Not long ago, I was called for jury duty here in Washington, DC. I sat in a big waiting room with dozens of other potential jurors. We were that quintessential cross-section of DC society: young and old, black and white, men and women; a diversity of suits and jeans, loafers and boots.
As we sat there waiting to be called to perform this solemn duty of American democracy and civic engagement, we watched a video about jury selection. It was a propaganda piece meant to convince us that giving up a day or many days to sit in a courtroom was not a waste of time; like the meetings they are, people are not excited by being on a jury. But it also served as a FAQ about the process of serving on a jury.
Interwoven in the video where a greatest-hits of jury scenes from movies. And over and over again, the scene looks pretty much the same – whether in grainy black and white or more modern color. It’s an almost stereotypical scene of people sitting around a table basically just arguing in circles. There’s the inevitable scene of the jury foreman trying to bridge a divide between factions in the room. It’s a scene that hasn’t changed in decades even if we know if can be better.
It’s the typical dysfunction of the meeting that struck me.
After all, there’s no one in the jury room who has a background in running a meeting. No one has any meeting facilitation skills. There’s no requirement that the foreman know anything about hearing all voices, surfacing constructive disagreement, bringing a group together, or facilitating meetings.
It’s weird because the stakes are so high: where else does the outcome of a meeting mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment or, potentially, life and death? And yet the model videos make it look like it’s ok to run this meeting just like so many office meetings are run: no real structure, no real moderation, no real facilitation, no real way to resolve differences.
As in business, there are lots of other things that may take priority over meeting training or meeting facilitation skills. But given the degree to which meetings are central in businesses and in our court system and the degree to which their outcomes matter, it’s kind of crazy that we just turn people loose with not a minute of meeting training or guidance and hope for the best.
In the end, the court released all of the potential jurors because the judge called in sick. There was, in fact, no reason for us to have shown up for the meeting; a not-unfamiliar complaint of meeting attendees everywhere. People hooted and hollered to be let go from their duties as we streamed out of the court into downtown Washington, DC. It’s a common manifestation of people not having to attend a meeting when they expect that it’s not going to a good meeting.