Meetings are a Way of Life
There are Good and there are Bad Meetings
For many people in larger organisations meetings can take up a significant portion of the working week. If meetings are badly run or poorly scheduled they can overrun, overlap, get curtailed, get cancelled and destroy your best-laid plans at a stroke.
Well-run meetings are a joy to partake in. They have clear agendas, are kept to time and chaired with discipline and fairness. Indeed, if you are running the meeting you have the authority and opportunity to shape the meeting well.
But what if you're not the one in charge? Even more importantly, what can you do if you're not the one in charge and things go badly?
All of us have been in meetings that get off the agenda, go round in circles, cover old ground, get stuck on one issue, have people with hidden agendas. You know the feeling. Just as you think, "at last were getting somewhere" someone pipes up, "Hang on a minute, I don't see ..." your heart sinks as you think, "Oh just shut up will you or we'll be here til midnight!"
You may have been in meetings where this has actually been said. If so, you'll know that this is not necessarily a good way forward.
Also there are some other 'flies in the ointment' that can upset the best intentions of a meeting plan, and if they get into a badly run meeting can cause chaos.
The structure of a meeting is very powerful. People come together with prearranged thoughts and ideas that they then share with other influential and useful colleagues in the hope of coming to a consensus for combined action towards common goals.
However, because they are such powerful forums, they are open to use and abuse by those with their own agendas or axes to grind. These may be premeditated or conscious plans and agendas, but more often than not they are unplanned and unconscious, the actions of someone who feels strongly about something, or even just someone being their usual picky self.
You can also identify specific behaviours that go on in meetings. These can be looked at as 'games people play' in a meeting environment. As you look down this list you'll find yourself putting names of specific individuals to some of these games. More worryingly, you'll see some that you may have to admit to yourself. They are not in themselves 'wrong'; they just are and can be disruptive even when done with the best possible intentions and motives.
- Passive aggressor
- Tunnel-vision/One-track mind
Just one person taking on one of these roles can severely compromise a meeting.
For instance, you are running a meeting looking for consensus about an issue and you become aware of someone with a passive aggressive attitude. This is someone who when asked "Are you OK with that?" will respond "Sure. Fine." But with a tone and attitude that tells you they don't agree, but just won't say so. You know that they are going to agree with you in the room and then resist or even work actively against the decision outside it.
Or perhaps you'll get a rescuer. Someone who worries about people being hurt or upset and who just wants everyone to be nice and get on with each other. Meetings are the place you come to thrash out issues and plans and a rescuer can be a wet blanket on every decision you are trying to make.
You may get someone who's fear-paralysed, acts like a rabbit in the headlights and won't contribute. This person in turn can create an aggressor in someone else who gets angry with a person who appears a wimp.
Similarly, if a person acts like a victim, they can create a rescuer in someone else who is uncomfortable with such intense feelings.
Sometimes meetings can get bogged down when people go off on tangents filled with irrelevant stories, then other people get caught up in these distractions and add their own. Suddenly, the whole meeting ends up in a cul-de-sac with no one quite knowing how it got there.
There are also some common phrases that come out of people's mouths that indicate they're game playing, rather than being honest:
- Let's all try to get along. (Placator)
- That won't work. (Spoiler)
- I'll go down with the ship before I change my mind. (Argumentative)
- Do we have to go over this again and again? (Complainer)
- Why am I the one who always gets landed with the lousy jobs? (Victim)
- We're just going to have to agree to disagree. (Passive Aggressor or Placator)
- If everyone else is in agreement who am I to disagree? (Passive Aggressor)
- Why do you always have to bring things up at the last minute? (Blamer)
Surprisingly, this sort of game playing is tolerated in many meetings and people are allowed to get away with behaviour that ought to be called to order. This is because most of us are, quite rightly, unwilling to get into a public fight.
Again, we want to stress that more often than not, these games aren't deliberate, which is why drastic measures are not what's called for. There are some subtle ways to get meetings back on track and more productive.
What Can be Done?
Here are two approaches to dealing with game playing of this type.
The first we call "levelling" and it works like this:
If you begin to notice that your meeting has suddenly got stuck because of one or more game-players, mentally sit back from the meeting and from the thoughts you are having. Formulate a phrase that says exactly what's going on. Try to formulate it so that it is non-blaming and neutral, and resist the temptation to add what should be done (this would be directive and would of course make you a game player too).
From the thought "Oh for goodness sake, didn't we make a decision about this in the last meeting" you might come up with a phrase like "We seem to be covering old ground here". The temptation is to add what should be done: "And I think we should stick to the agenda." This last really needs to be avoided to prevent anyone feeling that you're trying to hijack the meeting.
Here are some more examples of levelling:
What's in your head "Oh just shut up will you or we'll be here til midnight"
What comes out of your mouth "We seem to be going round in circles"
What's in your head "Why on earth are we talking about this?"
What comes out of your mouth "We seem to have got off the agenda"
What's in your head "You haven't done any preparation so we're all just wasting our time"
What comes out of your mouth "We don't seem to have enough information to pursue this"
What's in your head "I wish the two of you would just shut up and listen to the Chair for once"
What comes out of your mouth "We seem to be having two meetings"
What's in your head "Talk talk talk; we're never going to get anywhere at this rate"
What comes out of your mouth "We're still on the first agenda point"
What's in your head "Boy, those two have it in for each other"
What comes out of your mouth "This seems to be getting personal"
Here are a few more suggested phrases that are non-accusatory and non-directive:
Are we sure we have all the right people at this meeting?
