Making Meetings Suck Less

Mar 6, 2023 | Facilitation, Leadership

This was the title I wanted to give a webinar I’m presenting in mid March (the official title has been reframed to Making Meetings Work which sounds more professional but personally I like my title more!). So often I hear colleagues telling me that they couldn’t get any work done that day because they were in back to back meetings. And while I have sat in my fair share of interminable meetings where nothing was decided and no one was really clear why they were there, I also made it a personal challenge to design gatherings that people actually: want to show up for;  feels like a good use of time, they will prioritize attending coming;  and won’t spend the time metaphorically looking out the window longing for a snow day!  I’m quite sure I don’t always succeed but I also get feedback that often do! So here are my top 10 tips that I’ve learned through trial, error, good feedback and some serendipity along the way.  

  1. “What are we doing here exactly?” (aka plan and prepare). How many meetings have we sat in where it isn’t clear why we have shown up and it feels like we are rambling through the agenda. If we are convening the meeting, I believe we have a responsibility to do some work up front to plan out the purpose and then to share it with the other participants ideally before the meeting itself. This is as relevant for our 1:1 check ins with our supervisors (the 5:15 report can be a good way of prepping for this) as for executive decision-making meetings or large brainstorming sessions.
  1. “What do I need from YOU?” – Getting clear on what you want from the meeting so there aren’t miscommunications or frustrations (and it can be multiple clearly).
    1. Requests and invitations – I am asking you to do something (or people are requesting something of you)
    2. Promises – I am committing to do something and I want you to hear it
    3. Consultations – I am interested in your perspectives but ultimately I have the final say in what is happening
    4. Decision making – I want us to decide together.
    5. Reporting out – I want you to know something that is going on, I am explaining something that is happening.

Some of the biggest misunderstandings happen when a group comes together thinking that they are coming for one thing (e.g decision-making) but it turns out that it is something else (e.g. the decision has already been made and the leaders is wanting to simply communicate out and/or get buy in).

  1. “Who gets an invite to the party?” – having the right group in the room and the right number of people to get the job done is critical. A lot of frustration builds up when there are too many people and not enough process for a meeting which is supposed to get to a decision. Or if every department has delegated attendance to someone who is not actually equipped to weigh in. It can also be hard for those of us who are wired for inclusivity to not invite people. But meetings which are too big create additional risks – either that people won’t feel accountability to keep coming or that there isn’t a process to allow people to fully participate. Priya Parker talks to this in her book The Art of Gathering.
  1. “I’m running out of time” – when discussions get deep it is really tempting to let them run, not wanting to interrupt the flow or the breakthroughs and insights. Particularly when something has built. It’s (relatively) easy (sometimes) to bring a conversation back on track when it’s clear that it is a rabbit hole. But what about when it feels like a really important conversation? The thing we want to avoid is the ‘OK we’ve got 1 minute left and we’ve got to decide these 5 important things’… when people are already leaving the call for their next meeting. This is a hard context but possibly one of the easiest challenges to fix in my experience. The solution is to always have someone responsible for time keeping and facilitation in the room. This person can then name when a conversation is running long and get agreement on what needs to be done – g. deviate the original purpose of the meeting, extend the meeting, create a separate discussion for this topic.
  1. “Check-ins aren’t just touchy feely – they serve a purpose”. Taking time to do check ins when time is short may feel counter intuitive, particularly when there is a full agenda. But finding a way to check in some format is critical for two key reasons. Firstly it allows us to get a quick sense of how people are doing – and whether there is something on their minds that is urgent to address. Because if unsurfaced this topic runs the risk of derailing the meeting. We can also get a sense of group dynamics. The second thing is that it invites us into relationship with each other and builds a connection which invites psychological safety – and while for those of us who are empaths this is important in and of itself, it is also critical for any meeting where we are looking for creativity, innovation, or to have direct and potentially difficult conversations. We are much more likely to be able to seek solutions collectively when we feel safe and part of a group.
  1. “What did we do last time again?” How often is the first part of a meeting taken up with trying to figure out where we got to last time? Who is taking notes – and what are you looking for. If regular notes are sent out, can action items and decisions (which is actually often all that is needed) at the top of the email WITH A NAME AND A DATE INCLUDED. Make time (see tip 4!) at the end to summarize back to the group while you are all together to make sure there is shared agreement.
  1. Shared Agreements – what behaviors are OK and what are not not. This is particularly important if there is a standing meeting (e.g. team check ins). Creating shared agreements – how do you deal with disagreement, how do you make sure everyone can participate etc. what is the tone… allow a group to form. I’ve sometimes given meetings quirky names, something that builds that sense of connection and commitment.
  1. Ask people for feedback Ask what they would like to see more or less of. When meetings feel as though you are wading through treacle and you don’t know why enlist other perspectives. Often people won’t speak up if they don’t like meetings because they don’t want to cause offense. They will just stop coming and that doesn’t serve you or them. Ask them what would make the meetings more effective. For standing meetings revisit regularly what the purpose is and is the meeting serving this purpose. For meeting heavy organizations – brainstorm whether there are other ways to get the work done.
  1. Be realistic. I’ve been in one hour meetings with 30 people intended to get to a decision. If you have clarity on what the meeting is needed for (see point 1) then you can work backwards. Maybe you need pre-meetings. Or a sequence of meetings- most of us have a tendency to be unrealistic about what can be achieved. I promise you no-one minds leaving a meeting early if you get through things faster than you expected!
  1. Pacing. Aside from managing timing– check in on the flow of  your and other people’s days. Sometimes we have no control about how many meetings we have scheduled but often we have more than we think. And even those of us who love meetings become exponentially less productive when they run back-to-back throughout most of the day. Not to mention that we then have less mental energy for the other work we need to get done. Some simple tricks to support this include:

 – Blocking time out on your calendar so that meetings can only be scheduled when you want them to happen.

– Blocking out space in between meetings

– Scheduling meetings for 45 mins or 30 mins or 50 mins rather than an hour (a lot of folks already do this- my caveat is to really stick to the time scheduled. When we schedule a 50 minute meeting but then see the run up to the hour as ‘flex time’ we lose trust and goodwill with the other participants.

 I’ve created a check list to help run audits for meetings – let me know if you’d like me to send you a copy. And feel free to adapt and add – I’d love to know what works for you too. Good luck!!