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Facilitating From the Side: How Participants Can Improve Meetings

June 20, 2018 3:58 pm

Often when one of our trainers is leading a session on meeting effectiveness, a participant will exclaim, “it’s not my fault we have bad meetings, I’m just an attendee.”

The days of hiding behind your doodle-covered agenda are over. In our workshops we refer to meeting participants, not attendees, because showing up is only the first step to being an effective contributor to a meeting.

With so many businesses operating with reduced staff and tight margins, no one has the time (or patience) to sit through another dreadful meeting. Yet, in a survey, managers interviewed said 28% of meetings are a complete waste of time.[1] Everyone in the room needs to do their part to bring that number down, not just the person standing at the front of the room.

A facilitative approach to meetings means that participants have rights as well as responsibilities while working toward effective meeting outcomes with the meeting leader. Below are some tips to take you from being a passive attendee to an active meeting participant.

Before the Meeting:

  • If you haven’t received an agenda (and any pre-meeting reading) at least 2 days before the meeting date, email the person responsible and ask for it. When this person is higher up the ladder than you, frame the request as your desire to be well prepared for the meeting.
  • Is the purpose of the meeting a one-way transfer of information, more efficiently transmitted via email or a short report? Or is it a “standing” or “recurring” meeting held the same time every week regardless of need? If so, push back in the most acceptable way you can think of. If this is a team meeting, simply ask the team lead if this information can be disseminated via email, if it’s someone higher up, consider asking your boss how you should handle the (unnecessary) meeting request.
  • Is practically everyone in the department on the invitees list? Do you see how you’ll add value to the meeting? If the answers are “yes” and “no,” then politely ask if you’re needed for the meeting or can you take a pass. Make sure your rationale is clear to avoid stepping on any toes (i.e. this meeting requires expertise that you don’t have).                                  

During the Meeting:

  • If the meeting purpose doesn’t seem clear or hasn’t been articulated upfront, ask “before we continue further I’d like to get clear on why we’re talking about this?”  You’re likely not the only person wondering if you really understand why you’re all here.
  • If the meeting process isn’t working and participants are getting frustrated, say so – gently. If, for example, participants seem hesitant to critique the new CRM in front of the boss who picked it, ask “I was wondering if there’s a way we could do this anonymously?”
  • As Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.” Remember: you already know how you feel about the topic.
  • If the conversation has gone way off track and no one’s reining it in, ask the person speaking “could you help me understand how your point is related to the agenda topic?”

Ending the Meeting:

You need to get back to your desk, the meeting’s wrapping up; you all just need to reach agreement on a few things first…

  • Don’t “agree” to anything you can’t live with and can’t support outside of the meeting room. Agreeing to complete an action item or agreeing to a decision just to speed things up will ultimately make you look bad. When you can’t or don’t follow-through with meeting decisions, it’s your integrity on the line. And when you bad-mouth a decision you agreed to, the listener can’t help but wonder about what other decisions you’ve been a part of and how committed you are (or aren’t) to them.
  • You have the right to expect meetings to begin and end on time. If the meeting has gone over time and there’s no end in sight, ask “we’re running out of time here, can we agree on which agenda items we want to defer to the next meeting given the time constraints today?”

We recommend trying only one or two of the above solutions and testing the meeting waters in your organization. We applaud your goal of shared meeting responsibility, but it’s important to give others (especially those leading the meetings) time to catch up.

Michael Goldman
President, Facilitation First

[1] Chief Learning Officer Magazine (May 2009). Executives Believe One-Quarter of Meetings Are Unnecessary

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