We seem to be losing focus.
The energy seems to have dropped.
Are we being realistic?
There seems to be different levels of understanding.
We seem to be stuck on one issue.
There seems to be more than one agenda.
We seem to have gone off the agenda.
There seems to be a lot of feeling about this issue.
We seem to have lost our way.
We seem to be getting bogged down in detail.
We seem to be somewhat divided on this issue.
We don't seem to have heard from everyone.
Notice in most of these phrases we use the term 'we seem' which ensures no one person is being blamed, and isn't declamatory (as opposed to the fist-pounding, "We're not getting anywhere")
Once you've formulated the words, sit forward and interject, don't wait for the right moment. Just sit forward, raise a hand, and raise your voice slightly: whatever it takes to gently force an entry into the proceedings. When you speak, do not look at the person responsible for getting the meeting off track (the game player), and try to keep your tone neutral and light.
What you are trying to do is make sure that no one has the finger pointed at them and that no action is suggested. You will have spoken out loud what many others in the meeting were actually thinking and offered the opportunity to your Chair or any other member of the meeting to take the initiative and move on.
The effect should be to stop the meeting for a second or two and to level or negate any advantages or disadvantages available to the game player(s), hence the name "levelling". Think of it as throwing a very small bomb into the proceedings that does no real harm, yet gently pulls people up short and gets the meeting back on track.
We are not suggesting that this is the only way to contribute to meetings. You may deliberately choose one of the games yourself to move things along, or you may spend most of the meeting with your usual communication style. However, the technique of levelling cuts right through difficulties and makes it hard for people to keep up obstructive games.
The key here is subtlety, no one should really be aware that you employed a special technique and no one will feel accused, blamed or humiliated for inappropriate behaviour.
The second approach we call "Calling the behaviour".
This technique is more overt than levelling, because everyone will know you're doing it. This technique is particularly suited for meetings that are on going: ones that meet regularly such as team meetings, problem solving groups or consultative forums. Here is how it works.
As the standing orders or ground rules are being formulated, introduce the idea of game playing and permission for any member to 'call' another member on their behaviour.
The idea is to create a meetings environment where anybody is able to take the role of a facilitator and comment on the meeting process rather than the content.
Here's an example: Let's say at a regular team meeting 'John' keeps going back to issues that have already been discussed. Everyone's getting fed up because he's taking up a lot of time and going over and over old stuff. Instead of everyone sitting there in a huff and not doing anything, or finally losing patience and snapping at him, this is what can be done.
One team member simply interjects and 'calls' John on what's been happening: "I'm going to call you on this John because I think you are taking us round in circles; we've covered this ground before". His behaviour is 'called' but it's not done in an accusing way, and in this case there's nothing wrong with adding what you think needs to be done next: "I think we should get back to the agenda."
This can lead quite quickly to the creation of phrases like 'Circles', and 'One meeting' when two discussions are going on, etc.
This is a little like one of those Wild West towns where everyone agrees to leave their guns with the sheriff for the duration of their stay. It requires that everyone agrees that this is what's going to be done, and that everyone takes the role of deputy when we see someone pull a gun (in other words, get the meeting off track).
When you call someone, you literally do use his or her name: "Louise, I'm calling you on this you're hogging all the time, and not everyone's getting a chance to talk."
When you call someone's behaviour, it's not accusing, but it's not subtle either. Calling tells someone exactly what's going on, but without blame. ("Not everyone's getting a chance to talk" is a whole lot better than, "Don't you ever shut up"!)
Here's a variation on calling the behaviour. This is a way to monitor your own behaviour and to be more honest with your own contributions to meetings. This is how it works:
It literally is about announcing to the rest of the meeting just what you're intentions are. Let's say that an agenda item has come up and just about everyone else is in agreement about it except you. You could intervene and say "I don't agree, and here's why..." There's nothing wrong with that.
But it's amazing how much more powerful you message can be (and often more acceptable) if you preface it with: "I'm going to play Devil's Advocate for a moment and look at the other side."
What's interesting here is that you may still be playing a 'game' by taking on a specific role, but by announcing it, you let everyone know you're playing a game and you get really clear for yourself what your role is in that moment.
For instance, in the middle of a meeting you remember something that isn't completely relevant, but you think might amuse or enlighten people or simply bring them up to date on something not on the agenda. If you bring it up you'll be playing the game of 'rambler/distracter', but if you call yourself on it ("I'm going to play the Distracter for a minute.") everyone knows you're doing it and it won't disrupt the meeting.
Much like the suggestion we made earlier that for on-going groups you set some ground rules, 'calling yourself' could be included in those.
There are also some simple phrases that can help move meetings forward.
We're all in this together so let's work things out.
Let's get back to the point.
How could we make that work?
Have we all finished?
Let's take a vote.
Not a bad idea.
That could work, you know.
Is everybody happy with that?
I think we need to carry on.
Shall we wrap things up now?
By using simple techniques like these you can start to create meetings that are positive, enjoyable and productive. Everyone will be grateful for the time saved and stress levels within the workplace will drop as a result.
Business Meeting Skills Training
"I really enjoyed the course – it was so helpful in so many ways! Both Sarah and Caitlin were fantastic facilitators, really welcoming and engaging.Thank you again for such a worthwhile and valuable day!”
Lisa Noremberg - L&D Advisor - Cath Kidston
"I found the course most useful. I have become more aware of peoples behaviours as a result of the training. I certainly will be reviewing my notes before the next meeting I chair/facilitate."
Simon Fox - Change Analyst – Elexon
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