On Meetings
© 22 Sep 2016 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Common reasons meetings are ineffective and suggestions for their improvement.


I go to a lot of meetings. I suppose most people do; they seem to be a common feature of businesses, churches, clubs, governments, etc. And I have slowly come to realize that “‍I go to a lot of meetings‍” is very nearly synonymous with “‍I go to a lot of poorly run meetings.‍” It is the running of meetings that I wish to discuss today.

Common Errors

One of the largest problems in meetings is the focus on talking. If, while you are speaking, I am thinking about what I will say when it is my turn then I am likely not going to pay close attention to you. This means that I am both likely to repeat something you have already said and that you are going to have to repeat what I didn’t say because I didn’t listen to it the first time. After a few iterations of this you will start to notice I don’t seem to be getting your points and will likely misdiagnose my lack of listening for my general thickness and start adding more detailed explanations to your statements. As your statements become longer-winded, I start to learn that when you open your mouth I can safely tune out because it will take you forever to say something simple, which tuning our exacerbates all aspects of the problem. A vicious cycle ensues.

Another common problem is the lack of a focused agenda, or the lack of following it if it exists. Conversation naturally leads in many directions: discussing topic X will almost inevitably result in cool ideas about topics Y and Z as well as opportunities to share interesting personal experiences of the speaker. If indulged, these side topics will spawn other side topics and the list of things undiscussed will grow more quickly than it shrinks.

The final problem I will note in this post is the tendency to talk without an end to the conversation in sight. It is all well and good to have a brainstorming session on “‍how do we get better attendance at our meetings‍” but two things are relatively certain about such a conversation: first, “‍the one true answer‍” will never be discovered because it does not exist, meaning the brainstorming can make progress without ever arriving at an obvious end; second, the brainstorming itself is almost certainly not going to encourage attendance. This is just one example of a very common family of problems where no end to a topic of discussion was identified at the beginning. You can easily have a whole series of meetings on the same topic, or more commonly have the same topic consume a part of a whole series of meetings, without ever arriving at any kind of closure.

Suggested Tactics

The first and foremost duty of every person in a meeting it to listen I have written about listening before: 25 93 142 202 214; also about being listened to: 346 carefully to the ideas of others. Pretend that the meeting is a gathering of experts there for the express purpose of sharing with you their wisdom. If you do, you will likely quickly realize two things: first, that they have real wisdom to share; and second, that they start acting like talking to you is their goal. This change of audience arises in part because people naturally address those who seem to be listening and very few of their audience will seem to be doing so. I have not infrequently found that careful listening can result in being in a meeting where two experts are having an argument by each addressing me as if I were the decision maker to convince even when I am technically their underling.

A related tactic is to speak with brevity. Say as little as you can to get across the core of your idea. It is a far, far better thing to have people learn to listen as soon as you speak and to have them ask you for more details than to have them learn that it is safe to zone out for a bit during your explanations and have them wish you’d not take up so much time.

Sticking to agendas is not as easy as it seems. In my experience, two practices make it easier than otherwise. First, keep detailed public minutes, preferably projected onto a screen all can see. Writing down what is being discussed can help everyone see that the topic has drifted and can help them not feel like an abandoned tangent will be lost. Second, frequently ask “‍is this topic worth discussing now? Should we add it to our agenda, and if so what should we remove?‍” You don’t need to force a fixed agenda, but it pays to cause people to be deliberate about deviations therefrom.

My final suggestion for this post is to end conversation early I have written about decisiveness before: 110 . In my experience, the best way to do this is with assignments. “‍It does not appear that we are coming to consensus on this point, suggesting that we might need some more prep work. Participant X, would you take point on collecting and organizing ideas and presenting a summary to help focus conversation in our next meeting?‍” Or “‍it sounds like we have a lot of good options and we just need to pick one; who would be willing to select one and write up a short summary proposal we can send around by email?‍” Most meetings are not (or should not be) committees of the whole; their goal is (or should be) to rapidly measure consensus, identify invested members, and make assignments. The hard work of meetings should generally happen outside the meeting itself.

As a final piece of advice, several of the points above sound like the kinds of things the leader of a meeting should do, but I have found that if someone does them everyone will follow along. I have had more than one significant opportunity come to me because I attended a meeting as a visitor in a room of stakeholders, noticed the meeting was ill-managed, inserted myself into the meeting’s logistics, and was so appreciated for doing so that I was adopted in as a valuable member of the team.

Additional Advice to Specific Readers

Some of my readership are Mormons; to them let me say the following: while church councils are in part meetings and can in part benefit from better management, they are also venues in which to discern the will of the Lord and to that end have different management considerations. Do not be to hasty to end conversation before “‍all have been edified of all‍” nor to bypass keys by taking management on yourself unasked.

This post was suggested by UVa’s WiCS club (much thanks for the suggestion); to them let me add a word of warning. I have encountered research I seem to have misplaced the reference and my memory is known to be faulty, so take what I say about it with some caution. suggesting that people of both genders are less likely to listen to female voices than male voices in meetings. I have observed first hand that I can sometimes hear a female colleague make a really good point which is basically ignored; I can then repeat word-for-word what she said and have people act impressed and say “‍That’s a really good point; thanks Luther.‍” I have not yet seen research suggesting an effective counter to this phenomenon, nor convincing evidence suggesting an underlying cause.

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