How To Have More Effective Meetings

What Makes Meetings Work?

We all have to deal with meetings as a part of life. But what if we could have better meetings and more meetings that matter?

Stephen Covey reminded us to be efficient with things, but be effective with people.

Meetings are actually a great test of how effective you can be with people, while trying to be efficient with things.

I’ve learned a lot about meetings from my adventures at Microsoft and other corporate arenas, and I want to share with you what I learned to help you have better meetings for better results.

Here are a few of my most important lessons I learned on how to have more effective meetings…

Create Outcome-Driven Meetings vs. Agenda-Driven Meetings

Early on, one of the first things I learned about more effective meetings was to actually identify the meeting objectives or outcomes. It sounds obvious, and yet a lot of meetings are often just lists of agenda items, but not actually a list of outcomes or objectives.

So instead of real goals, it’s more like “spend time talking about stuff.” And, of course, that has it’s place, too.

But it’s also why so many people drift in and out of consciousness in meetings. There’s no articulated goals or problem to solve, so minds wander to the most interesting problem bouncing around in their head.

When somebody calls for a meeting, the most common question people ask is, “What’s the agenda?”.

But a better question for better meetings would be, “What do we want to accomplish?” (or simply, “What are the goals”?)

Build Rapport Before Results

One of the toughest lessons I learned was to establish “rapport before influence”, as Tony Robbins might say.

Early on, when I needed to meet with somebody, I focused the meeting on just the task or the exchange of information.

It was very transaction-oriented.

But then meetings that I thought should go smoothly or easily, usually didn’t.


Because something was missing. What was missing was connection and rapport.

While I was focused on just getting the information I needed, or giving somebody whatever they needed, without rapport, the meetings really went nowhere. It turns out that in any meeting, aside from potential communication or style differences, people may be sizing you up.

They could very well be deciding whether or not they even want to help you.

As somebody who was focused on action and results, I had to switch gears. Before each meeting, I had to very deliberately ask myself whether the meeting was about results, or first establishing rapport?

Sometimes I could accomplish both, but if it was an introductory meeting, I learned to prioritize rapport over results. I would slow down, to be able to speed up, and I found that a little connection goes a long way, time and time again.

Listen Until the Other Person “Feels” Heard (Empathic Listening)

This is really a personal effectiveness skill you can use in any situation, but meetings are a great place to practice.

As Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Covey realized that if somebody doesn’t feel heard, they won’t listen to you.

But once a person feels they have been heard, they will start to listen to you.

When it comes to listening, both Active and Reflective Listening are helpful listening skills. With Active Listening, you concentrate, remember, and respond to what the other person is saying, so you can engage in a relevant way. With Reflective Listening, you repeat back to the other person what you heard so you can confirm your understanding.

But the real key that Covey discovered is Empathic Listening.

With Empathic Listening, the difference is you don’t just listen until you feel you’ve heard the other person. You listen until the other person “feels” heard.

Instead, you listen until the other person feels heard.

Vote with Your Feet When You Can

In one group that I was in, we used the phrase often:

“Vote with your feet.”

This simple operating principle created a culture of more effective meetings in our group by giving everybody the freedom to leave bad or unproductive meetings.

It worked like this: If you found yourself in an unproductive meetings, leave. Don’t go to meetings that don’t seem setup for success. Only attend meetings where it’s clear that the right people will be working on the right things towards useful outcomes.

As you can imagine, anybody setting up a meeting worked a bit harder to make sure they used people’s time more wisely. And everybody appreciated this in the end.

Find Out Why You Really Need to Be There

After what seemed like an endless series of pointless meetings, I asked one of my mentors how he dealt with the onslaught of meeting requests that sucked up so much time, for so little value.

He had a very simple strategy.

He said he would check ahead of time and find out why he specifically needed to be there. This helped in a few ways:

  1. First, he was making sure that he was actually needed. A lot of meetings included a lot of people out of courtesy, or the meeting requester was guessing at who should be there.

Just finding out why you really need to be at a particular meeting, could save you from several meetings each week.

Get the Right People, Asking the Right Questions

Again, this may sound like a simple and obvious strategy, but if you pay attention to your meetings, start to notice which ones are lacking the right people, asking the right questions.

This is why smart, seasoned leaders check who’s going to be attending.

