How to Make Any Meeting More Productive

Jan 26, 2015
8 Min Read

No matter how much you may wish it to be otherwise, meetings at work are necessary. But they don’t have to be long, annoying affairs that get little accomplished. A fresh look at how we can take ownership of making meetings better.

Think you attend a lot of meetings?

Let’s do the math and see if that’s true:

  • There are an estimated 25 million meetings in America on a daily basis.
  • If you live to the average U.S. life expectancy of 78.6 years, then you will have spent two years of your life sitting in work meetings. (The average person also swears two million times in a lifetime, although it’s not clear how much of that is related to sitting in meetings.)

So, data has proven what we’ve all known for a long time: We spend too much time in meetings. They are time-sucks that often accomplish little and force us to spend our personal time catching up on the work we should have been doing while sitting in a meeting.

Is there a way to salvage the work meeting?

Paul Axtell, author of “Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations,” says meetings are important, but we’ve lost sight of how to ensure they are productive.

For example, 92% of information workers fess up to multitasking during meetings, even though it has been shown that there is a 40% drop in productivity when you multitask and a 50% spike in errors.

That’s why he advises to “leave your technology at the door,” and “keep only what you need for the meeting in front of you.”

You may argue, of course, that the reason you use your smartphone to check your email (and Facebook and Pinterest) during meetings is because of other people. Other people make the meetings run too long. Other people don’t stay on topic. Other people aren’t focused.

Buy Axtell advises that one of the keys to more productive meetings is that everyone needs to take more personal responsibility for meetings going wrong. In other words, it may not always be other people. It may be…

Here are some ways you can take personal responsibility for making meetings more effective, Axtell says:

  • Be patient. Don’t jump in the minute someone pauses in a conversation. By remaining attentive, you’re more likely to hear important information and won’t alienate the speaker.
  • Be nonjudgmental. “Remind yourself that the other person’s views are as legitimate as yours,” he says. “Give them the benefit of the doubt; assume positive intent.”
  • Listen for something new.  You’re going to hear new information and gain new insights if you decide beforehand that you’re going to listen to what others are interested in or care about. Or, perhaps you decide that you’re going to focus your attention on what each person seems to be dealing with in their particular area. The point is to stop listening only through “the filter of your own personal interests,” he says.
  • Be a focused speaker. This means that you’re clear, concise, relevant and respectful, he says. For example, don’t add a lot of extra detail unless someone asks for it; don’t speak unless what you’re saying will add value and move the conversation forward; and  don’t express disagreement unless it’s necessary.
  • Be careful with humor. Don’t make a joke that discounts the previous speaker or the conversation.
  • Don’t fidget. Don’t use nonverbal behavior that is distracting. 

If you’re a manager in charge of running a meeting, then you have even more responsibility for ensuring that a session is productive. But sometimes that can be difficult, especially if you’ve got a chronic interrupter, a complainer or motormouth. In these situations, Axtell says some strategies include:

  • Ignoring it. If someone interrupts, for example, let the person finish his or her comments and then resume yours or ask whoever was interrupted to continue.
  • Asking for what you want. Another option for someone who is interrupting or talks too much is to stop and ask for what you want. For example, a conversation hog might be told: “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hold you back for a bit while I get a couple of other people into the conversation. Then I will come back to you.”
  • Confronting the issue later. Away from the meeting, you can tell the person that you’d like participation to be more balanced or you’d like him or her to interrupt less. 

Finally, if you’re really pressed for time and want to ensure your group stays focused, you might consider a strategy used by Christopher Frank, an author and vice president of American Express. He suggests having participants say in five words or less the problem to be solved. If the answers are inconsistent or lengthy, then that’s a clue that attendees aren’t focused on the same problem.

“By clearly articulating the issues, you will get a good idea of the information you need, the people you should talk to and will ensure everyone is working toward the same goal,” he says.

Learn how P&G eliminated 18-24 days of meetings per person per year.

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