Meetings can be meaningful — really

09.20.12 Thumbnail MeetingsWhen you begin to participate more fully in meetings, they will be come more valuable, and stop being boring. Meeting advice by leadership expert Tom Cox.

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09.20.12 Blog MeetingI always hear how much meetings suck.  (If you lead meetings, you’ll find detailed guidance on making your meetings better here, here, and here.)

But what if you’re not leading the meeting — what if you’re just suffering through it?

Here is what any of us can do to participate more fully in a meeting — and by doing so, make it better for everyone.

When I started participating “more fully” in meetings, two things happened — I became more valuable, and meetings stopped being as boring.

Here are the seven things I do when I’m on my “A” game in a meeting:

1. Pay complete attention
2. Capture floating ideas and associations on a notepad
3. Convert ideas into next actions or delete
4. Contribute something to every meeting, even if it’s just agreement
5. Map the room with names, and periodically memorize them
6. Meet and greet new people (and old)
7. Notice who else is there and whether they contribute – encourage them

Here’s how to do each.

Pay complete attention
This is a Zen experience – turn off your phone and tablet, close your laptop, and clear your mind of outside concerns.  When you perform the other steps below, your brain will be at 100% capacity.  Channel your inner Bill Clinton — he was a master of focusing completely on the individual he was speaking with at any given moment – so completely that that person felt important and flattered.  This practice sharpens your ability to focus everywhere you go.  You’ll get a mental workout, and others in the meeting will unconsciously like you for how you make them feel.

And you won’t miss key details.

Capture floating ideas and associations on a notepad
As you really listen to others, ideas will pop into your head.  Do not try to hold those ideas in your head, and don’t try to share them immediately (unless you are completely sure that interrupting will be non-disruptive for everyone).  Use your notepad and scribble it down.  Your mind, thus emptied, can return to full listening.

Example: Jo needs to fix the web site’s site map, and you vaguely remember that someone just offered a free white paper on that topic.  Write “Jo needs to fix site-map” on your notepad.

Convert ideas into next actions or delete
You don’t have to wait until after the meeting to review your notes and perform a GTD style analysis, converting your raw notes into actionable decisions.  Do this for each thing in your meeting notes by asking:

Do I have some intention around this? (If not, this is either reference material or trash.)

What is the desired outcome? (Write that outcome in the margin – this becomes your goal statement.)

If so, is it mine to act on? (If not, delegate to the right person and put this item on my “Follow Up Later” list.)

Example: Decide you’re going to find and forward to Jo the white paper on fixing site-maps.  Write “Fwd site map fix white paper to Jo by 5 pm today” under “Actions for Me.”  When it’s your turn to speak, briefly tell Jo and get your commitment into the meeting minutes.

Bonus: If nobody is taking minutes, keep your own tally of “Who will do What by When” (a.k.a. Standard Goal Language) and share it with everyone in an email afterward.

Contribute something to every meeting, even if it’s just agreement
It’s easy to forget that the meeting is not just about the content.  It’s also about the team socializing and establishing some norms around how to work with each other.  You want to be more than a tourist — interact.  If you have an idea, share it.  If you disagree, say so in a constructive and non-confrontational way.  (If you have a powerful presence or are seen as confrontational, soften your disagreements with possibilities and “I” statements.  Instead of “That will never work” say “I do have a concern about the possibility that that might not work.”  You come off as less of a know-it-all or blow-hard, and you’ve still surfaced the concern.)

If you simply agree, say so.  Your coworkers will feel supported and will be more positively disposed toward you, and your boss will see you as someone who is listening and who contributes.

Map the room with names, and periodically memorize them
Especially in larger meetings, cross departmental meetings, kickoff meetings or anywhere there are new people, sketch a little map of the room and the names of everyone there.   Then you can periodically cover the map, scan the room and try to remember each name, then look down to see if you got it right.  When someone’s speaking, find their name — roll their name around in your head as you listen.  When you contribute (see above) you can reference prior points by the name of the speaker — “I agree with Jo that this needs to be done by Friday,” or “I understand Fred’s concern about the shipping date, however I think we’ll be OK.”

Meet and greet new people (and old)
Make a point of looking each person in the eye, smiling, and shaking their hand as you meet them.  Greet everyone.  If someone arrives late and you can’t greet them, then shake their hand at the end of the meeting.

For many of your colleagues, this is where they form their opinion of you, and this subconsciously influences how much they want to open up to you, do you favors, or reach out to you.  A polite greeting makes a great first (and repeated) impression.

Notice who else is there and whether they contribute – encourage them
Use your map of the people in the room – tick off each name as each person speaks up.  Then encourage the quiet ones to contribute.

Bonus – note down next to their name the point each person made, or their major concern.  By understanding their concerns, you can greatly increase your ability to connect with them.

Do none of these things, and your meeting may be a bore and a drag.  Do all of them, and you’ll feel exhilarated and energized.  By focusing on what you can control — your own attitude and behavior — you’ll feel a greater sense of overall control and happiness.  And you’ll make the meeting a little bit better for everybody else, too.

What tricks do you use to keep yourself effective during meetings?

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust. Email comments to [email protected].

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