Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Quicker Better Meetings: Changing unproductive, unhelpful patterns


Does this scenario sound familiar?

You’re at a meeting that’s going along rather well and the agenda items are being ticked off at a satisfying rate and disagreements are ironed out with ease. It even looks as though the meeting might end early and your mind flits ahead to the extra time you’ll have to catch up on all the emails that will have come in during the meeting.

And then……a voice pipes up asking a long, convoluted question that had to do with something three agenda items ago, accompanied by lots of shuffling of papers. 

“Oh no,” you say to yourself, “here we go again.” 

By the time whoever’s chairing the meeting has figured out what the question is and attempted an answer, your dreams of an early finished are dashed and you pretend to be interested in what’s being said, which is usually a repetition of something that was said half an hour ago. You might even be discreetly trying to sneak a peek at your phone so of course your mind isn’t on the meeting at all.

And that’s just one example of what can bog down a meeting. We, all of us, will have lots of examples of what can make a meeting torturous: a chair who can’t keep order, no agenda, lots of rambling and distractions, someone trying to hijack the meeting or browbeat others, drowning in minutiae and on and on and on. 

See if you can identify what gets in the way of you having ‘quicker better meetings’. 

One of the reasons why some meetings tend to be deadly is that they fall into a pattern very quickly.  All you need is to have two meetings in a row with the same people and if no one steps in to change the dynamic, then a pattern will be set. If that pattern includes allowing people to rabbit on, to go off the agenda, to keep dragging in irrelevant issues, to complain when they don’t get their way, then your meetings will be endless with greater conflict and fewer concerns resolved.

So how do you get your meetings to become quicker and better?

Change a Pattern

Look at the patterns that are slowing down your meetings and see what you could do to shift them.

The interesting thing about changing patterns is that this can be done in ways both subtle and not so subtle depending upon how embedded the patterns are.

For instance, we worked with a company that often had contentious meetings between management and union reps. Meetings inevitably ended up as ‘them and us’ scenarios. When we started working with the union reps we asked how the meeting rooms were set up and unsurprisingly the union chaps sat on one side of the table and management on another, and thus it had always been.

We recommended that they get to the meetings ahead of time and to dot themselves around the table which would immediately break the physical representation of ‘them and us’. Once they changed the physical set-up it was almost like magic one of the reps told us, because instead of squaring up across the table, the found they were chatting to whoever was next to them which took the heat out of the situation.

That’s just one pattern that was easy to change and really was done under the radar.

Other patterns require a less subtle approach. I call these the ‘people patterns’ where individuals fall into the same behaviour every single time there’s a meeting, just like the person I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. 

As a matter of fact, that description is based on my personal experience and the frustration and impatience I felt was mirrored around the table. Since this was a group that met often, I would grit my teeth as this person asked yet another question that had already been answered ages ago. I finally came up with my personal strategy since the chair didn’t seem to know how to handle her in any effective way – as a matter of fact, he kind of treated her as though her interruption was normal which only encouraged her even more.

My tactic was first, to wait till she was seated and then to sit next to her. That way I could monitor her body language when it looked as though she was about to speak after shuffling her papers.  Second, was as soon as she asked a question that had already been dealt with I intervened in a really friendly way saying that since the question had already been covered earlier I’d be really happy to stay on after the meeting and go over it all with her. 

Over the course of a few meetings I did this about three times and I knew I had broken the pattern when instead of asking the chair a question she turned to me and whispered if I’d mind going over something after the meeting. Victory!

The reason I have used these two examples (and we have so many more tricks up our sleeves when it comes to making meetings more efficient) is that in each case something really different but not confrontational had to be done to change the dynamic. 

Here’s a couple of quick tips:

1.       Look at what you could physically do to change the layout of your meeting room or where people sit. Be the first to ‘sit on the other side of the table’. 

2.       Identify what behaviour patterns both you and other people do that slow things down. It’s easier to change your behaviour so let’s start there. You can do simple things to do with your body language which will have a subtle impact on everyone else (sitting straighter in your chair, leaning forward, ensuring you give eye contact to everyone when you speak).


In other words, if you want productive meetings you have to start to change the patterns that make them unbearable. 

Don’t wait for someone else to rescue your meetings; put on the life preserver and take the plunge!


Check out our Quicker Better Meetings Open Course.


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