you’re asked to chair a panel discussion? Are you enthusiastic? Or are you already thinking of someone you could propose as a replacement? Do the poorly orchestrated contributions of TV talk show guests enter your mind?
I asked my friend Heiner Bielefeldt for advice. He successfully chairs panels, teaches at the University of Erlangen, and serves as UN Special Rapporteur for the freedom of religion and belief. Here is a compilation of tips for chairing panels based on Heiner’s experience and my own:
The Role of Participants. You need to know what each person will contribute to the panel. Here are some questions to ask yourself beforehand: What organizations do panelists represent? What is each panelist’s level of expertise on a particular subject and point of view? A few days before the event, ask participants any remaining questions you may have, but keep them brief. Take a look at their websites or any publications. If you will be involved in preparing the panel, and I hope you will be, compose a panel of people you want to bring to one table, whose positions on topics of interest will be sufficiently different from each other and who are comfortable debating in public.
The Script. Now you need to write a script as follows:
In the first round, all are invited to present their main topic and briefly discuss their points of view. Initial presentations should only highlight the topic and any concerns.
In the second round, there is room for some surprises. You can propose to redirect the discussion to incorporate different ways of thinking about certain topics. The art of spontaneously changing the conversation has more to do with knowing how to gently ask short, concise questions than it is about having in-depth knowledge of topics being discussed.
Typically, the most enjoyable part of chairing panels for many people is the third round when the Question and Answer period opens up to the audience. To avoid the situation from getting out of hand, however, a simple rule to follow is to ask audience participants to address only one panelist and to keep questions brief. After the Q & A session is over, panelists should be invited to speak again, adding something of interest to their previous presentations. Ideally, this final round should be about future ideas and perspectives.
Your Role as the Host. To succeed in your role as host, it is your job to bring out the best in each panelist. Remain open to changes in the flow of the discussion, which could be quite different from what is intended in your original script. If something should happen unexpectedly, take advantage of the shift in group dynamics, and go for it! If audience members have something crucial to contribute, give them the space to do so. The debate could really become an exciting event for all who will truly appreciate your genius at work. The main directive in chairing a panel is: Steer!
A few weeks ago, a client and I had a conversation about the problematic behavior of one of his staff members. He told me she happily misses deadlines and relies 100% on his readiness to cover her mistakes in front of the president. He can take the blame; she shrugs her shoulders and reminds him she has too much work on her desk. One day, my client had enough and did make it clear that it was she who had missed the deadline. Big excitement! How could he be so rude!
We then went through his options to achieve a clarification of principles with this colleague. He suggested communicating to her how embarrassing it is for him to have to take responsibility for her lack of adherence to delivery dates time and again; and that, at the very least, she can ask for an extension of the deadline; that she does have a lot on her desk but this problem must be solved on a different level, and therefore he would allow her to attend training on work organization and …
Wait a minute! I said. Do you hear yourself?
It would be appropriate that you, indeed, show her how embarrassing it is for you to have to take responsibility for her lack of adherence to delivery dates time and again. Period.
Let your feelings stay in the room.
It is on her to respond to your embarrassment. You can’t just ignore her reaction with a plethora of further comments and solutions. Who knows where this could lead if she empathizes with you. Potentially apologizes. Explains her view on the matter. Presents her solutions.
The question here is: what is my job? It is his job to present things from his perspective- it is embarrassing. Period.
The solution is her job.
This is relevant for executive functions, but I do see it in many other areas. It has to do with authenticity – we hardly dare to expose others to our embarrassment, disappointment, anger or gratitude. Instead of completely performing our own job– in being present and perceptible – we pre-empt how others could react. That is inappropriate. Appropriate would be to do our part, and to then observe how others react to our behavior. And then? The answer will come to mind once we have listened well.
Whether you lead or communicate or co-operate with others: Pause for a moment when things get complicated. What is my job here? Let others do their job. Yours will be much clearer then.
Conflicts, as we all know, are not usually appreciated. Regrettably, I think. They are pushed aside, because they are unpleasant. Quickly resolved so everything becomes “positive” again. We get stuck in conflict and stop communicating properly. This culture of rejection of conflicts deprives us of a lot of valuable information. Maybe there is an opportunity for exciting solutions here? Maybe it is interesting to listen to what the other side really wants?
What do people around you quarrel about? Do all concerned parties have the opportunity to express their points of view? Or do they just censor themselves before opening their mouths, in the belief that they won’t be listened to and respected anyway? That is typical behavior in many situations. In organizational structures, many people in lower level positions believe it doesn’t pay to speak out. And top-level management often says the same! This may be due to reasons related to labour rights where things are not expressed out of fear of a labour trial, there may be lack of courage behind, or distrust in personal development as an option. What gets forgotten in all this is that underneath all this resistance to putting our views on the table is just different points of view and different interests.
What about expressing your point of view and your interests explicitly at the next occasion of conflict? And allowing others to do the same? Could we all relax about conflicts and unwrap their content with greater ease and curiosity?
One of the big disputes among coaches is the one about goals: Should a client work on and towards goals or not? While I hope clients are mature enough to find out for themselves, it is nonetheless interesting to hear some of the points of view taken by the different schools of thought.
So, those in favour of goals say that they are the real drivers – to motivate you, to check on the progress made, and of course, to ultimately achieve what you want. Already the process of putting your goals on a piece of paper, and shaping them is a big leap forward. Then to develop small but well-chosen steps toward the goals is the most promising way to change for the better.
Then there are those who express reservations on working on goals. Some are concerned that a goal may rather represent an occasional whim or a superficial ambition covering another, deeper need. Others point to the fact that goals may change on the way and once they lost their quality as a source of inspiration, they lose their value. Another problem is that we seem to connect our happiness to reaching a certain goal. Failure means so much more than not reaching the goal – we are doomed if we miss the target!
Human resources expert Margrit Reck-Roulet asks pertinent questions about goal-setting: Is it because of too many goals that it is so hard for some managers to make time for people? Is focusing on people a luxury not many businesses can afford? She drew my attention to the findings of Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute who found out: “There’s a network in the brain dedicated to thinking about goals and the more goals you have, the more frequently it switches on. However, activating this network shuts off the part of the brain responsible for dealing with people. So because senior executives have the largest and most complex goals of all employees, they can easily become less socially and self-aware, and less effective leaders, the more they think about goals. “
Interesting, isn’t it?