Intentional or Free – two fundamentally different ways of being in a meeting

Carl-Erik Herlitz
14 October 2020

Two arrows pointing in opposite directions, one red, one green

We had an online meeting last week where we were supposed to talk about what we needed to do to take our projects forward. There were seven of us in the meeting and, as usual, we started by checking in as well as saying something specific about what the purpose of the meeting should be. The atmosphere was rather cheerful, maybe because we all had a need to have some fun, to be a little silly with each other for once.

Anders and I in particular embraced the silliness – I think we both felt like it was good not to be so serious all the time. Once we started talking about prioritization and next steps in the projects, a bit of the chatty atmosphere probably lingered, and, at one point, Anna got really annoyed about “all the fuss”.

Later in the meeting, we floated out talking for a very long time about some people’s individual problems and needs, because they were particularly frustrated about some things that didn’t work. The whole group was drawn into talking at a level of detail, which led to us not be able to talk about some of things we really needed to cover. Afterwards, I had a feeling that most people did not think the meeting had been very effective.

(The names here are not my real colleagues?)

After the meeting, I started thinking about how to make our meetings better. Here are some thoughts that have emerged that might be useful. When we think about how we usually are in meetings, there are two fundamentally different ways that one can distinguish. One could be called “intentional”, and the other “free”.

The meaning of intentional and free

You are intentional, or speak intentionally, when you choose what you say, are more reflective, thoughtful and, above all, more purpose-driven – you weigh your thoughts and words in relation to whether they are relevant to the bigger purpose or not. In line with this, you can also state that a meeting is or should be in intentional when it is agreed that all participants should choose to be intentional. Words used in this way thus represent an agreed upon form for the meeting.

To be free, or to speak freely, is both to be spontaneous, imaginative, uninhibited, bubbly, perhaps as if “in a dance”, but also, more negatively charged, to be impulsive, thoughtless, unconsidered and “purposeless” (reactive). To be free or to speak freely is thus when there is no need, or one is not able, to choose (it is not consciously chosen) and there is no need, or one is not able, to be connected to a mutual shared purpose (“purposelessness”). (Strictly speaking of course, we choose more or less all the time, but often not consciously and thoughtfully.) As was the case with intentional, one might also state that a meeting is in free, thus allowing participants to be and speak freely. It then also represents a way of having a meeting.

It is however more unusual to distinguish between the concepts in the context of

1) how one is in a meeting (what different “beings” one has, although it has a strong connection to the concepts of reactive or proactive), and

2)how meetings can bein different places, have different forms, intentional or free, and the expectations that follow from that.

Two valid ways of being in a meeting

What I want to propose here is the possibility of seeing both – intentional and free – as valid ways to be in a meeting and the value of clarifying, and agreeing on, when we want and need to be in one way or the other, as well as when the meeting should be in intentional or in free.

What I mean when I say that both ways are valid is not to think of one as good and the other as bad but only that both are more or less functional in different contexts. If there is clarity about this, it will lead to better meetings and a better climate of collaboration. For example, speaking freely can work really well in a small group, especially when we are all roughly in the “same place” in our thinking and needs. Being free (or in free) may also be needed for us to be able to be and feel “natural” and be better able to connect with others. Intentional can work much better in larger groups (especially if time is short) or when we want to talk about something sensitive or charged.

It is also important to understand that intentional, as opposed to free, does not represent unfree, constrained or fearful, and that intentional thus also can be free, associative and creative. In intentional, however, there is more of “choosing” and more of contemplating the needs of others and what the whole and the mutual purpose calls for. In intentional you also ask the others in the group if it is ok for you to talk about this or that. In free, you might simply start to talk about what you want, without asking the others.

Of course, one can also, intentionally, choose to be free and spontaneous. An example of this might be different versions of brainstorming. Or, to take another example, one can, in intentional, clearly state that “it is now ok for everyone to bring up anything, high and low, that you are thinking about.” In other words, it is explicitly agreed upon for everyone to “freely” throw anything up on the table. This is intentional, as long as there is a mutually agreed upon and clear purpose.