They want to make sure that the right people will be in the room, and that they will be asking the right questions.

And it helps to keep in mind, that some people are deliberate saboteurs, and will ask the wrong questions or attempt to disrupt, in a non-productive or passive aggressive way.

That’s why it helps to have some tools, methods, and mental models under your belt to deal with the kinds of conflict that might arise (and the more rapport you establish, the less sabotage there will be.)

By practicing categories of questions, you can better manage the flow of a meeting and keeping things on track. One tool that I’ve used is Precision Question and Precision Answers, which uses 7 categories of questions, along with a set of principles for asking and answering better questions.

Recognize Conflicts in Communication Styles

One of the most painful barriers to better meetings is a conflict in communication styles.

The right metaphor can help a lot. And so can a whiteboard.

But really, a lot of communication challenges boil down to a very simple model of communication styles.

Dr. Richard Kirshner (aka. Dr. K), boiled these communication styles, down into 4 needs:

  1. Action

This immediately changed my world and opened my eyes. I could now see in a room, how some people were focused on action, while others were focused on accuracy, while others were focused on approval, and yet others were focused on appreciation.

You simply need to speak to people’s needs. If somebody needs to hear action, then speak in terms of action.

Once you are aware of these needs-based communication styles, you will see them all around you.

Welcome to the matrix.

Recognize Conflicts in Learning Styles

Here is another game changer for you. Again, it’s a simple model, but this one may be even more profound.

The big idea is that people embrace a combination of 4 different learning styles:

  1. Abstract

If you are talking in abstract terms to somebody who wants a concrete example, then you won’t build rapport.

Similarly, if you are jumping around ideas in a random way, while somebody is trying to process your information in a sequential way, again, you will break rapport, not build it.

Once I learned this model, it was so easy to understand how people are processing information. And it was also easy for me to understand where people ran into conflict.For example, in one scenario, there were to architects fighting over an idea. It was a heated debate. The irony was they were both saying the same thing, and actually shared the same values.

But they couldn’t see it.

Every time the first architect would tell his vision, he would get very abstract. The second architect would be trying to pin him down to a concrete example. To make it worse, then the first architect, would start hopping around in a random way, to try to zoom in and out of the issue, while the second architect was trying to follow in a sequential way, and just getting madder by the minute.

I stepped in, acting as a facilitator, and simply bridged their worlds. Unfortunately, it took a lot more effort to get them to wind down, because once they were in fight, flight, or freeze mode. They were no longer using their prefrontal cortex and they were in acting in “lizard brain” mode, as Seth Godin might say.

Distinguish Between Brainstorm vs. Critic Mode

Nothing kills a great idea, than a sharp-shooting critic. One of my most insightful managers and mentors would say, “distinguish between brainstorm mode and critic mode.”

He wanted people to first share ideas and get them out on the table before doing critical analysis.

This was important to setting the stage to make it safe for people to share ideas. But what he was also doing was getting people to divorce themselves from their ideas, so that we can build better ideas together. If people were too attached to their ideas, then they took the criticism personally, and things would get hostile.

I later learned about the Disney method, which was to pivot by four viewpoints:

  1. Outsider’s view — get an external view of the challenge.

Use Six-Thinking Hats for Better Meeting Collaboration

Another way to switch perspectives is to use Edward de Bono’s Six-Thinking Hats. Six Thinking Hats is one of the greatest light-bulbs in terms of creating more effective meetings.

It’s an especially powerful tool for either preventing heated debates or dealing with them once they occur.

When you are in a room full of smart people, that are passionate about the topics, it’s easy for fights to ensue.

Edward de Bono created the idea of using Six Thinking Hats to help people switch perspectives, and to think better together.

The Six Thinking Hats are:

  1. White Hat — the facts and figures

He used the hat metaphor so that people could temporarily step out of character. For example, if you were normally the critical type, then you might be challenged to consider the positive side of an idea. But if you are just wearing the metaphorical Yellow Hat, it makes it OK for your mind to play along.

The big idea is that the group wears the same hat at the same time.

Imagine if everybody is playing a tug of war and pulling in different directions at the same time. Pretty chaotic, huh?

But then imagine if everybody puts on the White Hat and starts to share ideas on the facts and figures for the idea. Now, you are getting somewhere, You are getting somewhere better, faster, and easier because now the entire group is driving in the same direction.

