Get Tough with Meetings!

Image of calendar
Image of calendar

Do you have too many meetings in your diary and struggle to get things done? Do you feel out of touch with what you’re doing and bounce aimlessly from meeting to meeting?

Don’t worry, this is quite common – today’s flat organisational structures encourage cross functional team-working (a good thing) but also lead to too many meetings. Today I’m going to show you how to get tough with meetings by getting you to ask a specific question at each part of the meeting life-cycle.

This post is part of my productivity philosophy; eleven steps to help you get back in control of your time. Previously I’ve written about keeping a clean calendar, which is worth a read if you haven’t already. This follows Golden Rules #2 and #3, Save a Little Time All the Time, and Push Back.

Get tough – ask questions

How do you respond to a meeting request or invite? Do you simply click the accept button? When was the last time you said “No” to a meeting request?

The subtle message you are sending here is “if you think this is important, then I’m happy to invest my time in this”. People will start to respect your time less than theirs.

Asking questions of the organiser is a really good way of showing them that you respect your time, and they are going to have to work hard to make it valuable for you. You are not just going to accept every request you get, but challenge and question the value of your time investment.

So try these questions out next time you get a meeting request…

The Invitation

You’ve just received the meeting request. Ask yourself this:

“Is this a good use of my time?”

How do you know if this is a good use of your time? A good guide is if the meeting is going to help you achieve your objectives. If not – unless someone important is asking you to go, then I would seriously consider declining the invite.

Check out my post on The Five Year Plan to help you set your objectives…

So you’re happy this meeting will help your objectives? Now ask the organiser this:

“Do you really need me for this meeting?”

How awesome is it if the answer is a No? You’ve just freed up some time! And you got the other person to decline it for you!

The Acceptance

Clearly you are needed, and the meeting is important. You can accept the meeting, but in your acceptance, ask this:

“Can you forward me the agenda?”

Wait for the embarrassed silence… Perhaps this particular organiser doesn’t value agendas? Perhaps the culture in your organisation is to have lots of small informal chats? Break the chain – make people realise that if they want you to invest your time in their meetings, they better have a good plan…

The Prep

I often wonder the value of meetings where nobody has done any prep. Before the meeting organiser has walked away from your acceptance question, ask this:

“Do I need to prepare anything for this meeting?”

This is great, because now if there is something that you need to prepare or read, you know about it. You can plan this into your tasks and turn up calm and prepared – impressing everyone else at the meeting. You’ve also given the meeting organiser a chance to think about what they want you to do. Get agreement for what you need to prepare and they can’t add to it later.

You’re now entering the meeting room itself – ready to embark on this important and value adding meeting.

The Introduction

At the beginning of every meeting, there is an amount of time while everyone gets settled into their seats and gets ready for the meeting. In this brief hiatus seek out the meeting chairperson and ask:

“How long do you think this is going to take?”

The subtle undertone has been set; you’re worried about wasting time and want this meeting to go as smoothly and efficiently as possible. The chair is hopefully now thinking that they’d better make sure the group stay on topic.

The Meeting

During any meeting there will be times when the topic moves away from the ideal. Perhaps Maggie is elaborating on her favourite topic, perhaps Sarah is reminding everyone of that time she did that really great presentation. These are not productive uses of anyone’s time, so why don’t you ask:

“Is this really relevant to this meeting?”

You don’t need to be rude – just speak plainly. I bet everyone else in the room who has heard Maggie’s rant before will be thanking you. If you’re worried that you’ve annoyed Maggie/Sarah – grab them afterwards and apologise – but explain why you did it.

The Closer

The end is in sight – the meeting has been efficient and engaging with few off-topic diversions. Just before you leave, why not ask:

“What are my actions?”

The chair will then look through his/her notes and explain what they think you should do. Compare this to your own notes and actions – did you miss anything off?

The Follow-Up

The final question you ask is immediately after The Closer question:

“When do you need this by?”

Don’t be the owner of timelines of something you’re doing for someone else – they want it – get them to tell you when they want it by. Now is the time to let them know if their timelines are realistic or not.

The Bottom Line

You’ve come to end of my post – perhaps you think that I’ve been quite harsh in my approach? Maybe you cannot imagine yourself asking these questions? You don’t need to go from zero to hero in one go – why not cut your teeth on some of the less harsh questions? I think The Introduction question is quite an innocuous one (“How long do you think this is going to take?”)

In using this approach you are giving out the following signals:

  • You respect and value your time
  • You will not waste your time
  • You are happy to speak up when you feel your time is being wasted

As you build in confidence you will find that others also start to respect and value your time, and worry about how they can ensure they are not wasting it!

Get Tough with Meetings questions
Print this handy reminder and hang it up somewhere prominent on your desk

The photo used with this post was downloaded from Flickr – a great shot from Daniel Moyle – you can view it here.

Author: Oliver Gearing

Oliver Gearing is a beatboxing, acoustic looping, 38 year old father of 3. Sounds like an electrocuted version of Elbow

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