A Prisoner of Bad Meetings?

The doodle above is my colleague Michael Kraft’s “notes from a recent meeting.” It reads like a note from a prisoner on death row.

You don’t have to be a prisoner of bad meetings! Honestly, you don’t. Or, not most of the time anyway. You have options.

At least two people are responsible for you being a prisoner in a bad meeting: you and the person who convened it. You are probably already familiar with the responsibilities of a meeting convener: define a purpose, develop an agenda, secure a meeting space, invite participants, send out an agenda, and so on. Previous postings describe these responsibilities and more in detail.

But what happens when you go to a meeting when the convener has not done his or her job, i.e., there is no explicit purpose, agenda, time frame, or clarity about anyone’s role? What do you do when you “have” to go to a meeting because it’s part of your job or a previous commitment? How do you handle it when there either is no agenda or, if there is one, people ignore it and launch into lengthy and seemingly unproductive conversations? And, how about one of the more difficult aspects of bad meetings, when one or two people dominate the conversation?

What are your options? My dear friend and colleague Mary Curran used to say that there are always four options: (1) remove yourself from the situation; (2) change yourself; (3) try to change the situation; or (4) stay in the situation and complain. Misery is always an option!

Option 1 is obvious. You can leave the meeting. If you cannot, try option 2 or 3. Unfortunately optoin 4 is the default mode or the one most frequently chosen. Let’s investigate options 2 and 3.

How might you need to change yourself to “escape” from meeting prison? You probably need to challenge such thoughts as, “I can’t do anything. The meeting will be over soon, I’ll just wait it out. I don’t want my colleague to feel badly about how awful this meeting is.” If you are thinking anything like this, I guarantee you there is at least one other person in the room who is thinking the same thing.

How might you try to change the situation? There are two approaches: asking questions or making statements. Here are examples of some useful questions:

  • What is the purpose of this meeting? What do you (or we) want to accomplish?
  • What is my (or our role) here?
  • Are we here to understand and accept decisions that have already been made, or are you asking us to provide feedback on decisions that are in process?
  • Who is making the final decision?
  • What time is this meeting scheduled to end?

Here are examples of some useful statements:

  • We have been talking about this issue for 15 minutes. The major points we seem to be making are A and B. I wonder if we have exhausted this topic and are ready to make a decision.
  • I would like to share my point of view. I would also like to hear from those who have not had a chance to speak yet.
  • This meeting was scheduled for one hour. We have spent 30 minutes on the first item. There are three other items remaining on the agenda. I suggest we move on.
  • I am sorry for interrupting, but my understanding is that your presentation was scheduled to take no more than ten minutes. Could you please finish in a few minutes? Then, I suggest we take a break.

As with all things, what matters is how we say things. Asking any of these questions or making any of these statements needs to be done with kindness and a genuine desire to improve the situation, not blame or criticize anyone.

Your energy and time are precious. Treat them as such. Don’t be imprisoned in bad meetings. Try to change them by challenging your thinking about what you can or cannot do in meetings and by asking questions and making statements about what you see going on.

Misery, however, is always an option. You can stay a prisoner and complain to yourself during the meetings or to others after it. Unfortunately, this will not free you from being a prisoner of bad meetings in the future.  

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