If you are like more than 80% of what is generally referred to as knowledge workers, you know most meetings are futile. At best, they are a waste of time. More often, they are a source of frustration. But these problems are not inherent to the concept of meetings. On the contrary, creating things together requires ongoing communication. There are many cases where a meeting should have been the most effective platform to exchange ideas and develop new insights.
We won’t solve this massive problem in 500 words (and you are invited to read more on FixingWorkplaceCommunication.com). On this issue, we will focus on some universal discussion-killers: phrases you should avoid at all costs if you want your meeting to be effective and engaging.
We want discussions to be focused. It takes effort and discipline to set the stage for an effective meeting, and then someone comes with a question that seems to have nothing to do with what we are trying to achieve. Dismissing it as irrelevant is a natural reaction. Natural, but dead wrong.
When you dismiss a statement or a question by saying it is irrelevant, you imply you are the one who decides what is relevant and what isn’t. Effective discussions should better be facilitated, but a facilitator is not “the one who knows it all.” Killing a potential discussion thread because you don’t see how it relates to the topic is not just offensive but a missed opportunity.
Effective communication is an exchange of ideas on equal terms. Some might turn out irrelevant eventually, but anyone invited to the discussion should have the chance to explain why they think the information, insight, or question they present are relevant.
That’s Not Up for Discussion
The point of a discussion is, well, to discuss. When a meeting turns into a monologue, it cannot be effective. Now, surely there are some previously decided things or external constraints that you and your team cannot affect. What’s the point of discussing them?
First, it is important to allow people to be heard. If your partners in the discussion feel they cannot raise some issues they obviously care about and affect them, they will later be reluctant to speak up when you bring up the topics you wish to discuss.
But no less important is the opportunity to hear what people think about these “non-negotiable” issues. Maybe, you will learn something you are not aware of. Perhaps someone has an idea that works around these constraints or introduces a different way to keep the decision but on different terms. Whatever you try to achieve in the meeting can benefit from the different views, even if you believe it is set in stone. It’s all a matter of balance, of course, but making some statements and declaring they are not up for discussion creates unequal terms in the conversation.
Let’s Move On (We Don’t Have Time for That)
For many, an effective meeting has one criterion: presenting their entire pre-prepared slide deck. No measure can be more irrelevant.
An effective meeting results in an actionable decision based on a deep discussion. And deep discussions cannot be timed. There are ways to make the conversation more effective, and we certainly don’t want to make it longer than it should. But when you artificially call people to move on due to an arbitrary time constraint, you will likely miss many important insights and ideas that should have been at the core of the discussion.
Shorter is not always better. If the discussion requires setting up another meeting — do it. When people feel the conversation is effective and about to result in well-thought-out decisions, they will happily dedicate more time to it if needed.