Meetings are a buzz killer. Most complaints about office work are about meetings. In fact, meetings seem to be the most dreaded office activity. Potentially, even more disliked than peer reviews and evaluations. Yet, meetings continue to be an apt and necessary way to do work. Otherwise, everyone wouldn’t be so keen on organizing them. Hence, we can only derive that there must be something about meetings that is truly valuable. It’s something that, until now at least, only meetings can provide.
Meetings have been studied, and there are countless publications discussing the matter. What’s so special about meetings? It may have to do with the information exchange. Or it may well be due to the nature of the event. The physical proximity, the sheer presence of teams in the same room. It likely has to do with an interplay of the two.
To be fair, we have already discussed meetings. How to plan them, organize and prepare for them. Even how to do follow up. We have it all covered in the ultimate meetings guide. In this article, however, let us turn the tables. Let’s cover what you can do to be useful in meetings. Perhaps there are things you can do that will make the whole ordeal more bearable.
The following tips, however, go above and beyond. Here are some of the best ways to be useful in meetings.
#1 Don’t act like you know it all
We often feel insecure about what we know. Which is a good thing, to be honest. In fact, it’s documented. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Or the knowledge confidence curve.
What it means is that we often think we know a lot, when in fact we don’t. Oftentimes, the more we think we know, the likelier it is that we know little. Moreover, the less sure we are of what we know, the likelier it is that we might know something.
Two situations are common: the one in which we know as much as we let on. Conversely, the one in which we have no clue, yet we assume we know everything.
This, translated in meeting terms, ensures a boycott. We take up valuable meeting time, only to offer little in return. And we don’t even know we’re doing it. Inasmuch as we may even offer the wrong information. But time is not the most valuable thing in meetings. And disinformation is not necessarily the biggest issue.
The most valuable thing in meetings is team focus. Lead by our illusory knowledge, we interrupt. In essence, interruptions are disruptive to everyone’s focus. What they lose is something hard to regain. Previously, they had on-task focus. Now, they will spend 5-10 minutes digesting an interruption. For the most part, offering inexistent knowledge is an interruption.
It’s important to realize that we can do better. We may not be able to stop overestimating our competence. But we can clearly double-check before offering any of our knowledge. The safe way to do this is the “experts rule”.
Merely assume that “only experts know what they’re talking about”. Even when you think you might know better, go with the experts rule. After all, mastering knowledge takes intellect, hard work and time.
#2 Leave room for others talking in meetings
Suppose, for example, that you are a splendid public speaker. Perhaps you’re active with a beat poetry club, and an improv class. Maybe you’ve been a competitive debater. You’re clearly a strong speaker. You can deliver long, articulate, beautiful speeches. At a moment’s notice, you can conjure with great charisma any sort of story.
However, in meetings, this strength of yours is out of place. Sure, feel free to use those great skills to contribute in brief. Redirect your energies to provide the most compelling evidence. Underline the most important. Draw a line as to what must be remembered.
But otherwise, despite your extraordinary skills, stick to the context. And the context is that you are in a meeting. Everybody should get a chance to speak up. And by your dominion, many introverts shriek away. Valuable contributions are lost.
Most introverts in your meetings already have a tough time. For starters, there is a widespread bias against introverts. Somehow, most people associate outspoken spontaneity with smarts. The stereotype is that being outspoken is the same as being knowledgeable. In other words, valuable people speak up.
In fact, some of the most valuable people seldom get a chance to. And, even considering stereotypes, a lot of introverts are experts. It would make a lot of sense to have more contributions from them. However, most meetings go by with only a third of the participants contributing.
Without a doubt, you can do better. Firstly, monitor yourself. Consider where you rank in offering contributions. All things considered, pretend it’s a guest show. If you feel like you’re one of the “hosts”, you might be overdoing it. Secondly, check if you’re not a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect. You might be overdoing it for no good reason. Lastly, be mindful of others. It’s team spirit.
#3 Always contribute
Meetings are convergence points in which teams offer their best. Each team member should contribute as well as possible. Yet, some people often stay silent. Others, dominate. Hence, the effect of team roles and team personalities. No matter who you are, you should always contribute to meetings. Go with the 2-points rule. But first, an explanation.
Talking-space in meetings is a consequence of leadership. Even great leaders can be terrible meeting chairs. In fact, this is perfectly fine and normal: running meetings is a skill. This is why it’s best if you let the team take turns in running the meeting. Simply have the meeting chair assigned every time.
