By Paul Axtell
Martin Poole/Getty Images
We all complain about meetings. We have too many. They’re a waste of time. Nothing gets done. These complaints often have merit, but they are so broad that they’re difficult to argue with and harder to address.
There are specific complaints that can be tackled, however. When I ask people in the workshops I lead what they most want help with, five issues consistently come up:
- One or two people dominate the conversation and no one does anything about it.
- My boss doesn’t lead meetings effectively.
- Most of our meetings are just passing along information that could easily be sent in an email. We don’t talk about real issues.
- No one is paying attention because they’re on their phones or laptops.
- We keep having the same conversations because nothing gets done between meetings.
Fortunately, there are specific solutions for each of these problems. Based on my 25 years of experience consulting with organizations and teams about how to lead effective meetings, here is what I’d suggest.
One or two people dominate the conversation and no one does anything about it.
If a meeting is 60 minutes long and you have 10 people, how much time does everyone really get? While the answer depends on the topic, if some people consistently speak more often or longer than others, colleagues will resent them for not being concise and taking up valuable meeting time. With limited time, you can’t expect that everyone will contribute, especially if there are a few people who seem to steal the show. Here are some ways to broaden the participation:
When you open the meeting:
- Let the group know that you want broad participation and that everyone has a chance to contribute on each topic.
- Ask for permission to call on people when you want to get more views into the conversation.
- Tell people that you will not leave a topic if anyone still has something to say or ask.
- Ask people to set aside technology (see below) and any other work and to focus on each person when they are speaking.
During the meeting:
- Pay full attention and allow each person to complete their thoughts. If you and everyone else in the meeting does this, people who tend to dominate will likely start to limit themselves. It’s easier to go on and on when no one is listening!
- When you have the sense that someone is speaking too often, ask them to hold back their thoughts for a moment. You might say, “Andre, let me get some others into this conversation and then I’ll come back to you, OK?”
- Whenever someone gets cut off or interrupted, always double back and ask them to finish their thoughts: “Sarah, was there something else you wanted to add?”
- If you’re the person interrupted, speak up. You can say, “Jacques, I wasn’t quite finished. I’d like to complete my comment, and then I’d love to hear your thoughts.”
After the meeting:
- If you have concerns about some people speaking more often or longer than they should, let them know: “Troy, I would like the participation to be a bit more balanced in our meetings. It would be helpful if you waited until other people have entered the conversation before you add your thoughts. Also, I’d appreciate it if you’d look out to see who hasn’t participated yet and invite them share their thoughts.”
My boss doesn’t lead meetings effectively.
If your boss lacks the skills to effectively facilitate a meeting, you can step up to the plate. You might offer to prepare the agenda for your boss. Solicit topics from the group. Identify outcomes for each topic and get the agenda to people beforehand, if possible. You can also offer to run the meeting if you have the group’s respect and are willing to put in the effort to make it an effective meeting. If you’re not the right person, you can suggest someone else, explaining to your boss that just because they’re the most senior person in the room doesn’t mean they have to run the meeting.
One of the rights all participants have is to ask for whatever they need to participate effectively. Use this permission to help your boss be successful. For example, ask questions that help your boss be clear about what they’re expecting and help others contribute. You might say at the beginning of the meeting, “It’d be helpful to know what kind of input you’re looking for here and how we’ll know if you have what you need.”
Most of our meetings are just passing along information that could easily be sent in an email. We don’t talk about real issues.
Spending 10 to 15 minutes of a 90-minute meeting on updates isn’t a big deal. Spending 90 minutes sharing information that could be communicated by other means is a problem. How can you raise this issue to the meeting organizer? Here’s some suggested language:
Brenda, I know you have high expectations for our group. Meetings are the primary way that we tap into the wisdom of the group and make strategy happen. My sense is that you want to respect the time and talent in the room, and it seems to me that we could do that by ensuring that most of our time together is spent on topics that require the thinking and alignment of the group, and that we keep infrmation sharing to a minimum. What do think?
Then offer to canvas the team each week and develop a list of topics from which you can craft an agenda. These questions will help you identify possible topics:
- What does this group need to talk about?
- What are our vital initiatives — which are in jeopardy?
- What do we need to learn?
- What do we need to develop a mutual understanding about?
- What are we losing sleep over?
For each topic, suggest desired outcomes and the time needed to achieve them. If you do good work on an issue or two in each meeting, time spent sharing information will be less of a burden.
No one is paying attention because they’re on their phones or laptops.
You can tolerate some distractions when they occur irregularly, but if people are regularly typing emails or checking their texts, it can kill meaningful participation. Setting new norms starts at the top. The senior people in the meeting must model attentive verbal and nonverbal behavior. If they have side conversations, bring other work, or constantly check their technology, they’re sending the message that this meeting doesn’t really matter to them. And it creates a dangerous norm that being distracted is OK. Put an agreement in place at the beginning of the meeting to limit technology. That might sound something like this:
I would love your full attention when we are in this meeting, so please check your electronics at the door. I ask this for two reasons: First, they are distracting to me and to others. Second, your attention matters to me, to others in the room, and to the quality of our work together. If you want to put your phone on vibrate, not a problem, unless it vibrates every five minutes. Exceptions are fine; patterns are troublesome. I certainly understand if you need to leave the room at any time to check on your family or critical projects. I realize you may have calls related to projects you are tracking. Do what you need to do to feel that you’re doing your job. Please use your judgment and look out for yourself. And if you want to take notes or use your tablet to refer to background information on our topics, by all means do so. I just ask that you resist the urge to check email or world news. Deal? Thank you.
With that agreement in place, you may want to write “no devices” on the whiteboard so that you can point to it if attendees start to check their phones. If it seems overwhelming to take on the culture around devices in your company, start with yourself. You’ll be surprised at how quickly colleagues will notice that you are completely present and that others are not. And they just might join you.
We keep having the same conversations because nothing gets done between meetings.
To address this problem, make sure you have closure on each topic so that next steps are nailed down. Send out a summary of the meeting within an hour of it’s ending or at least before end of day. Assign someone to follow up with everyone between meetings to see that they are making progress on the action items that were assigned to them. Start keeping track of how many items are completed — aim for an 85% completion rate. When your completion rate slips, stop and have a conversation with your group about what would help you all get back on track.
You may not be able to completely eliminate complaints about meetings, but you can reduce them. And if you’re the one lodging the complaints, remember that you are as responsible as anyone for creating a positive meeting culture. So take action now to make every meeting better.
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