Some notes about disagreement during board meetings

February 3, 2015
Business man threatening business partner, grabbing him by the ti

Don’t let your board meetings look like this.

Groups are smarter than individuals. Diversity within a group makes it even stronger. For example, a board with all college graduates is not as smart collectively as a board that is mostly college graduates. The non-college graduates offer a different set of experiences and a different background that will prevent larger biases to emerge.

That diversity of experience and background will inevitably lead to disagreements and maybe even outright arguments. How that experience is managed and making it productive is one of the hardest challenges of a board.

Speak up

Knowing how to act at board meetings can be tricky for someone who has never been to one before.

Some people get onto a board and are afraid to say anything for fear of saying the wrong thing or exposing their ignorance. As a rule of thumb, I think it’s important to speak up or ask a question at least once every meeting. You are on a board to have a voice. Use it!

Sometimes just being the person to “sum up” what you’ve heard so far is important, even if you don’t have a strong opinion you want to share. (This kind of active “observing” can be helpful for the other board members to better see where their differences are without the emotion of an argument getting in the way.)

Others feel similarly anxious but express it by talking too much. If you find yourself talking a lot during a board meeting and you are not the president of the board, then consider testing yourself to remain silent during a motion or two. Yes, of course, if it seems there will be a split vote or otherwise two different sides, you can jump in. But most votes aren’t like that. And in giving yourself the freedom to just sit back and watch every so often, you might learn something about yourself.

Advocating for your position

How do you advocate for what you believe without belittling someone else or their ideas? That’s a key question for all board members. People come at this from all over the map.

Some people may have a hard time telling someone they “disagree” with them. It’s just not in their nature. Others may be used to heated arguments and won’t even register that there is real disagreement until someone’s voice is raised. Different people approach conflict differently. Your fellow board members will have different ideas about how to conduct themselves during a disagreement or an argument than you do. Guaranteed.

One idea that will help you present your ideas more clearly is starting them with the phrase “I feel” or “In my opinion” (so long as the sentence that follows is not “that you’re an idiot”). Using this construction, you are more likely to be clear about your idea and you are less likely to target someone else personally. In short, you have a better chance of being understood. I’ve seen people who are afraid to state their opinion, so they wrap up their sentence with so much convolution no one else knows what they mean.

Here are three statements from board members at the (fictional) Smallville Historical Society. Let’s consider them and their alternatives:

Statement #1

“No way! Recent history is boring and no one cares about it. We need to stick to the exciting parts, like the early pioneers.”

This dismisses someone else’s feelings as irrelevant.

Alternatively: “I think that we should focus on the pioneer days, which has long been our focus, and not the entirety of Smallville’s history.”

Statement #2

“I don’t know, Bob… with the way the finances are… and the reserves… what if…? I mean, if in five years something … you know, changes at the state… Then where would the cabin be?”

This isn’t clear at all. Bob might be able to parse it out, but he’s just as likely not to know what you’re getting at.

Alternatively: “I have to disagree, Bob. In my opinion, we are running a real financial risk by continuing to rely on the state grant for operation of the cabin.”

Statement #3

“Do you think that if you looked at the committee report from the point of view of finances that you might see why it’s obvious to everyone else but you that we need to raise our dues?”

Again, this belittles the person, but does it through the sneaky way of asking them a question. If you want to ask someone a question, ask them a question. If you want to advocate for an idea, advocate for an idea. Don’t mix them up.

Alternatively: “Based on the report from the finance committee, I feel that we need to seriously look at raising fees to cover expenses.”

Body Language

In addition to your words and your tone, you should be aware of your body language. Are you domineering and physically using your size to try to get your way (unconsciously or not). Are you practically curling up into a ball as you speak? Are you talking to someone while looking at them over your reading glasses? (If there is a significant age gap, this will come off to the younger person as condescending.)

All in all, be polite but clear. Remember that everyone in the room is there because they support the work of the nonprofit. Even if they disagree with you on the means to do so. The tone of a board meeting and the board as a whole is formed over time. There is more detail about managing dissent and discussion in the chapter on being board president.

Listening is just as important

Just as important as advocating for your position is listening to others and what they believe is best for the nonprofit. A board with a variety of experiences and viewpoints produces the best results, but that works only if board members are willing to listen to one another.

Why is someone advocating for a position that you disagree with? What do they see that you don’t? It’s important that you attempt to understand where someone is coming from. Give them the benefit of the doubt and think about their argument. Sometimes you might see a new side of a discussion you hadn’t considered before. Sometimes you won’t, but it’s good to know where your fellow board member is coming from.

Try to phrase back to them what you’re hearing, without overloaded judgment. “What I’m hearing from you, Barb, is that you are worried that term limits will hurt our board, because new board members might not replace the good quality board members that we already have. Is that correct?”

Barb, in that example, should be willing to confirm it or clarify. But it’s not a window for her to start talking again. Once you’ve confirmed it, you should get your chance to reply with your opinion.

In the end, vote and move on

It’s entirely possible you won’t get to consensus on every issue, no matter how much you listen to one another. That’s totally fine. At some point, the board will need to vote. It may be a split vote, and while that may not happen often, it’s important not to hold grudges whether you are on the winning side of the vote or the losing side.

Done right, a board’s camaraderie and shared sense of purpose should be strong enough to get through split votes without lingering resentment.

You can find some additional thoughts on moderating conversations in my post “How to be Board President.” The board president plays a key role in keeping things civil and on track.

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