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Making Meetings Work for You

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Meetings are work.  They don’t always feel that way, as you emerge from another wasted hour, and, if they habitually do achieve nothing, then they are displacing real work and you need to do something about it: speak to the chair of the meeting and suggest your time would be better spent working on something else, but ask courteously for a copy of minutes, so you can stay in touch.  In extremis, maybe even suggest that the meeting no longer serves a valuable purpose and that it is time for a re-think.

But most meetings do serve a purpose and you are there for a reason.  So let’s examine how to get the most from your meetings.

Exercise 1: Preparation

There are two things you will need to do when you are at your meeting: Get what you need from the time you spend, and contribute effectively, getting your point of view across.  These are why you should prepare: so you know what you want to get from the meeting and so that you are ready to make your point effectively.

My meeting preparation kit consists of:

  • A multipart folder so I can organise and quickly find the papers for each section of the meeting.
  • 12 Part Folder
  • A highlighter pen, so I can highlight the key passages I will want to refer to.  A top tip: don’t just read through other people’s papers; read your own contributions as well, highlighting the points you want to make when you are asked to speak.
  • A pack of sticky notes, to attach comments or create bookmarks.

Exercise 2: Being Present

Let me pass on the best piece of advice I ever got about meetings:

Be in the room, when you are in the room

That is to say, don’t let your mind wander, don’t get distracted by side conversations, and avoid looking at your phone, or writing your shopping list.  Be wholly present.  Practise good quality attentive listening and take notes that will help you to lock important points into your memory, record essential facts, and create your follow-up action list.

Exercise 3: Speaking up

When it is your turn to speak – whether because you are questioned, or you are called upon – structure what you say to make maximum impact.  This means taking a pause before speaking, while you organise your thoughts.  Savour its dramatic effect, then speak with assurance and precision.  When you have spoken, create a clean break and await responses.

Exercise 4: Being Influential

There are three things that will boost your levels of influence in any meeting.

  1. Focus on principles
    Principles and patterns carry far more power than details, so confine your contributions to what matters most and let others contribute the secondary ideas.
  2. Focus on process
    When the meeting gets stuck or hits confusion or conflict, you will be at your most influential when you contribute a simple process to move things on.  Don’t get involved in the confusions and stay above the conflict: just offer a constructive way forward.
  3. Silence
    It is almost impossible to overstate the power of silence.  Silence in pauses; before, during and after you speak, silence when listening, silence when nobody knows what to say.  Command the silences and you control the meeting.

Exercise 5: Follow-up

When you schedule your meeting in your diary, schedule 15 minutes after the meeting to do your follow-up, to reflect on what you have learned, or to chat with another participant.  Rushing from one meeting to your next engagement risks losing the impact of that meeting and leaves you with a load of follow-up at the end of the day.  Worse still, you don’t follow-up… and then, what was the point?

Further Reading

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The Power of Silence

‘Silence is a powerful, ambiguous medium of communication’ says Seán Mistéil in the new edition of the Communicator’s Pocketbook.

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It is well worth looking at how to use silence to your benefit.  For a little fun, let’s start with its ambiguity.

A Man for All Seasons

If you haven’t seen the play or the excellent 1966 movie with Paul Schofield and Robert Shaw, then it is well worth looking out for.  At the trial of Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell is prosecuting:

Cromwell: Now, Sir Thomas, you stand on your silence.

More: I do.

Cromwell: But, gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence. Consider first the silence of a man who is dead. Let us suppose we go into the room where he is laid out, and we listen: what do we hear? Silence. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing; this is silence pure and simple.

But let us take another case. Suppose I were to take a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it, and my lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop, maintained their silence.
That would betoken! It would betoken a willingness that I should do it, and under the law, they will be guilty with me. So silence can, according to the circumstances, speak! …

More: …  the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent”.
If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened,
you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.

Cromwell: Is that in fact what the world construes from it?
Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?

More: The world must construe according to its wits;
this court must construe according to the law.

This edited extract from the wonderful text by Robert Bolt shows just how slippery silence is.  And powerful: in this trial, More’s life is at stake.

Use the Power of Silence

When I speak, do you listen?  I mean, do you really listen?  What most of us do is half listen; part of me is listening to you, while the other part is listening to myself, as I plan out what I am going to say next.

If we are arguing, I may not even hear your point; as I decide how I am going to respond to what I expected you would say in response to my point.  If we are chatting, I don’t really listen to your story of how upsetting yesterday was, because I am deciding whether to start my story with today’s journey to work, or yesterday’s argument in the supermarket.

Instead, take the time to really listen.  The risk we feel is that if we don’t plan our next comment, the other person will think us slow, dim-witted, weak in argument.

I suggest that this is not so.  What does that silence betoken?  Perhaps it says:

  • I really listened and am thinking about what you said
  • Your comment was profound enough for me to have to think about my reply
  • I am a thoughtful person

And if I am comfortable with silence, and you are not, who will fill that silence with more words?  You will.  In a debate, this will be when you weaken your argument, in a sales call this will be where you give something away, in an argument this will be when you start to feel you are losing.

So here’s the deal

Practise listening with 100% attention

Practise holding your silence

Practise setting aside your prejudices about what my silence may mean.  It may not mean I am angry, or I am confused, or I am deaf, or I am day-dreaming, or I am upset.

It may just be silence pure and simple.

Other Management Pocketbooks you may enjoy

And coming soon:

  • Body Language
  • Handling Resistance
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