Coyne viewed the coming work week with dread. His employer spent roughly the sum of all the employee’ 401k holdings on a weeklong mandatory communications training course. The problem of no work getting done during training was solved by having mandatory after-hours work to make up for it.

Skylar White holds the talking pillow in a scene from Breaking Bad

The training program centered around three simple tenets to holding effective meetings: Common Respect, Common Purpose, and Common Goals. Before the training started, Coyne’s manager, Stefen, made an announcement. “After completion of this course,” he said, “there will be no excuse for having an unsuccessful meeting. We’ll be tracking meeting results, and bad meetings will be documented and reviewed during your annual performance evaluations. Now, let me introduce your trainer, Trent…”

Coyne knew where this was going. Meetings would be the same, but now they doubled as ammunition on performance reviews. Worse, Stefen now had three new terms to throw around, ad nauseum, when he decided to hijack a meeting and tell everyone his mandate. The training tried to make that harder for him, though, by introducing a “Talking Pillow” on the very first day.

“Part of Common Respect,” Trent explained, “is adhering to someone’s right to speak.” If you started blabbering without holding the Talking Pillow, you were violating the Common Respect tenet. You could only speak if you were holding the pillow, and once you were done with your spiel, the talking pillow would be passed on so someone else could give input. Coyne and his team were forced to practice it, and most of them had no trouble with the Kindergarten exercise- aside from Stefen, who kept violating the rules.

The ensuing days of training delved into the Common Purpose and Common Goals part of the program. Common Purpose could be summarized as, “Everyone should agree on the purpose of the meeting and stick to it.” Stefen gleefully tacked on an “or else!”. Ever the cynic, Coyne could already see Stefen taking this as a license to focus any meeting on what he wanted it to be about. Disagreeing with Stefen would be trampling the sacred order of the Common Purpose.

As far as Common Goals, these were meant to imply everyone would leave the meeting with the same goals, consisting of a to-do list of deliverables. Anything other than concluding a meeting with Common Goals would be considered a failure. Terms like “post-meeting harmony” were thrown around to make it seem like an ideal situation.

The week ended, and Trent and his fellow consultants were happy to pack up their talking pillows and take their exorbitant check for a week’s worth of work that could have fit into a one hour webinar. “Best of luck, everyone!” Trent said through a grin as he shook everyone’s hand. “I’m sure you’ve all seen the importance of RESPECTING each other’s PURPOSE to achieve GOALS, and you all have that in COMMON now!” He chuckled like this were a clever phrase, and Coyne rolled his eyes.

Before the trainers were out of the parking lot, Stefen raised his own talking pillow on high and shouted, “Listen up, everyone! First thing Monday morning, we’re putting this knowledge to good use. I’m calling a 7AM meeting to discuss the strategy for the Initrode migration, so show some Common Respect and be there on time!”

Most of Coyne’s co-workers didn’t usually start their day until 8 or 9. “Common Respect” apparently didn’t extend to scheduling meetings during core hours. But Coyne and his team members shambled into the conference room, zombie-like, just before 7AM on Monday. Stefen was already seated at the head of the table, with the talking pillow, and had scrawled “COMMON RESPECT, PURPOSE and GOALS” on the whiteboard.

“Have a seat, everyone. Now that we’re familiar with the communication terms, here’s how it’s going to be. You’re going to respect what I have to say. The purpose of this meeting is to inform you of how we’re going to do the Initrode client migration. The goal after this meeting is for all of you to take the flat files the clients are going to send us in their database formats and convert it to ours.”

Coyne glanced around the table. He, and most of his teammates had already had conversations with Initrode about the migration, and Initrode had agreed to convert most of their data into an industry-standard transmission file, which could be directly imported- no additional conversions required. None of Coyne’s co-workers objected, so Coyne slowly reached out for the talking pillow in front of Stefen. “I’m not looking for any input on this, Coyne!” Stefen yelled as he snatched the pillow away and launched it out the door.