I had a career in business for nearly twenty years before I became a practicing psychotherapist. By day, I created agendas for leadership team meetings where every moment was allocated, including 15-minute increments for bathroom breaks. I built scorecards to track performance against goals and presented the results to executives in black-and-white, binary terms. The values and behaviors that are sacrosanct in the environment where I grew up professionally included efficiency, time management, the expedient identification of solutions and talking over listening.
After completing a Master of Social Work program and passing my licensing exam, a few evenings a week, I would place my fingertip on the scanner to exit the turnstile and be with people in their grief, sorrow, anxiety and depression. Anyone would concede that these are very different ways to spend one’s time. Yet there was no place that highlighted the disparity between the two environments more acutely than in case conference.
At the institute where I completed my training, my colleagues and I gathered once a week for 90 minutes to review administrative matters and to discuss cases where we were seeking input. There were about ten of us. Most were psychologists. Like me, there were a few social workers, but unlike me, no one came from the business world.
What I noticed when I attended my first case conference was how differently I was dressed. My colleagues wore colored jeans, ankle boots and chunky infinity scarves. Most of the women didn’t have a stitch of makeup on their faces though some wore bold lipstick shades that contrasted sharply with their naked complexions. They had the look of people who had eaten a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal before heading out for a hike in the mountains.
I wore wide-leg trousers, pointy-toed boots and stylized accessories. I looked like I was on my way to the headquarters of a Fortune 50 financial services firm which, of course, I was. But the clothing was secondary to more substantive differences.
The meetings didn’t start on time, and there were no agendas. In fact, there was no structure at all. There were times when we would finish discussing a topic, and no one would step in to fill the gap. I was accustomed to rooms full of people waiting for someone else to finish speaking so that they could start. This was different. We would just sit in silence. I waited for someone to recognize that there was nothing more to discuss and end the meeting, freeing us to move onto our next task or phone call or errand. No one did. I felt confused and anxious and uncomfortable and frustrated in the silence. Maybe five minutes would pass—maybe even more—and then someone would introduce an entirely new topic. It could be a feeling about something that occurred during last week’s case conference or how we were relating as colleagues. And then others would chime in. They had similar feelings or reactions. The ensuing conversation was rich and meaty and clarifying, and it never would have happened if we had an agenda that we followed strictly, or if we had adjourned at the first quiet moment. While my first instinct was to derisively view this perceived lack of efficiency or squandering of time, I gained a genuine appreciation for the value of space, and the fruits that it can yield.
In her book “Leap: Leaving A Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want,” Tess Vigeland endorses this very idea. She bucks the age old wisdom to never leave a job without having secured a new one. She asserts that, “Unstructured time is great for creativity and inspiration.” It feels like there could be a place for this concept in corporate meeting rooms. While there are valid reasons not to abandon structure and agendas in business settings, I wonder what we are leaving on the table when we place so much value on efficiency and time management and not enough on those quiet moments—the space between ideas. How might things be different if we didn’t consistently reward the person who talks the most in meetings? What might emerge if we truly learned to mind the gap?