What happens is that even effective leaders can become anxious in meetings. Only that their anxiety shows in a proactive way. When running meetings, they start doing more, instead of doing less. Hence, they gratefully accept any contribution. They easily favor those who are more talkative. And soon leave everybody else out.
Some people struggle with offering what they have to offer. Even when they prepare in advance. Imagine working the details of what you want to say. You’ve done extensive work, checked everything. You are capable to demonstrate and to clarify anything you say. Yet, by the end of the meeting, you’ve said nothing. It’s frustrating.
Henceforth, use the 2-points rule. Each meeting you attend, you will offer at least 2 points. If you’re typically an over-active talker, stick to 2-points. But if you’re an introvert, choose 2 points, and choose them well. We don’t need to tell you to prepare a back-up point. You likely already have one, just in case someone else uses one of your points. Now go ahead and speak out. Believe in yourself. Deliver your 2-points with 100% confidence and competence: you are in charge.
#4 Know your strengths in meetings
Meetings should effectively churn the best out of a team. Hence, each team member should bring forth the best they can. Or even better, if well-motivated. But this only happens if you play your strengths.
For that reason, you should know your strengths in meetings. By all means, this is not “know thyself” revamped. In essence, you should contextualize your strengths. Consider what the meeting is about, what the purpose is.
For example, suppose you work for a construction company. Imagine the following context. You’re attending a meeting between engineers, architects and the beneficiary. Your responsibility on the project was structural analysis. Specifically, you checked how well the building can hold against earthquakes. Other structural engineers dealt with other aspects. Your piece of the pie is precisely this: earthquakes.
During the meeting, you should keep your role to earthquakes, obviously. That’s where you’re in control. That’s where everyone should listen to you. And, if properly introduced by who chairs the meetings, you will be the authority.
But not all meetings on such a project are about earthquakes. In fact, for more than half of those meetings, your role is mote. Sure, you can add in your 2-points. But they should still relate to your role. For instance, they might want to use wood while you think steel is more appropriate.
Knowing your strengths in meetings gives you several advantages. Firstly, you will get everyone’s attention. This will enable you to share your points, everyone will listen. Secondly, you don’t disrupt the meeting. But rather you keep to your role, offering valuable input. Team efforts mean that you know when to start and stop. Thirdly, you get to save some time, by only attending meetings in which your contribution is relevant. Lastly, you always come on top, from a position of strength.
#5 Strategize your contributions and empathize
Focus your energies on synergies. What works best with what everyone else is offering. And whenever there’s a key point you must address, do so. But don’t fight a war if all you need is that one point. In other words, pick your battles.
The typical work conflict has no place in meetings. To be fair, conflicts and work should stay separate. Yet, it’s often tough to avoid or even manage work conflicts. But it’s not just work conflicts you need to stay away from. It’s simply criticizing or doing anything that disrupts. Sure, work conflicts can have some advantages.
Meetings, however, are a time for sharing ideas. Conversely, they are not a time for shooting ideas down. In other words, don’t criticize unless it is essential and urgent.
Remember, what you aim for is to offer valuable contributions. Not to antagonize, belittle, interrupt, or alienate. Because even with the best intentions, you risk being misperceived.
Instead, do your best to empathize. Firstly, try and see the glass half-full. Everyone is serious, without reservation. They are all doing their best. All their points are expressed after serious consideration. In addition, everything they have to say is based on years of experience. By the same token, your contributions should come to assist rather than attack. Say something supportive. Keep your criticism for later.
#6 Accept that miscommunication is a given
Miscommunication can be as frequent as office attire. It is perhaps natural. Sometimes, the slightest error in communication triggers a chain of unfortunate events. From a misplaced coma in an email to an ambiguous phrase. Human language is far from perfect. Owing to this, perhaps, Google Translate AI went as far as creating its own language. This serves to point out that miscommunication is a constant, a rule almost. At least when it comes to human languages, that is.
Imagine miscommunication in meetings. From tasks wrongfully assigned to visions woefully understood. It’s a mess! Yet, it’s a mess you can avoid. And one of the best ways to bypass miscommunication is to admit to it:
- “Wait, I missed your point on X”. This invites for a second round of clarifications. It’s important to realize that there’s a snowball effect to this line. A positive one. Without a doubt, the speaker will once more go through what’s most important. And you will know what must be remembered.
- “Wait, I don’t know what that is, but I do know X.” This line anchors the clarification to something you know. It can offer you a solution that involves what you know. Alternatively, it can offer you a clarification about what you need to know.
