“Our meetings would go much faster if no one spoke.”
“This 2-hour meeting was almost as productive as a single, well-written email.”
“Why do meeting minutes take hours?”
“I can’t wait for tomorrow’s staff meeting! Said no one ever.”
If you want to entertain yourself, just Google “bad meeting memes”. You’ll find a bevy of funny, cringey, and all too familiar quips that play on this common experience.
In some ways, the memes provide relief, clearly showing we are not alone in our experiences of participating in these often boring, unproductive, and wasteful activities.
We recently reviewed the statistics and they provide clear justification for the memes. It is not just single, isolated teams that perform poorly on the meeting front. It is across industries and job roles.
But here’s the thing, it doesn’t have to be this way.
With a few new strategies and some practice, we could all put an end to these workplace annoyances. That’s why we’re rounding out 2021 building your knowledge and skills so that you can head into 2022 not only running a rock-solid meeting of your own but influencing others to as well.
Great meetings follow a basic structure. There is the beginning that sets the tone and direction. The middle is where discussion, learning, disagreement, and clarifications take place. The end is when the intended action for the meeting is captured and confirmed.
We discussed Bold Beginnings last week so that you can start off strong by setting a direction for all participants. There were also a few tips to influence others if you’re not the meeting owner.
Now, it’s all about how to have a meaningful discussion which is easy when everyone is engaged and agrees. The real skill comes with being prepared for when people don't participate or when some participate too much (drowning out others). What will you do if people disagree? How will you resolve that in the moment so that you don't have to have another meeting?
All those questions will be answered right here.
Getting People to Speak Up
A colleague was recently complaining about the lack of participation in her meeting. She had a clear goal and ensured it was on the agenda. But when she asked for people to weigh in on the subject matter, it was like all she heard were crickets. No one said anything. “How do I get people to speak up?”
Give people the agenda and discussion questions in advance. We all share opinions and ideas more freely when we’ve had time to think. If your attendees are overworked and buried in competing priorities, then take the extra time to send a personal email or give them a call about the meeting purpose and discussion. The personal connection will foster their participation and even create tacit accountability.
Think/Pair/Share is an effective activity for any problem-solving or decision-making meeting, especially one that has more quiet participants. Present the issue to the large group and provide time for everyone to think it through independently, jotting down their thoughts on paper. Embrace the silence that results. Those who prefer to think things through (versus talking it out) will appreciate it.
Then, pair everyone up to discuss with one colleague. Provide time for paired discussion. After that sufficient time, open it up for large group discussion. This staged approach that caters to both quiet and talkative participants will yield a more fruitful discussion.
Getting Others to Stop Talking
Let’s assume you’ve set great ground rules that state you want to everyone to contribute. Despite this, you still might have a “verbal processor” in the room. That person who talks through their thoughts, ideas, and emotions. They get excited about the topic and want to speak first or maybe are passionate about it and want to direct the conversation. How do you get them to sit back and allow others to share?
Often, you simply must interject. Let’s say “Jim” is going on about something and you need him to stop. To do this say,
“Jim?” Say only his name first. He’ll likely stop talking to answer you. Then say,
“Thank you for your insight on this. I'm going to ask you to hold on the rest of your thoughts for a minute. Getting multiple perspectives on this topic will be helpful. Who would like to add to the discussion?"
This acknowledges Jim’s opinions and invites others to speak up. If you were to say, “Let’s hear from someone else.” it sounds like you might be dismissing Jim’s opinion.
Remember to own the timeline of the agenda. This means you might need to cut people off from talking to ensure time is used appropriately. That might sound like,
"Thank you Ellen for sharing your concerns. In the interest of time, I'd like to move on from this topic so that we can get to the rest of the agenda."
Being prepared to lead the discussion and interject when appropriate is an advanced skill of meeting facilitation. This means, it requires practice. Before the meeting, practicing saying phrases like these out loud. You'll feel more confident to interject if you've already had experience saying them.
Disagreement, even conflict, is good in groups. It is one of the essential elements of a high performing team, productive conflict.
Knowing how to handle it is what will make or break your meeting. Let’s say you have disagreement happening and people are going back and forth debating yet getting nowhere. What do you do?
Follow this process:
Stop the debate and facilitate understanding of motives and goals. Ask questions of each party to get a broader picture of what is contributing to their opinions. You might ask, Why do you want this? What are you trying to accomplish? What’s influencing your perspective? Allow for each party to share their perspectives. Doing this decreases the emotional charge in the room and refocuses people to the task at hand. Everyone also gets a broader picture of the issue.
Set a common goal, one that both parties will strive to achieve. Recap the motives and goals of each party and ask the group "What is our common goal here? What are we all trying to achieve?" Reframing the issue with a new goal helps the group work together, instead of against each other.
Brainstorm new, multiple options to achieve the new goal. More than 3 options is ideal. If there are only two options, it is too easy to end in a stalemate. Challenge everyone to think big and discover new ways to solve the problem while also meeting the common goal.
Select an option.
Depending on context, another meeting might still be required to take a group through this process. But, being prepared to facilitate disagreement, especially if you know your topic might be contentious, is not just wise but the differentiator between a mediocre meeting owner and a highly skilled one. Bring the steps with you to the meeting to remind yourself the steps.
Here’s the bottom-line, meaningful discussions don’t happen magically. They are the result of intentional preparation. Invest the time to plan how the discussion will take place and anticipate obstacles like people who stay silent, talk too much, or disagree unproductively.
Next week we’ll cover how to end the meeting well so that action items are captured and follow-through happens.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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