How to attend a meeting

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If you want to learn about facilitating a meeting, there’s no shortage of advice for you. On the web, in books and workshops, you can learn how to break the ice, encourage interaction, paraphrase contributions that aren’t clear, play devil’s advocate, use humour to diffuse a tense moment, publish an agenda beforehand, and so on. There’s no question that everyone could benefit from growing their skills in running a good meeting.

But what about attending a meeting?

There’s very little advice about this (unless you want to count this priceless vignette by Dave Barry, which you should definitely be familiar with). Most of us go to meetings day in and day out, but our participation is inconsistent and—as a result—the effectiveness of most meetings is questionable. Most meetings take place either to communicate something or to discuss a subject matter and reach agreement about making a change of some kind. While the convener’s facilitation skills are no doubt important, our techniques as attendees are just as crucial to the meeting’s success.

Here are some suggestions of skills, techniques and behaviours you could work on to improve your meeting participation skills:

Make notes. The single most important piece of advice I can give you as a meeting attendee is to make notes. Our default behaviour is to assume that either we will remember everything or somebody else will make (and distribute) notes. After all, this isn’t a lecture and we’re no longer students, are we? Realistically, if you’re assuming that someone else will be taking notes, so are they. And in the end—more often than not—nobody wrote anything down, making the meeting much less effective. Don’t assume that the meeting facilitator will have this covered, either. It’s everyone’s job to contribute to the official record of what happened at the meeting. Another important thing to understand: research shows that most people remember their own meeting contributions above all others. In other words, you’ll remember your own brilliant ideas best—and if nobody takes minutes, everyone’s perception of what happened at the meeting will be quite different, right down to the conclusions you’ll think you came to and the action items you think were agreed. Making notes saves us from these elementary traps our human psychology sets for us.

Agree on roles beforehand. A well-oiled team agrees on meeting attendee roles beforehand. If may not be practical for everyone to be making notes at the meeting—one of you may be facilitating, another will be the key negotiator, and these more active roles don’t lend themselves to also making notes. But it makes sense to explicitly agree on who will play which role during the meeting.

Be on time. Such a simple rule, yet apparently so complicated to implement. Being on time for a meeting is a common human courtesy. Being late is inexcusable unless you had a genuine emergency (of the car-crash or medical kind). It doesn’t matter how senior or busy you are, nor how important in comparison to the other meeting attendees. It also doesn’t matter who is paying the bills (whether you’re the client or consultant). Being on time for a meeting signals, “I’m here. I take this seriously. I’m ready. Let’s talk.” It’s a basic statement of presence and, as such, a core requirement for attending a meeting.

Remove distractions. Like the rest of the working world, meetings are filled with distractions these days. In the IT industry, laptops have been a mainstay at meetings for more than a decade now; they are increasingly showing up in other sectors, too. And where there are no laptops, everyone’s smartphones are on the table, beckoning with distractions—whether legitimate work emergencies or entertaining apps and social networks. There seems to be a pretty wide ‘tolerance spectrum’ in regards to phones. Some attendees (usually, either executive types or IT operations people) actually take ‘important’ calls during a meeting and scamper out of the room, mumbling, “Hold on a sec.” This is completely unacceptable; it’s just as rude as being late for the meeting. To the remaining participants, it basically says, “Your meeting isn’t very important to me.” The kindest thing a facilitator can do at the beginning of a meeting is to ask everyone to close their laptops (except the official note-taker or note-takers) and to switch off their smartphones’ ringers. Then, put your phones face down on the table and push them toward the middle (slightly out of reach). The purpose is to ensure that reaching for the distraction takes a bit of effort which will serve as a deterrent later.

