Meeting as an activity is so ubiquitous that we have come to accept it as an inevitable part of our daily life. It comes in many guises. Like informal chats, routine check-ins, conference calls, fancy presentations. We all have been there and felt the inevitability of it.
Our days are often peppered with them. Despite their ubiquity, they are not usually seen as a good thing. In fact, the word “Meeting” has somehow acquired a pejorative connotation. So, when we hear someone say “I had a day full of meetings,” we end up feeling pity rather than envy.
So, how did we succeed in making it an abhorrent task?
The answer has more to do with how often we end up paying a lot of undue attention to what we’re discussing. The document we’re sharing. The decision we need to make. And the message we want to get across.
Little attention goes to how we’re having the conversation. Think about the last meeting you were in. How much time went into thinking about the setup of the conversation. And the right way to encourage great contributions from everyone?
Not much, if I can hazard a guess. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen smart people spend hard, long weeks putting together a presentation. Followed by a few bare minutes — often on the way to the meeting — on how to make the most of the interaction.
That’s why I’m going to share with you a five-step process you can use to have amazing meetings.
Even if you try just one or two of these ideas, they might help you fall in love with meetings all over again, irrespective of whether you’re presiding the meeting or attending it.
Step # 1: Preparation
Set intentions, by answering these questions before you walk in:
- Aim: If you could achieve only one thing in the meeting, what would be that?
- Assumptions: Do you have any negative expectations about the meeting? Can you challenge them?
- Attitude: Acknowledge what’s on top of your mind as you go into the meeting.
- Attention: Given your actual aim, where do you want to focus your attention on the meeting?
- Actions: What specific actions will help you make those intentions a reality?
- Active Mental contrasting: What’s going to get in the way of things that you have visualized?
Being a part of this ritual for more than a decade has taught me a thing or two for sure. The realization that aim and attitude can indeed play a critical role. Especially in shaping the outcomes of our meetings.
Believe me, I have been fortunate enough to attend those marathon meetings. Where participants were blissfully unaware of agenda points. Nothing but complete atrocity in the name of meetings.
Yet, instances when management and participants could define their aim and actions — everyone saw an increase in efficacy of the meeting. This was complemented by listing and introducing agenda items as questions, not statements.
For example, “How can we improve team communication?” rather than “Team communication”.
In fact, by focusing on the ‘how’ part of this problem, our team could come up with the proposal of using Slack. This proved to be an effective breakthrough from earlier methods of communication.
Step # 2: Assigning Roles
Any meeting brings with it a chance to assign a few roles. For example, there is a moderator whose job is to make sure everyone sticks to the agenda and doesn’t go off topic. Besides, making sure that the meeting doesn’t last more than 90 minutes.
Then there’s the time-keeper, who’s in charge of making sure the meeting is running on schedule.
There’s also the closer, who keeps track of what transpired during the meeting. He closes it out by telling everyone the commitments and deadlines they agreed to.
But no meeting would be complete without the participants. Those who arrive on time, prepared with productive input, ready to add and take value from the meeting.
All these roles provide an opportunity for people to grow their skill sets.
Make sure different people are assigned different roles. So that a variety of people get the chance to try new things.
For instance, someone in customer service might enjoy being a closer. You can offer them an opportunity to summarize the main points of a discussion.
Similarly, the youngest team members might appreciate the opportunity to play the moderator. This will give them a chance to gain some invaluable experience. They will learn to field questions from participants and will help keep the meeting on track.
But be prepared to embrace all sorts of opposition. In fact, when I proposed assigning the role of moderator to the junior most member of our team, there was quite a lot of apprehension. But, my team soon realized that reposing our collective faith in the young lot, we will be grooming them for future leadership roles.
Step # 3: Collaborate Goals While Addressing The Threats
You can encourage some collaborative goal setting by asking:
- “Where do we wish to see ourselves at the end of this meeting”
- “What’s the best way for us to achieve that?”
(These are questions you can ask even if you’re not chairing the meeting).
If possible, you should have a no-device rule. Otherwise, people are habitual to use their brain’s precious working memory on phones — making everyone a little dumber than they would be if they were concentrating.
In long meetings, you can have a “smartphone daycare” box. Here people can deposit their phones, with rights to access during breaks. (If you can’t do any of this, at least put your own devices away.)
I had to face initial resistance against this proposal. But it took a couple of meetings to experience the positive effects of this initiative.
Collaborative efforts from participants are possible if they are comfortable.
You can start with something positive to put people into discovery mode. It doesn't need to be extraordinary, you can ask people to share their most recent successes.
In fact, once you try this, you will be surprised to see the enthusiasm of the participants. People are generally very enthusiastic when asked to share their successful initiatives.
One of my junior team members disclosed he was sharing his math skills with a group of slum kids. He was spending his weekend with them. It was appreciated by all — which in turn boosted his self-esteem.
You can also ask:
- “What’s going well so far?” or
- “What’s the best thing that’s happening on your part of the project?”
