Dear Meetings: Please Suck Less

Right now, I’m seeing an awful lot of interest in coaching as it applies to the simple task of meetings – clearly communicating your points, and leveraging them as an opportunity to convey executive presence.

People are beginning to sense that He/She who holds our attention, respects our time, and our needs for information and interaction is he/she who gets promoted.

So in the unlikely event that we can only blame ourselves for crappy meetings, let's "be the change we want to see in the world," as Ghandi said, and take this challenge together.

Try these 5 tips to making meetings less hideous (Ghandi would do it):

1.  Be Present: There is no such thing as multitasking.** This is a heartbreaker for those of us who live on conference calls, but it is true: As John Medina the brilliant author of Brain Rules teaches us, “the attentional part of the brain is simply not capable of multi-tasking.” In other words, the part of the brain we use to pay attention to something is only able to focus on one thing, sequentially, at a time.

Given that I have ADD myself, this is probably the hardest tip for me.  If it’s helpful, here’s what I do to channel boredom:

  • Turn off the computer (or at least put it to sleep).
  • Take notes, and when someone is rambling, try and find a thread of logic that explains what path they’re rambling down and why they may be rambling that way.  Note the emotion or lack thereof.  Tune in as carefully as possible to both the content of the ramble and the emotion behind it. It’s truly fascinating, and gives you great insights for later if you need to clarify something he or she said.
  • Doodle.  According to a study highlighted in this recent article in Time Magazine, it turns out that “doodlers actually remember more than nondoodlers when asked to retain tediously delivered information, like, say, during a boring meeting or a lecture.” Amen brother.  So feel free.  Just make sure it’s G-rated.   Just sayin’.

** There is an exception to this rule. Some companies have a meeting culture that requires that its employees be in meetings from 8am to 6pm, daily.  In these special circumstances, you have my blessing to multitask, as you really have no other choice if you want to have a life.  But just realize that the quality of your work will suffer. Small price to pay for getting home in time to tuck your kids into bed, right?

2.  WTF Are We Doing Here?

Recently, I interviewed Aliza Hutchison, Director, Strategic Communications at Cisco, because I hear wonderful things about Cisco’s approach to management, meetings and all things collaboration.

Aliza explained that at Cisco, they coach their executives and leaders to establish the kind of meeting they’re having from the outset.  “When you work and lead in a collaborative environment, you have to be very specific about how you want to engage with team members, otherwise a whole lot of time can be wasted in meetings.”

According to Aliza, at Cisco, there are three types – Inform, Engage and Exchange.

Inform meetings are all about the leader conveying information with limited interaction.  Sometimes, that’s just the kind of meeting you gotta have. Tell your audience what’s up, answer questions, and move on.

Engage meetings are those that require some level of inform + interaction with attendees.

Exchange meetings are for brainstorming.

By knowing exactly what kind of meeting you’re hosting or attending, you immediately establish just how much yappin’ is appropriate. This may seem simple, but it has powerful implications for how people’s precious time is utilized.

3. What’s My Role?

Too often we either overstep our roles in meetings by weighing in on things that aren’t appropriate, or we don’t step up enough to offer guidance, opinions or suggestions out of fear and uncertainty.

If you don’t know what your role is, or what is expected of you in a meeting, find out.  No one will fault you for clarifying your role. As a bonus, the person calling the meeting may realize that you don’t need to join after all. Score!

As Aliza said so very wisely during our conversation, “Know yourself. If your role is X and you start commenting about Y, stop yourself.  If you feel you have something really helpful to say, exchange once. And then let it be.”

Once you have established your goal, I strongly recommend asking yourself, “What does success look like for me in this conversation?” Then ask “What does this group need from me? What do they need to remember?”  Write down the few items you need to convey (keep it brief), and make sure you hit those points.

Sound basic? How many times have you left a conference call only to realize you forgot to ask something critical?

4. Conflict Happens.

All of us have been there. The nightmare meeting that becomes a shouting match, or a quietly contentious discussion that leaves everyone’s heart rate elevated.  Noisy or quiet, these kinds of exchanges can poison our work efforts for days and weeks.  After all, it’s no secret that stress impacts our ability to think creatively and perform well.  Regardless, conflict is a given in this lifetime, and we can only worry about what we can control – our own reactions.

So the next time you find yourself at odds with someone else, here’s a crazy tip:

Put your agenda/position aside for just a few moments, and try to understand the other person’s perspective completely.

By listening with empathy (not sympathy, empathy), and fully understanding someone else’s position and motivation, you are far more able to meet them, and offer solutions or compromises that meet their needs as well as yours.

As Stephen Covey says in his legendary book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, “Sympathy is a form of agreement, a judgment. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully understand him, emotionally and intellectually.”

Mysteriously, when we fully listen and empathize using paraphrasing and clarifying techniques, it takes the sting out of criticisms, and softens us to creative ideas for compromise.

5. Enjoy  the Process.

As Aliza said during our conversation, “Ultimately, we have to enjoy the process of getting better at communicating – in meetings and beyond.  If someone doesn’t understand where I’m coming from, I ask myself, ‘how can I make this interesting or fun for them?’  By making our journey more about the process and not about simply getting what we want out of people, it becomes a lot more interesting.”

Sounds like great advice for life in general, doesn’t it?  But that’s another posting for another day.

Are you up to the dare?  Let me know how it goes!