What do we gain?

Developing our ability to clearly distinguish intentionally from freely, to be able to consciously choose to be intentional or free, contributes to better cooperation in several ways:

  • It enables us to be in “the same place”, have a mutual understanding of what we want to achieve in a meeting

  • It therefore helps us avoiding misunderstandings

  • It highlights and emphasizes the value of having a purpose, always, and that a relevant purpose can be not having a purpose

  • It gives legitimacy to the two different ways of being and talking, both are valid and needed, but not at the same time

  • It helps us to make clear, put words to and talk about, what otherwise can create frustration

  • It enables us to take responsibility for how we best want to be in a meeting, it makes us more efficient, and we have and can exercise more leadership

  • And it helps us all to be able to have more engagement and commitment in our meetings

How can we use these terms?

There are a few different ways in which we can use these concepts (the distinction). As discussed above, we, as a group, can become better at explicitly choosing to go from one to the other, from free to intentional or from intentional to free.

For example, at the beginning of a meeting, when we have naturally been in free, talk about and choose to be intentional by saying something like: “shall we now start being intentional?” What this is, then, is an invitation to all to become more intentional in their being, to go from the spontaneous bubbling to the more thoughtful and purpose driven.

In the example above, our group could have talked about and explicitly chosen to go from free to intentional. If one exaggerates the clarity, then one could have asked: “Is it time for us to become intentional now?” or “Is it ok if we go intentional now?” Anders and I could then either have said that we would like to be a little longer in free or that it is ok to move on to intentional. If we went to intentional, we might perhaps have been able to get hold of ourselves better and reflect on, and choose more, whether what we wanted to say really contribute to the whole or not.

We can also choose to go from intentional to free, at the end of a meeting, or perhaps at the beginning of a break, but sometimes also “in the middle”, when we want to make a digression. One can, for example, ask “can we go into free now?”, i.e. check if it is ok to leave the intentional and become more spontaneous, free or bubbly.

One can of course claim that all this is something that many of us do naturally and that one should therefore not have to think about or talk about it. In “ordinary” life, one could have said instead: “Shall we start the meeting now?” or maybe, if you are brave – and can do it in a non-reactive way – “Is it ok if we focus now, and take down the level of chitchat?” If Anders and I would have been brave, we might have said, “No, we (apparently) need to be chatty for a while longer.”

To use this distinction may thus appear overly explicit – and unnatural – and that it would not be necessary for “professional” people, especially if they have trained an ability to go from free to intentional (without having to talk about it).

I would nonetheless argue that most of us often forget (reactively) what it means to be intentional and that we accordingly do not take responsibility for our way of being in meetings. The words and the distinction help us in this respect. Furthermore, my experience is also that most groups (e.g. management teams) are extremely poor at clarifying the purpose of the meeting or the purpose of a specific item. One might say “Shall we start the meeting”, and do so, without clarifying and creating consensus about what the purpose is. So, it may sound “professional”, and intentional, but in reality, is rather chaotic and free (in an “un-chosen” way).

Yet another example of this is when we are all talking in the context of a specific purpose and suddenly, a need appears (for some) to talk about something completely different, like the relationship between two team members. Often, the meeting is then either hijacked by those that feel that this is really important (or who cannot control themselves) or the new important issue is squashed by some or someone with power. To consciously be in intentional is to ask the group if they want to change the purpose and the focus (for a while) or to mutually decide how the new issue otherwise best should be addressed. Clarity is therefore something that helps all groups, I would say, to become more efficient and supports individual participants to maintain a good way to be during meetings.

As I also mentioned above, it does not have to be black or white, it is also a matter of judgment. Everyone can be, and continue to be, intentional when someone jokes (which they can do intentionally or freely), and this contributes to laughter and ease, and the group, as a whole, remains in intentional.

