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Participating Effectively in Meetings

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Undoubtedly you've attended meetings for work, family, community, and so on. Were you a good attendee? Pat Brans reminds us that being an effective attendee is as important as being an effective presenter. For the sake of everyone else in the meeting, you need to prepare ahead of time, behave appropriately during the meeting, and "take care of business" afterward.
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How can I ever forget the meetings I attended in my first professional job? I was so concerned that I wouldn't be heard that I frequently spoke out of turn. Sometimes I would be so focused on making my point that I would wind up derailing the meeting. The results were often painful—I didn't always get invited to come back.

I think I've learned a few things since then. At least, I've had time to observe other people and develop a well-founded opinion on who is most effective in meetings and why. I'd like to share some of the things I've learned.

Almost everything you see written about making meetings effective is directed toward organizers. But, with a few exceptions, most people are more often attendees than organizers, so let's focus on what you can do to make meetings more effective as a participant. You'll be surprised at how useful you can be if you follow a few simple rules.

What to Do Before the Meeting

Some basic things you need to find out well before the meeting:

  • Purpose of getting together
  • What items will be covered, and for approximately how long
  • Who else will attend
  • Desired outcome
  • Location
  • Start and end times

Most importantly, make sure that you know what's expected of you during the meeting, and whether you need to do any reading or other research beforehand.

If the agenda is published early (it will be, if the organizer read my article "Running Efficient Meetings"), and you think a topic needs to be added or covered in more detail, let the organizer know immediately. If you don't get to see the agenda early, email the organizer before the meeting anyway, to let him or her know that you want to make sure that specific topic is covered.

When you get a chance to look over the agenda, think about how you stand on each topic. Write down any questions you have or points you'd like to make. If no new information will be disseminated, and you don't need to be part of any decisions being made, you may not need to attend the meeting at all. Discuss this option with the organizer, who probably doesn't want more attendees than necessary.

What to Do During the Meeting

If the agenda is discussed at the beginning of the meeting, as any good organizer is sure to arrange, you can raise the point about something you'd like to be covered. But if the organizer has already explicitly refused your request, it's better not to bring it up again. Causing contention at the outset will get the meeting off to a bad start—and, believe me, you might not get invited back a second time.

As items are being covered, keep an eye on the notes you jotted down beforehand about the topics of interest to you. Avoid talking too much, as that could dilute your impact on the more important subjects. If somebody else has already said what you wanted to say, there's no need to make the same point a second time. If you want to show support for what was already said, you can provide an abbreviated version of the arguments, or you can simply nod or provide short verbal cues, such as, "yes," "uh huh," or "I agree." In most cases, though, "Yeehaw!" would be out of place.

When the time is right to make a point, make sure that you have the organizer's permission to speak, and then clearly state what you have to say. Respect the rights of other people to disagree, and don't belabor your point. Remember, it's not your meeting, and other people want to move on to different subjects.

If you don't agree with something, let people know how you feel, but make it known that you have no intention of derailing the meeting. If you overstate a position, you risk damaging relationships, and people will be less receptive to your views. If you can manage to be more subtle, what you say will carry more weight.

A common problem in meetings is when one person monopolizes the discussion, or a small number of people prevent everybody else from speaking. If the organizer doesn't prevent this hijacking of the meeting (or if the organizer is actually the one straying from the agenda), raise your hand and point out that only so much time is left, and some topics are yet to be covered. If you can't get a word in, the meeting has probably really gotten out of hand and has become a complete waste of time. Consider leaving, if you can get away with it.

An inherent problem with any human gathering is that attendees leave the room with different opinions about what happened. This phenomenon can be demonstrated easily through the following experiment. Next time you have a chance to talk individually with different people who attended the same meeting, ask each one what was covered during a session. You'll probably notice that the accounts vary widely.

The organizer should minimize this problem of diverging recollections by summarizing key points during the meeting and then publishing accurate minutes afterward. But you can also take notes to jog your own memory, and at the end of the meeting (or when you view the minutes), you can compare your notes with the organizer's version of what was decided. If the organizer doesn't provide a summary or minutes, raise your hand and say what you think was decided. Ask if your understanding is correct.

Before sticking your neck out too far, though, think about this: Noticing that you take good notes, a poor organizer might ask you to take minutes for the next meeting, which may not be a natural role for you, and could keep you so busy that you can't cover your own points. If you want to avoid being assigned this role, work out a good excuse beforehand. For example, you could point out that you only take careful notes on certain subjects, and therefore wouldn't be the right person to record everything covered.

On the other hand, if you're looking for an active role in upcoming meetings, being the official note-taker might work out nicely. Writing the minutes usually means that your version of the meeting becomes the "official" one, which can give you an advantage in other ways.

What to Do After the Meeting

When the minutes are published, read them carefully and compare them with your own memory of what was discussed. Let the organizer know right away about any significant differences. If the minutes are not made available, send the organizer your version of what was covered and ask for confirmation that your understanding is correct.

Make sure that you know what actions were assigned to you, and follow up on them as quickly as you can. Think about how impressive it is when you see somebody else knock out his or her action items immediately after a meeting. Following through with what you agreed to do in front of a group is a good opportunity to demonstrate that you're not one to drop the ball.

If you have a good feeling about the meeting, let the organizer know. After all, everybody likes to hear positive feedback. But be a little more judicious about communicating negative views about how the meeting was run and the value of the topics covered. Being supportive of the organizer is a pretty good way to help the meeting run smoothly.

In fact, if you support the meeting organizer at all stages, from the moment you first learn about the meeting (starting as soon as you get the invitation), you will help to make the meeting more successful. Pay close attention to the purpose of the meeting and what will be covered. Gently point out anything that was left out of the agenda, so you can help the organizer to prepare and communicate expectations. (When people know what will be covered, they take the meeting more seriously, and they're more likely to come ready to participate.) Be attentive and supportive of the organizer during the meeting, and provide honest (useful!) feedback afterward. With these techniques, you will be a more effective participant, and you may help the organizer to produce a more effective meeting, this time and in the future.

Given the importance of letting people know what to expect, let me tell you what I plan to cover in my next article. The next time you hear from me will be to discuss email and some effective ways of using this powerful tool. I hope you'll find that topic useful.

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