Stave Off the Blahs! Advice for Meeting Leaders

Stave Off the Blahs! Advice for Meeting Leaders

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My old boss always started our staff meetings with a “check-in,” a minute or two per attendee to answer that looming question, “How are you?” Some shared news about life at home — the number of days until that vacation to Puerto Vallarta, or the latest kitchen remodel gone south.

There was always one guy who resisted. Checking in, he thought, was a waste of time. But the boss insisted.

“C’mon, John. Surely there’s something you can tell us,” the boss would say.

“Our cat ran off,” John finally shared one day.

And that would be about it from John. We were left wondering whether John was distraught about the cat’s disappearance or glad it was gone, and we never heard whether the cat came back. Frankly, we weren’t sure he even had a cat. He’d never mentioned one before. But whatever the case, at least that time, he’d fulfilled the minimum check-in requirement.

For meeting leaders who are paying attention, check-ins are helpful because leaders can get a handle on how the meeting may go before it even gets started. Sometimes a check-in lets everyone know that someone has personal concerns in progress, illness at home, for example. Someone else might share good news — a graduation, a child on the way. Since states of mind rise and fall faster and more often than the wind shifts, it’s good to know what you’re dealing with. A wise meeting leader pays attention to these dynamics.

There’s occasionally someone like John who thinks he’s above the frivolity. Unfortunately, a claim like John’s, that “I’m too busy for this,” implies anyone who participates in a trivial check-in obviously has time on their hands and isn’t, therefore, very important. A smart meeting leader won’t let this message leave an impression. My old boss once told John to get over himself.

Check-ins can help meeting leaders expedite a meeting. If they’re not surprised by how people are, they’re less likely to be caught offguard when attendees resist, complain, cheer, or disconnect, and they’re better able to bring people together on a shared journey.

Optimizing meeting time is important to everyone. Most people say they spend way too much time in meetings — staff meetings, problem review meetings, project status meetings, quarterly announcements, one-on-ones, financial reviews, budget meetings, planning sessions, training classes, audits, and on and on and on. What can a meeting leader do to optimize time participants spend? Here are some things to accelerate progress and make the time efficient.

  1. Don’t make it a downer.

The worst way to start a meeting is by apologizing for having one. Instead, keep the energy up, and even if you’re not thrilled to be there, don’t tell anyone. What would be the point? To bring everyone down?

I’ve written about this in other Cogent Communicator columns, but it applies here too: we have within our brains mirror neurons. We mirror what we see in others’ faces. It’s why, when someone looks distraught, we furrow our brow, and when they smile at us, we smile back. It’s a reflection of our inherently compassionate nature (which is often buried under a heap of other states of mind, like anger worry, and other things, but that’s a story for another day). Point is that if you, as a meeting leader, look bummed out or just plain blah, that’s what you’ll get back from your attendees. Is that really how you want to spend the next hour? Surrounded by blah, bummed out people?

Perk up. Connect with people. Thank them genuinely for coming. Promise to move things along. Let everyone know their time is valuable and that you appreciate it.

Those should stave off the blahs.

  1. Follow up on the check-in.

Monitor changes in temperature along the way. If someone withdraws from the discussion, call on them to rejoin. If someone dominates the discussion, say “I’d like to hear from someone on this side of the table” or call on someone. “Melinda, do you have thoughts about this?” If a heated discussion gets too heated, intervene. “Let’s not let our emotions run off with our better sense.” Or “We make better decisions when we’re not arguing.”

Meeting leaders who don’t manage the undercurrents risk letting one person take over and run things (maybe into the ground), and disenfranchise others in attendance. A good leader listens between the lines, picking up on subtle disagreement, impatience, boredom, or outright disengagement.

  1. Don’t let people drop out.

Disengagement is a real problem — that is, people whose attention is clearly elsewhere. First of all, it’s rude, and secondly it’s unproductive. I start training classes by saying “This is a laptops-not-required class.” Then I wait, silently. After the expressions of mild incredulity fade, the laptops close.

Class usually concludes early. That would not be the case if everyone’s attention were elsewhere.

  1. Start on time and end early.

When you schedule a meeting from 1:00 to 2:00, aim to conclude at 1:50. You don’t need to tell everyone that, but keep a pace that will get you there. If you set a meeting pace that will take you to 1:59:59, you’ll run late. Minimize meandering, get to the point, be clear about the action items, and you can speed things along considerably.

When an airplane lands early, the crew makes sure the passengers know that. “Welcome to Los Angeles! Alaska Airlines arrives early again, continuing our outstanding on-time record!” Just like the airlines, when you get to your destination early, tell everyone. “Our end-early record continues!”

Wouldn’t you rather accept a meeting invitation from a meeting leader who routinely ends early than from someone who never ends on time?

  1. Never run over anyone.

I’m going to tell you a story that still makes me cringe, but I think it illustrates this point well, so here goes.

I once worked with a guy who really disliked me. I won’t elaborate, but you know when someone really doesn’t like you, right? We’ll call him Paul. Honestly, the tension went both ways. Alas, we had to work together fairly often, at least two or three meetings in the same room every week, as we had lots of overlapping project work. My boss got tired of the tension between us, so he assigned both of us to a small task force — just three people — and he took me aside with the specific direction to “Make this work out,” meaning my working relationship with Paul.

The third person on this little task force was Jerry, a long-time friend of mine. Before we got underway, I took Jerry aside and asked him to help me get to the bottom of the Paul problem. I didn’t understand the hostility and, since we’d be meeting as a small group, if Jerry observed anything useful, could he please let me know.

A couple of weeks into the task force work, Jerry stopped by and closed the my door.

“Stop talking over him,” Jerry said. “He takes time to think. He’s a technie math genius, not a poet. Putting things into words takes him a while. You never give him time to assemble his thoughts and speak. You just run over him — every time. That’s why he hates you.”

Ouch!

Once I recovered from the initial shock, I knew he was right. Without a kind, brave colleague like Jerry, I might never have seen it clearly. But as the situation between Paul and me worsened, I had let my ego take over, using verbal dexterity to shove things along, justifying my pushy behavior in the name of progress, to keep us from falling behind.

Good meeting leaders draw everyone into the conversation and make space for all contributions. It’s easy to feel rushed, but if it damages work relationships, or — worse! — if it shortchanges the content of the meeting, rushing isn’t worth it.Be considerate and take into account the style and pace others have, especially when it’s more deliberate.I changed my interactions with Paul, but things got only slightly better. The damage had already been done. Lesson learned.

These suggestions are mostly in the “soft skills” department. That’s a term I actually dislike, because it emplies they’re luxurious or inconsequential, and in truth they’re neither one. Soft skills are hard.

I hope these tips helps you navigate the consequential and emotional territory in the next meeting you lead.


Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.


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