Meetings Don’t Have to Suck

| | Leading Organizations

Meetings: Worthwhile or waste of time? Here's how to find out.Meetings are a persistent source of complaints.  We complain there are too many of them, they are not productive, they waste our time, and they take up valuable time during which we could actually be getting work done to name a few.

While giving a talk recently titled “3 Simple Ways Anyone Can Lead Everyday” I let the phrase “meetings suck” slip out of my mouth.  I don’t usually say it so crassly, but the sea of nodding heads seemed to indicate I had hit on an unfortunate “truth”.

Meetings all too often suck our time, our energy, our productivity, and our enthusiasm.

On the other hand meetings also present one of the most significant opportunities for anyone to lead every day regardless of level or role in the meeting.  After all, if any group of people share this persistent complaint, at least on occasion, why not do something about it?

Yes, we have all attended meetings that sucked.  But they don’t have to if you are willing to provide personal leadership.

Follow these three very simple ground rules. and you can provide leadership in any meeting you attend.  Enroll a group of people in embracing them and you can together transform every meeting you have together.

1.  Stay in One Conversation

There is a natural tendency for people to have conversations on the side.  It’s one of those things we know we shouldn’t do, but can’t seem to help ourselves.  The reasons why don’t matter.  If the conversation you are in isn’t worth everyone’s attention, including yours, then you should find a way to move the conversation on to another more important topic or start paying attention.  Anything less is disrespectful and not productive.

Even when it is just you and one other person this ground rule applies.  Have you ever been talking with someone and you are not really there, but instead distracted by the conversation you are having in your head?  When you catch yourself doing it stop.  You may even just want to own up to it so you can refocus and let the other person know you respect them enough to be responsible for your bad behavior.

2.  Listen for the Gold

Do you listen, I mean really listen, to what people have to say?  It is not easy, especially when you know people already.  Giving people your full attention is one of the best ways to honor them.  If you think you know what someone is going to say, try actively listening for something new.  Ask questions.  And be mindful of the tendency to be thinking about what you are going to say next rather than listening to what people are saying.

Consider that if you have “heard it all before” maybe there is no reason to meet or perhaps you need to ask a different question or talk about a different topic to accomplish what you need to accomplish.  But if you are going to show up at least listen for the value, the “gold”, in what people have to say.  We hear what we listen for.  You might just learn something new.  Now wouldn’t that be productive?

3.  Speak to Make a Difference

We speak at meetings for a lot of reasons – to answer a question, to offer our expertise, to make a point, to defend our point of view, to build political capital, etc.  Yet no matter what we have to say it is important to first consider does what I have to say make a difference given the purpose of THIS conversation.  One of the most unproductive habits we can bring to group conversations is to speak about things that aren’t relevant to the conversation at hand.

So before you speak ask yourself: will what I am about to say contribute to the intention or intended outcome of THIS interaction?  This isn’t about being positive or negative either.  Sometimes the thing that could make the biggest difference is the thing people don’t want to say or hear.

What would be possible if every one of us took on the perspective that the success of every meeting we attend or conversation we have was up to us?

These ground rules are a way to do just that.

Do you have any to add?


Enter A Comment

Shawn Murphy   |   31 October 2011   |   Reply

Though there’s gold in all the items, I want to hone in on #3: Speak to Make a Difference. Too often we’ve silently groaned when someone asks a question that distracts from the conversation. The more people ask themselves the question we’d see an improvement in the quality, length, and productivity in meetings.

As always, good content. And I agree – meetings do suck!

Susan Mazza   |   01 November 2011   |   Reply

So true Shawn. Sometimes the first place we have to speak up is in our own heads – asking ourselves what is motivating us to speak!

@RandysRules shared the following on twitter – Good rule of thumb in meetings: Speak only when your words have more value than silence.

