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How to End Bad Meetings Diplomatically

A group of people sitting around a table in an office.

​When was the last time you attended a meeting that was A) pointless, B) boring, C) frustrating, or D) all of the above? How many of these meetings have you attended in your lifetime? Stories of wasteful meetings are legion.

Previously, I wrote about how leaders can run effective meetings. Unfortunately, some leaders just don't get it, and some meetings have no viable leader. As an attendee, what can you do to create a semblance of order out of chaos? Here are some proven steps and strategies. 

Help Set the Tone Upfront

A healthy step you can take at the outset of a meeting is to make a comment like this: "I'm eager to learn what others have to share." This gesture discourages a common source of meeting derangement: attendee ego. Humility goes a long way toward improving a meeting's return on investment.

This opening statement also helps focus the discussion on what's important. Essentially, you're signaling a behavior that is not widespread in most meetings, which is learning rather than teaching. 

Restrain the Tendency to Opine

One of my favorite pieces of advice is to solicit others' opinions before expressing your own. Doing so allows you to refine your own thinking as you process what others are saying. It also creates a more receptive environment for what you decide to share.

Best of all, this approach may eliminate the need for you to express an opinion at all. "I think Sarah has a great idea!" (Refrain from adding, "Of course, I'd already thought of this myself.") 

Interrupt Strategically

A common meeting nemesis is the person who has lots of opinions and loves taking the time to share them. Without creating undue tension, you can check this person's tendencies with strategic interruption. "Jim, let me stop you for a second. I have a question. I want to make sure I understand you. Are you recommending XYZ? OK, thanks, Jim. What do others think?"

This approach takes the edge off the interruption by using the person's name and by confirming that you're actively listening to them.

Another variation: "Jim, let me stop you for a second. I have a question. It sounds like you're addressing Topic Z. Is that right? I'm wondering if it might make more sense if we first discussed Topic Y. OK with you?"

Strategic, active-listening-based interruptions can prevent endless forays down rabbit holes. They can also tease out the wisdom of your introverts, which might otherwise be lost. 

Facilitate Progress

A common cause of meeting failure is a lack of clarity about present understandings and expected future action. If the meeting leader isn't doing their job, or if there is no leader, you can help.

Whenever you think an understanding has been reached, interject. "Hey folks, from what I'm hearing, it sounds like we've agreed to the following … Is that right? Great. What are the next steps?"

In this way, you're using a gentle yet firm hand to control things. In my experience, the other attendees will support your effort because it's in their best interest too. 

Resolve Conflicts

Have you experienced meeting derailment when two or more people square off with each other? The rest of the room looks on as train-wreck bystanders. If you find yourself in this predicament, try assertive, active listening.                          

"Excuse me, Jill and Ben. For the sake of the rest of us, I want to make sure I understand exactly what the dispute is about. Please let me know if the following summary of your positions is accurate."

Without overtly trying to control Jill and Ben, you're essentially doing just that, but in a way that lowers the room temperature and creates a path past the dispute. 

Close the Meeting

It's always good at the end of a meeting to do a verbal recap of key takeaways, accompanied by an expression of thanks. "Hey folks, before we wrap up, let me make sure I understand what I think are the key points of today's meeting. … Is that right? Great. Thanks, everyone. I learned a lot." 

Use the Same Day Summary

As I've previously described, the Same Day Summary serves as the written version of those key takeaways. "Hey, everyone. I know my memory isn't perfect. To make sure we stay on the same page, I'll put a short e-mail together with what I think are the key points and send it to everyone. You can correct any mistakes I make. OK?" 

A Last, Modest Proposal

How many meetings have you attended that didn't need to happen? At the end of the gathering, when everyone automatically assumes there will be another meeting, try saying something like, "Hey folks, before we schedule next Monday's meeting, I have a question. It sounds like at least a couple weeks of research and development are needed on what we covered. How about we meet the third Monday instead?"

That's the macro strategy. There's also the micro strategy: "Hey folks, it sounds like you've got things under control and my presence won't be needed for the next meeting. Of course, if that changes, please let me know."

The next time you find yourself in a meeting where your Spidey Sense says, "Uh-oh! Here we go again," pull out this column. I can't predict perfect order, but I bet there'll be less chaos. 

Jathan Janove is a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year," author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins 2017), Master Coach & Practice Leader with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered CoachingÒ, and faculty member, University of California San Diego Masters Series.


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