At the same time, meetings are not classrooms. You cannot expect to have each and every item explained to you. However, being open about not understanding or not knowing means you want to learn.
And that’s precisely the matter. People rush into meetings eager to offer something. Instead, rush into a meeting eager to learn something. Open up to what you don’t know. Ask for clarifications instead of assuming you “got it”. To put it another way, let yourself be taught. True understanding and actionable knowledge stem from always being open.
#7 Prepare for meetings with self-awareness
Clearly you know this by now. Preparing is part of our culture. After all, you spend some time preparing for everything. From going out with friends, to going out shopping. Most opportunities require some prep-time.
It is inherently human to prepare. We prepare because we anticipate. And we anticipate because our minds recognize patterns. Often, however, we force these patterns onto reality. And where there’s disagreement between pattern and reality, we fall blind.
Our expectations are, indeed, a construct. We’re attempting to adjust to reality by adjusting it to us. This affects how we select information and how we reason. It affects how we feel, and how productive we are. Most of all, it governs over everything we notice or fail to notice.
This is perhaps why we often fail, despite all preparations. We can only control our part, our role. Everything else falls into place as decided by others, or by chance. But what if we could do better? Some of us do, at least. It is potentially as easy as changing our perception. Hence, let’s consider meeting preparedness a study case.
Your typical preparations for meetings
Most organization use agendas as a way to explain what a meeting is all about. You would typically go through this document. At least to see what the meeting is all about.
You likely have the agenda in some email you received a few days back or in some team chat. If you’re lucky, that is. In some organizations, agendas are delivered soon before the meeting. Or, by comparison, perhaps far too early.
There might be a collection of items from a previous meeting. You would typically go through them and try and understand what’s settled and what not. In addition, you will try to determine what is expected of you.
In the same way, there might me some sort of assignment. If you’re fortunate enough, that is. Plenty organizations fail to demand participants to prepare a meeting. Hence, you might have something to prepare. A report, a strategy, an analysis, whatever it is you do at work.
By the way, obviously, this concerns participants to meetings. It’s about preparing for, not delivering meetings. Essentially, you might go as far as preparing a tiny speech, just in case you’re asked to talk. Or perhaps you’re the spontaneous public speaker type; the one that dominates conversations. In this case, you skip the preparations altogether. Come what may!
Meetings with self-awareness
You realize that every meeting is a great opportunity. It’s one of those rare moments when a team can achieve unity on all accounts. Hence, you are prepared to deliver your outmost.
Firstly, you study all preceding documents closely. You obviously have some personal notes, that you may confront with minutes and agendas. This allows you to gain some objective insight: your current state of mind evaluates a previous state of mind.
Secondly, you take into consideration all team roles. You start with each team member and wonder what it is they would like to achieve in this new meeting. Subsequently, you make open mental notes.
Warning, don’t make specific assumptions. Simply try and see where everything flows – from previous instances to current ones. The difference between the two is simple: don’t expect things to go a certain way. Instead, make room for all possibilities. But try and identify the pulse of it all.
Who knows, maybe a teammate will need your support with a bold presentation. Or a new project proposal. Spontaneity is rarely a good judge. Perhaps it’s best if you can anticipate what might be needed from you. Other than the assignment, of course. Besides, this boosts team cohesion. Imagine what you’d have with the entire team onboard. All mindful and ready to support each other. It may sound utopic, but the reality is within reach.
Prepare for smart meetings
Some while back, we had meetings declared dead. Instead, we argued, smart meetings are all the rage. This did not go unnoticed. What was most appreciated was the “meetings as medication” point.
True to that point, here’s the “patient’s role”perspective. In short, every person attending a meeting can dumb it down or smarten it up. It’s all a matter of choice and a team effort. The very moment teams realize they can have splendid meetings (instead of agonizingly boring ones), that’s when change can happen. Meeting participants should take an active role in making the team better. Without their contribution, meetings become a productivity cost and an emotional liability.
To be smart about meetings, start being useful. By doing your best to be useful, you radically improve the experience for everyone involved. After all, this is why you meet, to get everyone involved. Ultimately, mindfulness can bridge the divide between co-workers and motivate teams towards set goals.
To conclude, independently from job specifications, your main role in meetings is to be useful. And that’s what you should focus on. Especially when you do so in all areas of your work life.
P.S. You might also like this post: The Ultimate Guide to Setting, Prepping, Running and Cutting Meetings