1. No meetings longer than an hour without the introduction of alcohol.
At a recent budget meeting, it was starting to look like we would never get finished. The inherent difficulty of a budget meeting hinges on the idea that decisions to give or take money from a certain area means more philosophical debates regarding the value of that area. Those wanting increased funding are defending it, others are challenging the worth of the program. We all have our pet projects and opinions, and everything spews out onto the table willy-nilly. Time will elapse quickly before any hope of consensus begins to surface.
Then came that moment in the proceedings when heads were hurting and clocks were given more attention than a swimsuit model parading through a room of adolescents. We wanted to leave, but we also wanted to do so with the knowledge that we would not have to return for a second round. In that moment, the host of the meeting left, and returned with a handful of cold beer bottles. I’d never seen such a transformation before: sullen faces now beamed with enthusiasm for the task, and we had a balanced budget before the first bottles were finished. From then on, I was sold on the idea that if the meeting was inherently difficult or long, there should be libations available. You may call it a crutch or a consolation prize; I call it an essential building block to success.
2. If you break rule number one, be prepared for me to leave before the meeting is over.
I hate leaving a meeting early, almost as much as I hate being late. I don’t like anything that calls too much attention to myself. That being said, I will walk out somewhere around the 2-hour mark even if I have no other pressing plans. It’s really a matter of principal at that point. If the meeting leader cannot structure our conversation and respect the time we are giving, then I am not obligated to give them free reign with my attention. On one Board, notorious for chatty, long-winded meetings, I stayed as long as I could, out of a perverse curiosity to see how long they would keep us. They were still talking at the three-hour mark when I departed in disgust. I served on that Board for 2 more years, attended almost very meeting, and never once stayed to the end.
3. Every meeting should have someone in charge, and that person should follow an agenda.
If we follow the assumption that nobody really enjoys being in a meeting, then the person who called it owes the attendees a productive and cohesive dialogue. No matter how many meetings you have led, you need to know exactly what you want to accomplish and how you plan to do it. The only thing worse than a too-long meeting is a chaotic one. We’ve all been in enough of these gatherings to be able to recognize when someone is “winging it”. Don’t do it.
4. Whether you’re in charge or in attendance, remember that a meeting is not the place for problems that only apply to one person.
I’m always amazed when a person feels compelled to waste precious meeting time with a complaint that only affects them. They selfishly direct everyone’s attention to an isolated issue with no relevance to the group at large, one that could easily be addressed in a one-on-one conversation after the crowd disperses. Before you comment or pose a question, ask yourself if it really would be of interest and relevance to the others, or do you just have a random thought that could be held for the speaker’s direct attention after the meeting is over?
5. Do not talk to the person next to you when someone else is talking!
This one amazes me the most, and is very prevalent. People don’t realize how distracting and noisy the whispered “side conversations” really are. I am not above giving people the evil eye when I hear the vexing murmurings. If someone tries to engage me in conversation directly, I ignore them completely. If what you need to say or ask someone else absolutely cannot wait, at least write it down and silently share notes at the table. Even texting would be better. As much as we all know the etiquette behind a text-free meeting, it’s still better than whispering to your neighbor. There is no quicker way for a meeting to devolve into chaos than one or two side-bar conversations gone astray.
6. Be succinct.
I’m sure by now I have demonstrated the value of time, so I challenge everyone-leaders and participants- to edit their comments down to the bare essentials. Keep the anecdotes brief and relevant, do not repeat yourself, and do not monopolize the conversation. It’s a meeting, not a lecture or performance. A meeting implies participation by members, so let’s all be adults and share the spotlight.
7. Dont forget the power of the sub-committee.
If a conversation on one topic becomes too time-consuming and animated with a wide range of opinions, it may be a signal to form a smaller group built with the most vocal participants. These impassioned members can address the topic in a separate meeting and report back.
8. Finally, a gentle reminder of the fine art of listening.
We all have something to say, and we are all waiting for our time to say it. If we hope to accomplish anything with our time together, however, we absolutely must put our own thoughts on hold and really listen. I try taking notes when people speak, so that my ear is open to the main message. In the end, we can only expect the time to be valuable if the atmosphere was one of open sharing and equal exchange. If, as meeting leader, you are having difficulty getting your group to that point, don’t forget you can always excuse yourself and return with some bottles of cold beer.