Why doesn't someone fix meetings? (Part 2)
In part 1, I offered my “table stakes” requirements for organizing a stellar meeting. In researching for this series, I discovered that the vast majority of articles written about meeting etiquette are written for meeting organizers.
That makes sense, because of course the organizer of a meeting has the most control over whether it’s going to be a shitty one or not. Yet I’m told that attendees of shitty meetings outnumber organizers by as much as ten to one!
So what can we do as attendees to improve this whole meeting situation?
There are really only a few things you can do:
Nudge the organizer
Fix it from the inside (be a stellar attendee)
I really consider this the “nuclear option.” Unless you’re working in a completely toxic, dysfunctional place (if so let’s chat), you’ve been invited to a meeting because the organizer believes that you can add value or that you will derive value.
I would venture to guess that you’re considering not attending because you don’t know, and not knowing isn’t a great reason not to go.
If you’re thinking that not attending will “send a message,” read the next section about nudging the organizer for some ideas on what kinds of messages to send and how.
There is one situation where I think it’s OK to skip a meeting without substantive feedback, though: when it’s a recurring meeting.
A Life Engineered (humorously) suggests not showing up to recurring meetings that you don’t want to go to and noticing whether anyone cares. If you don’t hear from anyone, skip another one and see how that goes, and so forth.
It gets more interesting if someone does notice. At that point, you’ve compelled a conversation about what your participation in the meeting means to them. Now the door is open to inject all of your demands! Agendas! Time-keeping! Fewer attendees! Bagels!
Read on for more tips on what to pull into that conversation.
Nudge the organizer
If the meeting has no agenda, no stated objective, no pre-work, and/or a long list of non-optional attendees… This meeting might be a cry for help.
You have an opportunity to step in and prevent this meeting from becoming a very expensive mistake by simply asking the organizer a question or two. Here are some of my favorites:
What do I need to know before heading into this meeting? Is there a document somewhere that would help me?
- This should give you a lot more context on the purpose of the meeting if nothing else. In the answer, watch out for answers to the following questions as well!
What would an ideal outcome from this meeting look like? What activities would get us there?
- “Activities” is the foundation of an agenda. If an activity is “talk about X,” ask my favorite follow-up question: “How will we recognize success in that conversation?” Push for an agenda oriented around concrete goals.
What can I bring into this meeting that would be most helpful?
- From this you can learn of your expected contribution. If you were invited “for visibility,” you can ask if there will be a summary email or document you could read instead of attending.
With these simple questions, you can figure out how important this meeting is to you, but also help the organizer to avoid creating an expensive and wasteful meeting.
Fix it from the inside
Or, “How to be a stellar meeting attendee.”
If you’re in a pointless meeting (or a meeting that started off OK but is rapidly unraveling), you can use variations of the questions in the previous section to get things back on course.
Skillful questioning is a fundamental coaching technique that I use every day, and it’s tremendously powerful for creating the opportunity for success without coming off as overbearing, arrogant, or prejudicial.
Here’s how to build a powerful question to fix whatever is going wrong. There are two parts:
Observe to the group what you are seeing that is headed in the wrong direction.
Ask the group what they’d like to do differently in light of that.
There are a couple of really important guidelines that you should work hard to follow to make sure this lands well.
Make observations without assumption or bias. “It looks like we got off track,” or “It seems like what we want is to resolve XYZ.” Notice how the statement is tentative, and it’s from your own perspective.
Use the same tone with your question. “What could we do in the next 15 minutes that would move us closer?” or “What outcome would we all love to see coming out of this meeting?”
This avoids throwing everyone into a defensive posture, which is what often happens when you say things like “We should be doing Y” or “Why aren’t we talking about X?” The words “why” and “should” are powerfully loaded; try to rephrase using “what” or “how.”
The real secret weapon here is that it leaves as much space for the organizer to resolve the issue as everyone else, so if they want to jump in and save their meeting, they can do that and maintain face.
Open-ended questions tend to be less accusatory and presumptive. That’s why they’re so powerful: they engage the huge brains of everyone in the room to work together, rather than fracturing the group across lines of implied opinion.
What recurring meetings are you in that you want to try “forgetting” next week?
Who keeps calling aimless meetings whom you can help with a few targeted questions?
Without expecting any personal benefit from it, how can you make the next meeting you’re in so much better?
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