This article was originally posted on Transforming Leader in March, 2011. Enjoy!
I’m beginning to wonder if boring meetings are bad for your physical & emotional health. Really. Think about it for just a second. When we’re bored, we tend to have bad posture and if the meeting is long, then we’re in that pose for a good while. So that can’t be good for your body. Even worse, boring meetings tend to be stressful for everyone present. We’ve all got other things we could be doing. And then there’s the fact that boring meetings usually mean we aren’t paying attention, which means we might miss something or not get proper buy-in for an upcoming new venture. And that leads to less than great results, which also leads to stress. Stress isn’t good for the body . . . you get the idea.
A while back I wrote a post about “How to Lead a Bad Meeting” that you might find mildly humorous (I hope.)
Nobody wants to lead a bad meeting. So I thought I’d share some pointers I’ve learned over the years on how to lead, well, a ‘good’ meeting instead. I hope you find them helpful.
How To Lead a Good Meeting
- Begin the meeting on-time. People can be notorious for being late and we hate to start without them. Here are a couple of suggestions for doing this effectively. At your next meeting, let the whole team know that you have personally been irresponsible to the team for not honoring all of their time by starting the meeting late. Inform them that, beginning today, you will be starting all future meetings on time. If someone comes in late, you will give them the benefit of the doubt the first time. After that you will be addressing them following the meeting regarding their lateness to the meeting.
- Prepare. I can personally attest to the great difficulty in properly preparing for team meetings. We are all so busy and hold so many meetings throughout our day and week that it’s so easy to just jump from one meeting to the next without more than a passing thought to what will be happening when you get there. However, ANY preparation you give prior to the meeting will reap great rewards during the meeting. The more you give, the greater impact the meeting will have. Your meetings will have more depth during conversations, be much more interesting, and may possibly even finish early.
- Create a Realistic Agenda. It is very demotivating to team members when there are more agenda items than you could actually ever address. You don’t want demotivated people in your meeting. It ruins momentum. When you don’t address an item on the agenda that is important to a team member, it can seem to them like it isn’t really important to you, especially if you don’t get to it several weeks in a row.
- Hold Others and Yourself Accountable. You should regularly review action items (to do’s) that have been assigned to members of the team to ensure they are getting done. If and when they are not, there should be accountability with the team regarding the breach in fulfilling an agreed upon commitment. If this is an issue for you and your team, then for now, I recommend you read both of the following books: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Crucial Confrontations.
- Avoid Rabbit Trails. You get the analogy of that little phrase, ‘rabbit trail’, right? It jumps off quickly and captures everyone’s attention without them even knowing it. This is particularly true if the topic at hand is boring or getting drawn out or is a difficult topic of discussion. “Let’s talk about something more interesting!” The effective team leader will work very hard at minimizing this activity. Every once in a while you may decide the rabbit trail is important to entertain for a while. However, it should rarely happen and should almost always come back to the original topic. One idea when people seem to want to go down a rabbit trail is to say something like, “Let’s add this conversation to the February 8th meeting agenda.” or some such thing.
- Set Expectations First. It’s important at the beginning of certain discussions that you clarify your expectation of the discussion. Is this discussion meant to stimulate creative thinking? Is it to discuss tactical options? Will there be a vote? Or is the direction already decided and you want people to express their opinions and concerns? Are we brainstorming or are we evaluating? What do you want the end of this conversation to look like and sound like?
- Ask Lots of Questions. The point of most meetings is discussion and feedback. This usually doesn’t happen by itself. Many (though not all) people need to be encouraged to speak up and their opinions/ideas drawn out. This will happen by asking both general and specific questions about the topic at hand. Sometimes it is good to put one or more team members on the spot for their input. If the team member has been tracking with the conversation she will have something to say, even if it’s just, “everything we’ve said so far makes total sense to me.”
- Ask for Clarification. If you are not sure what a person means during a discussion . . . even a little bit, ask for them to clarify their point or re-ask their question. When necessary, repeat it back to them in your own words and ask for confirmation that this is, in fact, what they are saying. If not, keep exploring until you are all on the same page.
- Confirm Your Team’s Understanding. It is often very good to ask the team if everyone understands what is being discussed or what has just been said or decided. Just because you understand what’s going on, doesn’t mean others do. Watch out for glassy eyes which could indicate, “I have no idea what was just said but am embarrassed to say so.” When in doubt, ask someone else in the room to repeat back what has been said or decided.
- Confirm Buy-In. It’s important you don’t assume everyone agrees with what has been said. Sometimes, when it SEEMS like everyone agrees there are individuals who don’t but are afraid to say so because they don’t want to rock the boat. Ask a few probing questions to give people a chance to ask an additional question or raise a concern. Two really great follow-up questions to consider which will help with this is: “What do you like best about this idea?” and “What do you think we might do to improve on this idea?”
- Embrace Silence. Learn to embrace silence. People need time to think and respond. An insecure leader will ask, “Does anyone have anything to add?” or “Does anyone have questions about this idea?” and will allow a scant 5 seconds for responses before moving on. Wait 30 seconds (an eternity). Halfway through you can say, “I’m not afraid of a little silence here. I just want to make sure we are all on the same page.”
- Openly Expose Elephants in the Room. I don’t know how else to say this. If there’s an elephant in the room you need to stop everything and talk about the elephant. You also need to give your team members permission to expose elephants too. It’s very possible (probable) it’s standing right behind you and you don’t even know it. Just be honest and say, “Listen, I could be wrong, but is there something going on right now that we are all not talking about and should? Specifically, . . . . ?” Check out this post entitled, “Exposing the Elephant in the Room“
- Say What You Think/Feel. Similar to the elephant exposure idea, you need to be free to honestly express something you think or feel as the meeting facilitator. Of course, your team members should have permission to do that too. If you feel like the meeting is getting boring, why don’t you say so? If it seems like people are falling asleep on you – ask if they are. If it seems like everyone seems confused about what you are talking about, say so. It’s always possible you are wrong, but what if you aren’t?
- Listen. Listening is really hard to do, especially for the leader of the meeting. Often, the leader has the most at stake in the discussion and wants to make sure the conversation is going where they want it. A good meeting facilitator will force himself to listen, ask for clarification, and ensure everyone has had their say before the discussion ends. He needs to be able to express his viewpoint as well, of course. Often that should happen near the end of the discussion or at the very beginning. Sometimes the meeting leader will need to make comments or reorient the discussion because it’s getting off-track, but the primary job of the facilitator is to lead the DISCUSSION, not the DECISION. This is especially important if the meeting leader is the leader of the organization. Usually, people want to just go with the leader and will not express viewpoints if the leader has already said everything he (or she) thinks.
- Think Before You Speak. Important. Very important. Did I say important? If you want to say something, go ahead. But make sure you have gathered your thoughts and whenever possible select your words carefully. As the team leader, everyone is taking their cues from you. As the organizational leader they are also deciding if it’s safe to talk because of you. Learn catch phrases that will facilitate conversations like, “I wonder if . . .”, “Is it possible we are forgetting . . .”, “I could be wrong, but . . .”.
- End On Time or Early. Your team will thank you. Work hard at being the hero and finish early, or at the very minimum, on time. If you’re meeting seems like it might end up going late, let everyone know a good 10-15 minutes beforehand, if possible – and release anyone who has other appointments coming up right away so they can rearrange them or leave your meeting on time.