Ask Questions that Represent the Six-Thinking Hats

Of course, the challenge is not everybody knows the Six Thinking Hats or how to use them. As a short-cut, what I do is simply write 6 questions on the board, to reflect the idea of each hat:

  1. White Hat — What are the facts and figures?

The beauty is that each person in the room, would be able to see their perspective addressed.

So, as long as they knew we would get to the part they really cared about (whether it was facts and figures or criticism or feelings, etc.), they would play along.

Start on a Positive Note

You’ll need to play around with the sequence of the Six Hats to figure out what works for your situation and team.

But here is something important to keep in mind.

I don’t remember which book, but Edward de Bono pointed out that in many cases, if somebody starts with a negative perspective, they will not be able to even see or imagine the positive perspective. Yet, if they start with positive, they can still see the negative.

This little piece of profound insight is how I learned how to rewire myself to be more positive.

When I would walk into a room, rather than start with asking myself, “What’s wrong with this picture?”, I start with, “What’s right with this picture?”

Focus on the Future by Asking Solution-Oriented Questions

A lot of stale-mates and stinking-thinking happens because people focus on the past, which is blame, or the present, which is about values, and don’t spend enough time on the future.

The future is where solutions happen.

For example, if you ask somebody why they are late, you focus on the past. If, instead, you ask, how can they show up on time, you switched gears into solution-mode.

Skilled leaders can sense when a group is stick and they will break the rut by asking things like, “What would good look like?”, or “What do we want to achieve?”

Simply by directing attention and focus to the future, you engage people and put them in a more resourceful mode.

In the book, Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs does an awesome job walking through how the past, the present, and the future, really shape a conversation and set the stage for whether an argument will be constructive or destructive.

Remember Your ABCs (Agree, Build, and Compare)

I remember the first time I heard this, remember your ABCs, and I thought somebody was talking about the alphabet.

But, no, they were talking about how to simply create more constructive conversations by using an Agree, Build, and Compare method:

  1. Agree — find something you agree with

How many meetings have you been in where anything anybody says, somebody immediately disagrees with?

That doesn’t create very good energy or rapport, and it’s really a meeting killer.

But if you practice your ABCs, and help others to do the same, you can create a much better arena for people to exchange ideas, in an open and respectful way, while still making plenty of space to talk through differences.

Instead of people putting up walls, or digging their heels in the ground to defend their ideas, they will be more open to exploring alternative views.

Change Meetings into Working Sessions

One of my favorite meetings of all time turned out to be a working session. My colleagues and I showed up, expecting to sit through an hour talking about a bunch of stuff, that may or may not happen.

All of a sudden, the meeting organizer, opened up a customer issue in real-time.

And we all swarmed on the problem together.

We were in shock at first, but then the meeting organizer simply said, this is a working session, and we will actually work on stuff. We had the right people in the room and we proved the old saying true, “more hands make light work.”

Ten at Ten Meetings

This is just a version of a daily stand up meeting, but I thought it would help to share a real-world example of what’s possible in terms of creating highly effective meetings.

Picture this, I’m leading a team of 15 people distributed around the world.

We agreed to a daily standup meeting at 10:00 AM, Tue, Wed, Thu.

I tell the team it will be only 10 minutes, and I mean it.

The purpose of the meeting was to report on progress, keep everybody connected, avoid surprises, and ask for help.

We would go around the virtual room, and each person would answer three questions:

  1. What did you get done?

It took people some time to learn how to be succinct and focus, but it was good practice.

For the first week, I would hang up the call, if it was past 10 minutes.

The team couldn’t believe it. How could I hang up the call, when we weren’t done?

I explained that if I let 10 minute meetings turn into 15 or 20-minute meetings, then I just killed the point of a 10-minute meeting.

By the second week, the team was pretty good at showing up on time, going around the room, and taking things off-line or follow up after the call.

Our Ten-at-Ten meetings were a chance, instead of a chore, for the team to connect with each other each day, and really keep things on track, without creating yet another burden.

Really, what would happen is somebody each day would say they were working on something that surprised somebody, so then they would follow up after the meeting (without dragging the whole meeting down.)

As time went by, more and more people on the team thanked me for keeping 10-minute meetings to 10-minutes (and it still cracked them up how I just hung up if it went past our timebox.)