It is also important, when we talk about the boundaries between the two, that we come from empathy and all our humanity. The concepts are only to help us, not to bash someone else in the head with! It’s natural that in intentional all of us will, from time to time, say something (reactive) just because we think “we have to say it”. And then we will try to take care of that – what it might have stirred up in others – which is part of what it means to be a good, effective, open group.

Another possibility is therefore also to clarify where we come from when we say something. When someone starts talking, they can, for example, make it clear that “I want to say something freely” or ask, “is it ok if I say something more freely here?” Or conversely, someone might say “this may not sound relevant, but let me explain why I think it is” (not explicitly stated but against a background of the concepts).

In another situation, those who are listening may ask someone who is beginning to speak, whether they are “coming from free or from intentional”? If someone then answers, “perhaps from free “, then the group can be ok with this or ask the other to wait a bit. Or, if the answer is intentional, you can ask the person to explain “how this is connected to our purpose where we are?” If a team member has hard time being intentional and tends to talk too much, and float far from the purpose, then you can support him or her to become more intentional by, every now and then, asking “what is the headline of what you are talking about now?, “I do not follow?” or, a little tougher, “What do you want to accomplish with what you are saying right now?” Asking this type of question is, especially in a group that is clear about the difference, both to take responsibility for moving things forward as well as maintaining one’s own commitment, which often otherwise tends to fly out the window, when the purpose and intention are lost.

In the example above, we might have asked those who talked a lot about their particular projects where they came from. We could have asked; “Do you speak from intentionally or are you coming more from a free?” or “are you intentional now?” If they had answered, in different ways, that they were intentional, then we could have asked them to explain in what way it is relevant to talk about what they are talking about.

Perhaps the distinction also can be helpful when we want to support someone in their development, and we see that the person repeatedly is not intentional. If the person is open to feedback, we could say, for example, “I experience you often as not being intentional but rather you tend to slip away from the purpose, what do you think about that?”

Again, we can address everything I describe above in other ways, without the concepts, but I believe that it is valuable to distinguish what they represent and that they can help us understand each other better, to be “in the same place”, and get clarity. What is crucial when we talk about them, as I mentioned above, is that we do not become judgemental and that we remember, and adopt a way of being, that both are legitimate and relevant to different situations.

Finally, the distinction is of course absolutely crucial for good leadership. It is relevant, for example, when we consciously help the group to go from free to intentional in a meeting. It is also relevant insofar as we always need to be able to ask ourselves the question whether “what we are about to say” is something that really contributes (to the purpose) or not. So many times, it is infinitely much better, and more valuable, not to say what we feel like saying or what we think we need to say. Paradoxically, we also sometimes, as leaders, have to choose to “be spontaneous” and say something that came to mind in a given moment …

In summary

Intentional talking and being:

  • We choose what we do, such as talking or listening – we choose, for example, by: catching ourselves, reflecting… and then choosing (thus trying to hold back our reactive side)

  • We contribute to a clear, mutually agreed upon purpose

  • We “hold on” to this mutual purpose of the meeting or item, or supports the group to consciously choose to move to another purpose

  • We come from and place ourselves within the whole (and the purpose) rather than just our own needs and concerns (right there and then)

  • We respect others, and their “space” (and purpose), for example by:

  • Making clear how what we say is connected to what we are talking about right now (when we can suspect that it might be difficult to directly understand this)

  • Ask if it’s ok; when we want to change tracks, jump to something else, change the purpose

  • We think more: Is it important that I say this? Does it contribute to something important? Is it in line with the purpose?

  • And we listen from, and ask more, whether what others say is in line with a purpose or not. We develop an allergy to purposelessness.

When a meeting is “in intentional”:

  • It is an agreed upon form for the meeting (which also “free” is)

  • It is when everyone agrees that they want to be intentional, or in intentional.