Be pleasant and friendly, but to the point. Many meetings suffer from ‘TMI’ (too much information). The human urge to connect and share personal stories or work anecdotes can be strong. While these can be useful ice breakers before a meeting or afterwards, most people can’t pull them off succinctly and clearly enough to actually serve to illustrate their point during the meeting, so they end up distracting from the matter at hand (and adding time to the clock). You’re here to discuss something specific—stay with it. Not that I’m encouraging you to be curt or even rude when others offer their war stories, but there’s a way to gently move the meeting back on track afterwards (something the facilitator should ideally do, but if they don’t, any attendee could do it too).

Keep quiet and pay attention. It’s common human courtesy to keep quiet and pay attention when someone is speaking at a meeting. Yet I frequently encounter ‘multiple meeting syndrome’ where people apparently think it’s okay to have side discussions at their end of the table while the main meeting is also going on. Years ago, when I was working at Microsoft, people used to say, “Can we have one meeting, please?” It may sound a bit rude, but it’s actually the quickest way to get things back on a single track. I personally make a point of staying stone-faced when someone tries to engage me in a side meeting and look at the person who’s currently ‘officially’ speaking. Side meetings are often a power play of some kind and should be discouraged (not that I don’t enjoy a bit of transgressive behaviour once in a while, but if the objective is to hold an effective meeting, transgression has the same effect as distraction—it just increases the amount of time we have to spend in the meeting).

Interrogate/question your own motivations and reactions. Of course, it’s generally worth becoming more conscious of your own motivations and reactions. Examining them puts you in control of your emotions and makes you less vulnerable when faced with unexpected information. I frequently observe two kinds of unexamined meeting behaviour that are worth discussing here. The first is an emotional reaction to a proposed change that someone presents at the meeting. The attendee’s reaction is to panic about how this change will affect them, and to reject it outright because of this (perceived) impact. This is an emotionally driven extreme reaction that’s hard to recover from, as it isn’t primarily rational. The second is that people like to speak at meetings in order to prove how smart they are to the other participants (which—while possibly true—is likely completely irrelevant for the subject matter at hand). A good general rule for meeting attendees is to not trust one’s own first instincts when experiencing the urge to speak.

Act as co-facilitator. Skilled meeting facilitators who are playing the role of attendee can gently co-facilitate a meeting to ensure its success. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with—or even like—the actual meeting facilitator. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have a successful, smooth meeting, so if you can co-facilitate the meeting (for example, by covering the actual facilitator’s blind spots), you should. It’s important not to take over, though: this is no time for showcasing your own awesome facilitation skills. You’re here to help and keep things moving along. Question your motivations and avoid becoming a distraction.

Capture and review action items. At the end of every meeting, you should review and confirm the action items as a group. The main note-taker is the lead for this activity. This should become second nature as your meeting attendance skills grow. It’s also not an optional item, and here’s why: if the subject matter was important enough to require your time for an hour or two, there should be action items. (There are very few exceptions to this rule.) At the end of the meeting, everybody should hear the action items one more time and be given a chance to adjust them as necessary. Action items should be clearly marked as such and sent out together with the minutes as soon as possible after the meeting (I believe “as soon as possible” means minutes or hours, not days).

Aim to end early. Most meetings run over, for a variety of reasons (some of which I’ve outlined above). The net effect is that the discussion remains incomplete and the action items aren’t reviewed by the group. Regardless of how long your meeting was scheduled for, all attendees should work together to end early. Ending early should be everyone’s tacit shared goal throughout the meeting. For a one-hour meeting, your goal should be to end 10 minutes early. Two hour meetings should end after 90 minutes. Etc. Under no circumstances should you ever feel that the meeting has to expand to fill the time scheduled.

If you manage a work group or have recurring meetings with the same group of participants, you may want to consider extracting some do’s and don’ts from this list of techniques, skills and behaviours and creating a meeting manifesto of sorts that you share with the group at the beginning.

What have you learned about being a good meeting participant? Please share it in the comments section below.

2 thoughts on “How to attend a meeting”

  1. Great post Carsten, I will definitely be sharing it – when I’m not too busy because of all the meetings that go late!

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