You are in a meeting with a room full of people trying to follow a series of nebulous debates somewhat related to the meeting topic. For the last twenty minutes, you’ve listened to discussions completely unrelated to the objective set for the meeting, and you’re starting to feel that you’re wasting your time. You take a moment to scan the room, and you notice other attendees rolling their eyes and looking for an opportunity to get out of the room or focusing on their Smartphone completely disengaged from the meeting. You check your watch wondering how much longer you have to endure this situation and, then, a thought pops up in your head, “Should I rescue this meeting?”
If you’re thinking about it, then most likely, yes, you should!
Meetings get out of control more often than any of us would like to admit and these out-of-control meetings waste people’s time and accomplish very little. They keep happening because it is often easier to be a silent witness, hiding behind a notebook or computer screen and disconnecting from the scene, than it is to take charge and do something about it.
I would like to propose a technique that you can use to interrupt a meeting that has gotten off track and regain control over your time.
#1 Break your Silence
First, you need to bring everyone’s attention to you. One way to do that is to do something unexpected. Here are a few suggestions: abruptly stand up and then slowly sit down; (safely) fall off your chair; push your chair back and make it spin in circles; or, more easily, just let a pile of documents fall to the floor. Whatever you do, do it in silence; don’t say anything.
When everyone is looking at you, calmly sit back in your chair and clear your throat: “hm, hmm!”
#2 Bring Purpose to the Meeting
When you have everyone’s attention, ask “What is the purpose of this meeting again?” This question will remind everyone of the original objective for the meeting and the reason they are there.
It may take a few seconds for people realize what is going on and to understand what you are doing. With conviction, keep going with this technique.
#3 Identify Hidden Agendas
Quickly look each person in the eye and ask them what he/she wants to get from the meeting. Do this quickly, one person after another, and note their comments. At the end, you will have a list of outcomes. Ask the group again if any other objectives that need to be considered that haven’t been mentioned.
Now that you have a list of meeting objectives, ask if everyone agrees with the items on the list. At this moment, take careful note of any non-confirming gestures and body language. If someone appears to disagree, ask that person what else should be added to the list. At this point, don’t strike items off of the list, just add to the list.
Voilà, you have a draft for the new meeting agenda.
#4 Prioritize and Refine the Meeting Agenda
Tell everyone that not everything in that list can be discussed at the current meeting and suggest tackling the most important items first. Then ask for help to prioritize the items. The prioritization should be straightforward. If the priority of an item requires more discussions, lower its priority as a way to move forward. If some items are only relevant to a few of the people present at the meeting, suggest that it be moved off the agenda and consider postponing the discussion to another meeting between the relevant people.
Once the priority of each item is agreed upon, it’s time to kick into action.
#5 Create Momentum by Closing Items
Starting with the item that has the highest priority, go through the agenda resolving each item in the agreed upon order. Actively look for decision makers and ask them to provide their input to resolve the issues.
As you close the first items on your agenda, you will start to see the participants converging into a single group and working together to resolve issues. This is a great sign that you are going in the right direction and creating momentum.
If you notice a discussion starting to drag along and only a fraction of the participants are involved, don’t hesitate to interrupt and ask if it is possible to have a separate meeting for the people involved in that topic. Suggest they circulate a short email later with the outcome of their discussion so you can close that item on the agenda.
#6 Manage New Ideas using a Parking Lot
A classic issue with large meetings is that new ideas and items pop up as the meeting progresses. A strategy for dealing with these new items is to create a list called a “parking lot” where you temporarily “park” ideas. I usually create a small list on the white board and keep adding items as they arise. The idea here is to acknowledge the contribution of the participant, but keep the meeting flowing and avoid digressions that are not related to the current meeting agenda. At the end of the meeting, review the items on the parking lot list to determine if actually any further action is required.
#7 Prepare for closing the meeting
Occasionally check the time (or assign someone to do it for you). Ten minutes before the end of the meeting, ask the group to identify the most important thing that needs to be done before the meeting is over.
Listen carefully for their answer. In most cases, the majority of the decisions are made in the last ten minutes of a meeting. This period of time is quite valuable, so use it wisely.
#8 Close the Meeting and Give Control Back to the Meeting Organizer
Finally, close the meeting by reviewing actions and owners. At this point, you should also give control back to the meeting organizer by saying something like, “Time to close the meeting, Bill. Any final thoughts?”
Before Using this Technique…
In many situations, this technique is very effective. But before you try it, consider the following caveats:
Pick your battles. If you are not interested in becoming a reference for the subject discussed in the meeting, it is better not use this technique. If that’s the case, it may be more prudent to politely ask the meeting organizer to shift the agenda, so your topic can be discussed earlier in the meeting and you can go back to your desk for … [add your excuse here].
Trust the Organizer’s Competence. When using this technique, be careful not to challenge the meeting organizer’s competence. The idea here is to fast track the meeting, not to make someone look foolish. By being respectful of what the organizer has to offer, you will also be respected by him/her as well as by your peers.
Watch out for Hierarchy Conflicts. If the meeting organizer is your boss, for instance, think very carefully about the implications of crossing the hierarchy line before using this approach. You want to get things done, but you don’t want to create a relationship problem.
This is a very powerful technique. Most importantly, remember to always use it with respect and responsibility.