There is every possibility of encountering annoyed people in a meeting. You need to remember that they’re feeling threatened by one of these common triggers — Exclusion, Unfairness, Feeling unappreciated, Lack of autonomy, lack of competence, or the threat to their values, or uncertainty.
And when they are sleep deprived their sensitivity to these “threats” is likely to get heightened.
To improve the situation, ask yourself: What exactly are they doing or saying? (Observe the facts). What could be triggering those actions? What are their expectations that need to be fulfilled? How can you reduce that “threat” by being more sensitive to their needs?
For example, even when I am not in the chair, I make it a point to help them by expressing interest in their views. You too can make them feel heard and respected by referring back to something they've said.
Step # 4: Scripting Stories While Avoiding Group-Think
If you are aspiring to make your contributions memorable — try illustrating your points. An anecdote or real-life example should really help you in driving home the point.
One of my friend and colleague from marketing shared this anecdote.
He was giving a speech on marketing to a group of contractors. He noticed that the men’s room was decrepit.
So instead of his planned opening, he started his speech, “How many of the men here have used the washroom today? And how many of you saw a marketing opportunity for contractors in there?” . . . After that, he could say anything he wanted; they paid attention!
If you are offering longer comments — break your point into clear chunks to make it easier for people to process what you’re saying. “There are three things that strike me about this. One . . . Two . . . Three . . .”
If you need to disagree or raise a concern — help others stay in open-minded discovery mode. Here you could use one of the brain-friendly feedback techniques.
- Say what you like about the idea on the table. Be very specific. Then say, “What would make me like it more is . . .”
2. Say “yes, and . . .” rather than “yes, but . . .”
3. Ask “what would have to be true to make that work?”
Provide cues that nudge people towards whatever you need from them. If you want three suggestions, write an indicative “1, 2, 3” on a flip chart. Ask “If you had three suggestions, what would they be?”
There is no doubt that it feels great to reach a quick agreement. But if you’re talking about something important and there’s no challenge in the room — you’re missing a critical part of the picture.
Ask some of these questions to improve the group’s thinking:
- “If we had to pick holes in this, where would they be?”
- “If someone had to play devil’s advocate what would he say — and what would we need to do to reassure him?”
- “Let’s fast forward and assume that things have gone wrong. What did we miss?”
- “Who all are the stakeholders going to be affected by our plans? What should they worry about”
Reaching Closure is another challenge — what if there’s nothing anyone agrees on. Reduce the temperature in the room by doing this: Clarify what you can all agree on.
That promotes a sense of in-group and calms people’s instinctive threat response. Ask if it’s possible to agree to disagree on the rest. The answer might be yes if it’s clear that you already agree on the things that matter.
If not: Do your best to summarize each position objectively, doing justice to each idea. Ask what would have to be true for each position to be the best one.
Decide together on the process for getting evidence to test each position. If the issue is less about disagreement and more about lack of focus, then it is advisable to create a “parking lot” for off-topic ideas or issues.
It helps immensely if everyone feels heard. While still focusing people’s attention on the meeting’s real priorities, make a visible list on a flip chart, whiteboard, or notepad.
Step # 5: Wrapping Up: Bite What You Can Chew
Always allow a moment to recap key decisions or reflect on the insights gained from the meeting. And agree on steps that each person will take. If you can, also do some kind of positive roundup. You can combine it with a “next step” summary from each person, by asking everyone to say
- One thing they were interested or inspired to hear in the meeting, and
- What they’re committed to doing, and by when.
Many people say they hate meetings because there are way too many on their schedule. Meetings help, but they need fewer of them.
If that rings true to you, you can afford to take a hard look at your own schedule.
In fact, one of my close friends discovered he was signed up for no fewer than thirty-four regular meetings.
But, once he became clear about his big-picture intentions, it became evident that many of his meetings were unconnected to those priorities. They were a legacy of past commitments. For those meetings, he began to send out a series of “Positive Nos,” to extricate himself gracefully.
Then, for the remaining meetings, he asked whether attending passed the “comparative advantage” test. Was he truly the only person who could contribute? Or could someone more junior step in for him and do a reasonable job?
Henceforth, he attended only those meetings where he had a unique role to play. He created opportunities for his younger colleagues to shine. Halved the number of meetings he regularly attended. And in the process got his life back.
There is some truth when we say time is money, especially in the corporate world. So to make sure you’re not wasting people’s time and money, meetings need to be both effective and efficient.
Scheduling regular meetings are still the best way to communicate. And get everyone on the same page. In fact, meetings can also improve employee skill sets. It can strengthen teams and help build the foundation of your company’s values and goals.
If an employee says they don’t want to attend a meeting, respect that.
You should strive to foster a culture where employees take the initiative to read the agenda. And afterward, decide for themselves about attending a meeting.
There is no doubt all these prescriptions might sound like an impossible task. Especially for organizations where managers demand that you:
- Show up on time.
- Don’t ask questions.
- Maintain the status quo by following all the rules.
- And don’t challenge authority.
But then there is also some grain of truth in the following statement:
“People who reject the worst of the current system are actually more likely to succeed.” — Seth Godin