When we're in meetings with families at Collegewise, we spend as much time talking as we do listening. We have to listen carefully to know what advice to give, but if we tried to play amateur therapists and just kept asking, "How does that make you feel?" without saying anything in return, they'd start to wonder what they're getting out of this.
But when we brainstorm a college essay with a student, it's the student's time to talk (as it's the student's essay to write). So we have Collegewise kids write responses to 20 "Brainstorming questions" ahead of time and bring it with them to the meeting. This lets them take as much time as they'd like to think about the answers and to share the parts that are most important to them. During the meeting, we read the responses and ask them to tell us more. And we follow the 70/30 rule–they talk 70% of the time, we talk only 30%. That's why we can always spot a great story without hijacking the process. Every student–even a shy one–gets a chance to develop, share and write her own ideas.
Chip and Dan Heath sent this newsletter today and offered a similar tip to make your next meeting even more effective. Try it at your next meeting for the school newspaper, Spanish Club, PTA, etc. And if you're a counselor, try it when you help a student brainstorm college essays.
Change the way you brainstorm.
In most brainstorming session, the "talkers" in the group will share a few ideas, and then others will chime in with refinements of those initial ideas (rather than introducing a radically different point of departure). The effect is that, within 10 minutes, the group has shut down 99% of the potential conversation paths. One easy way to correct for this is to have every member of the team brainstorm privately and record their thoughts prior to the meeting. Then, start the meeting by asking people to share their ideas before the group discussion begins. That way, you can be more confident that you've charted more of the "landscape of ideas," rather than simply building on the (possibly misguided) ideas of the group's loudest members."