Do you remember in grade school or youth groups when the teacher would hold up her hand and it was an instant symbol to be quiet? That simple gesture spoke volumes, without the teacher ever uttering a word.

I think grown-ups would be well served to adopt the same principle for meetings. Instead of using a wordless cue to silence meetings, I recommend the use of paddles to help participants change the focus of the conversation.

Paddles can be a simple piece of card stock/construction paper mounted on a craft stick. (think of tongue depressors or Popsicle sticks). If you give participants a paddle at the start and review the ground rules for using them, the meeting can become more effective as it gives people permission to weigh in on the process, not just the content. In a non-threatening, non-time-intensive, non-interrupting way a member can refocus a discussion or the leader can get a quick read of where participants stand on a topic.

For example:
> If a group is trying to be strategic, but finds itself reverting “into the weeds” too often, the paddle could reflect a picture of a dandelion (weed), or in the reverse be an airplane (to represent the 30,000 feet level where the group is trying to operate.) If a member feels the discussion is getting too detailed or operational, they silently raise the paddle, reminding all that the scope of the discussion needs to be elevated. They don’t have to raise their hand, wait to be called on, preface their comments with an apologetic lead-in — it just happens.

> Paddles can also be used as quick straw poll. I know of a task force that had red, green and yellow paddles and could raise them to indicate strong acceptance or disagreement on where the idea generation was heading. If suddenly a bunch of green paddles went up, the leader would know to pursue that line of thinking in more depth.

I have written before about using a horse to stop the conversation when the group has beaten a topic to death and paddles can serve a similar function. Not all meeting facilitation has to be verbal, lofty or left to the leader. Try to add paddles or a similar tool to your next group gathering and share the responsibility of keeping the focus where you want it to be.

beth triplett

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