3+4≠7. Maximizing Your Meetings.

For conversations, 3+4 is not equal 7. This is because active conversations can’t have more than you and four other people. When you have a roundtable of twenty, only four others will actively exchange in one coherent dialogue at a given time. Everyone else will wait for their turn. Usually, with groups as large as 20 or 200, we need special structures such as raising hands or a pre-assigned order. Think about parliaments or large company meetings. They are all designed such that there are as few people exchanging at any one time as possible.

As we’ve mentioned in another post Something To Talk About, even Shakespeare’s plays don’t have more than four speakers engaged in a conversation at once (counting choruses as one speaker, of course). Psychologists have several explanations for this:

  • First, our hearing capacity is limited—we simply can’t hear well enough if there are so many people. 
  • Second, our short-term memory can’t store so much information. 
  • Third, we can’t model the minds of so many people at once—thinking about what others know, feel and think is crucial for meaningful conversations.

The consequences of this are weird. When we have three people talking and a group of four joins in, there are generally only five people who are actively engaged. Now, either two people will have to remain passive and unaddressed or there will be a split into smaller groups again. This happens at cocktail parties all the time—and there is no need for anyone to direct this. It just happens.

In the online world, we tend not to realize this magic of smaller conversations. Sometimes, we end up in one large video call or on one large audio channel. Things tend to get messy and tiring quite quickly, and it only worsens as more people join in. Unless you have a very specific agenda requiring everyone to be present, large group conversations are a bad option. At Knit, we allow for spontaneous split-ups into small groups instead.

Keep this in mind as a meeting organizer. There are some cases where everyone has to be on board all the time. For example, collective decisions, feedback rounds or lectures. But make sure to minimize the time when the group is larger than it has to be. And enjoy the magic of meaningful conversations happening by themselves.