Nicole De Falco   |   01 November 2011   |   Reply

Often in organizations, your three ground rules get broken because of cultural norms. Poor meeting etiquette becomes “just the way it is around here” for many businesses. People are unhappy and stressed because meetings do suck; and will continue to suck until the root causes embedded within the culture are changed. Fortunately, the change can be a grass-roots effort! Individuals can choose to follow ground rules such as those you’ve spelled out to begin the transformation.

Susan Mazza   |   01 November 2011   |   Reply

Great point Nicole – cultural norms can allow bad habits to persist and go unchallenged or unquestioned. Every moment we have a choice though – do we choose to act in service of the status quo or do we act in service of the future we say we want? Choosing to live by these ground rules is a choice for the future.

Jenifer Olson   |   01 November 2011   |   Reply

Great points, Susan!

I think it always helps for the meeting leader to provide an agenda upfront, so people can think about the topics ahead of time. This way, their comments may be more “on point.”

I’ve also found the “parking lot” concept helpful. If you’re leading the meeting, let attendees know upfront how much you respect their time. Then let them know that while all ideas are welcome, comments not related to the agenda will be “parked” for a future meeting. Acknowledge off-track comments by writing them on a white board set up expressly for that purpose, and then ask a question related to the agenda to get back on topic.


Susan Mazza   |   01 November 2011   |   Reply

Both are great practices Jenifer. You point to another way we can provide personal leadership – we can come prepared! it is amazing how many organizations of all kinds tolerate a lack of preparation.

Imrana   |   30 June 2015   |   Reply

Attended the meeting and enyjoed it. We recently moved from Cockburnspath and are now at Beach Cote, Golf House Road, Dunbar EH42 1LS. David Raw & Dr Sue Ross. DR is a published author with two books on WW1 and currently working on a Ph.D .

Dion Johnson   |   03 November 2011   |   Reply

This is another great article Susan.

I love your point about listening for the Gold.
When I speak, I tend to speak in long sentences and have a habit of wanting/needing to set the scene and context for my observation or thought. But I find that often, people are impatient and start hurrying me along, telling me to get to the point, or just assuming they know the point I’m making… (hugely irritating!) I respond by becoming flustered and end up doing a really bad job of making what I consider to be a really good point.

I think it all boils down to caring and respect. I think about the times my then toddler daughter would say “Mummy I’ve got a headach in my belly” or when my usually chatty teen would be quieter than usual, both would be signs that she had something important to say, and I would make the space to “hear” her.

I’m working on increasing my level of boldness as well as more concise expression. However, in the meantime, there must be a way to accomodate people like me, so that we all benefit from the Gold:-)

Susan Mazza   |   03 November 2011   |   Reply

Thank you for sharing your personal challenge when you are the one speaking.

I find myself on both sides of the long story at times. When we are the speaker though it behooves us to be responsible for communicating in a way that can be heard. It seems people have less and less patience for the story, even when it sets important context for the point you want to make – an unfortunate reality.

Yet sometimes just making the point first and then following up with the story can shift people’s willingness to listen for the gold. And sometimes you may find the story wasn’t necessary at all.

Learning to become a concise communicator is hard work – I share that from personal experience! I actually signed up for twitter because a marketing coach suggested we all needed to learn the art of brevity. It was great advice. I think it has made me a better communicator in both speaking and writing Of course, there is always room for improvement.

Dion Johnson   |   03 November 2011   |  

Thanks for the tips Susan:-)

Pinkey A. Stewart   |   06 November 2011   |   Reply

Hi, Susan

I agree, meetings do suck when they have no focus or purpose and the meeting facilitator/leader rambles on and on (aka meeting to have a meeting). A few years ago, I sent a communication to one executive because the exec’s meetings were very painful (to sit through). I gave guidelines on conducting effective, purposeful meetings and asked that the exec to please consider the pointers before scheduling future meetings. Needless to say, the frequency of the meetings declined; the next time a meeting was scheduled, I was sent a list of items that I would be expected to bring to the meeting AND there was a purpose for the meeting. I don’t recommend everyone do this, because they have to know their organization’s culture and how execs view such constructive criticism.

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