Create a Parking Lot

A lot of meetings get derailed by tangents or speed bumps or other issues that really need to be taken off line, or dealt with later, or in another way.

It helps to simply create a “parking lot” and add issues to the parking lot as they come up.

If you are have a whiteboard, then it helps to mark off a section of the whiteboard and designate it the “parking lot” area.

If you don’t have a whiteboard, then you can simply verbally acknowledge that the issue should be added to the parking lot and then handle it offline.

By doing this, you help people feel heard, and you keep the momentum of the meeting moving forward.

It’s such a simple practice but it has saved so many meetings that could have turned bad.

Find Your Voice, and Inspire Others Find Theirs

Stephen Covey’s Eighth Habit is, “Find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.” It is perhaps his greatest habit, and yet one of the most difficult to actually practice in some settings.

In so many meetings, it’s easy for everybody to go along with the crowd, or to practice Groupthink, or Social Loafing.

But what if you see things differently?

Or what if you have an idea but are worried about how to bring it up or how to state it, in an open and respectful way.

A simple technique that one of my managers used is to lead with the phrase:

“In my mind, I see ….”

With this simple phrase, he instantly set the stage to simply share how he sees things.

It create space to walk through what he sees in his mind or how he frames the situation.

In this way, he could practice finding his voice, and this also helped inspire others to do the same.

If you are worried about what’s already been said, or how things are already framed, it can be very difficult to share what your perspective in an effective way.

But by leading with simple phrases such as , “In my mind< I see …” or “In my mind, I imagine how …”, or “In my mind, I see it a little differently …” you create a clean and unrestricted canvas to share your idea from.

You can think of this as another way of Expressing Polite Doubt.

Become a Skilled Facilitator

Just like a masterful comedian can take control of a room and change the energy, a skilled facilitator make the difference that makes the difference.

The challenge, of course, is that you won’t usually have a skilled facilitator handy for your meetings.

As one of my mentors puts it, “The fastest thing you can change in any situation, is yourself.”

So, if you are not liking a lot of your meetings, become a skilled facilitator.

You can wish more people would bring in a facilitator or appoint one, or you can just step up to the plate, and learn how to be one.

This is probably one of the best moves I made in a long time to really help more meetings go much better.

While you may not always get a chance to use your facilitation skills, you will develop a much better sense of meeting dynamics and structure, as well as a balcony view of how to drive better meetings in the future.

In some meetings, where I really need to participate, but I still really need a facilitator, I ask somebody to play the role, and to make sure we keep moving through the agenda, towards the outcomes, and, if we get off-track to add issues that come up to the parking lot.

Focus on What People Really Want to Talk About

Great leaders generate better energy. People like to solve problems, and they like to make progress.

No matter how much you plan and prepare for a meeting, it’s always possible that you didn’t really hit the right issue.

Or, during the course of a meeting, it’s possible that the real issues emerge, or now you really know what the hot topics are that people really want to focus on.

It’s great to start with an agenda, but if you get the feeling there is real stuff people really want to talk about — focus on that.

In my mind, I remind myself to follow the energy, or to create better energy.
I find that if I move through an agenda, or try to simply focus on the original outcomes, in light of new information, it’s not very effective.

In my experience, it’s been far more effective to slow down to speed up. If I don’t acknowledge and appreciate the issues that have come up, and find a way to address them, then they will erode any meaningful progress.

Get Everybody in the Game Right from the Start

This is a lesson I learned from leading big multi-day meetings with lots of smart people in the room. Imagine trying to lead an effective meeting with 30+ people in a room, with different backgrounds, working in different organizations, and with different agendas.

I’ve learned the most powerful thing to do up front is to get everybody’s “fingerprints” on the meeting.

Simply by going around and asking people what they want out of the meeting, helps them buy-in to the meeting.

This simple move also helps identify if it’s critical to adjust the agenda or focus on a new outcome or goal for the meeting.

What I’ve found is that when people articulate what they want out of the meeting, they articulate it in different ways, even if they want the same thing.

By getting people to articulate in their words what they want, helps me to better understand the motivation and the language that people are using.

If I can quickly show how the goals that each person has is common and connected in some simple way, this helps the group move forward as a team.

And as I’ve heard Ken Blanchard say, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

I hope at least one of these ideas helps you change your game and lead more effective meetings.