How To (Not) Suck At Meetings
Meetings are not inherently evil. It’s important to set time to discuss opinions and fact for the sake of making decisions. Some meetings are designed to be preliminary discussions, often times “brainstorming” or “brainwriting” sessions. They often feel draining, in my opinion, for the following reasons:
- You have other things to do and don’t view the current discussion as the best use of time right now.
- You feel that you’re doing no more than watching a sinking ship that you’re not being given the opportunity to save
- You feel that you’re doing no more than watching an obviously successful plan be told and retold again (the opposite of the previous item)
- Decisions are being made for all the wrong reasons, resulting in wasted time
I’m going to address the last point first: Decisions being made for the wrong reason.
It’s Your Fact, Not Mine
When a team gets together to discuss a new feature, it’s important to understand the distinctions between “opinion” and “fact”. Very often we use other products, primarily relatable and successful ones, as a basis for our decision making. Equally as often, those products can be used in more than one way. Let’s take Gmail as an example. One heavy Gmail user may claim, as fact, that nobly actually uses labels. They don’t use labels, nobody they know use labels, they’ve never read blog posts about labels and so certainly the general public has no use for this extra feature. Another heavy Gmail user will take the opposite approach, stating as fact that everyone uses labels, those who don’t use labels are uneducated regarding the feature and of course you can find 15 posts from the past few months alone explaining the awesomeness that is labels. Are either of these Gmail users wrong? Yes. They’re both wrong.
They’re not wrong about the feature or how it’s used. But they’re wrong about stating their use-case as fact. What they’re sharing is an opinion. Failure to acknowledge that they might be wrong will lead to a very long and painful meeting. A different, and more constructive approach, would be to openly admit from the start that opinions are being shared. This allows for a more open discussion, one that is not as circular.
Back, Back, Back it Up
When you’re sharing an opinion that you strongly believe is based on fact, be prepared to back it up. Bring examples from you own experience, other viable competitors, and perhaps most important of all, actual research. I’ve heard both of these lines used in meetings:
- “Trust me, I have 10 years of experience. I do this stuff all the time.”
- “I’ve seen it in a bunch of places, it’s viable.”
Besides making yourself sound like a pretentious douche, using those lines also kill any chance of your coworkers gaining your trust. “10 years of experience” can’t be validated and nobody wants to make a decision based on unvalidated “fact”. Similarly, “a bunch of places” or even “a ton of apps” means nothing. How much is a bunch? Where are these bunches? For all anyone knows, you’ve seen the feature you’re promoting in a “bunch of places”, including your imagination. A better approach would be:
- “While working on this particular project, I faced such-and-such issue. We approached is in this way and the result was this. I’ve since dealt with similar situations, but it would be time consuming to discuss all of them right now, but all in all I think the best method is the one I presented.”
- “I’ve seen it in this, that and the other app. You can find them online, they’re currently live.”
All the “this”s , “that”s and whatnots can be validated, clarifying the difference between opinion and fact.
Take a Deep Breath
It’s important to understand that often time office trauma is actually in your head. You might be stuck on the idea that a meeting on Wednesday is a waste of time – you have too much to do – but keep in mind that a) you probably knew a meeting was coming. Most companies schedule meetings far in advance, at least in my experience (cough, opinion) and b) meetings work around a lot of schedules, including your own. Not everyone is going to be happy with the chosen time. Sometimes it will be ideal for you and sometimes it won’t be. It’s hard, but work is supposed to be hard, that’s what makes it rewarding.
In the same way, if you’re viewing a decision making process as a sinking ship, reevaluate yourself. Why can’t you save it? Why are you not passionate to save it? Are you sure you tried? Communicate in an open and respectful way. Present your opinion with viable and validated points. You have a chance of saving it.
Of course if you’re sitting in a meeting listening to something you already understand, knowing that a decision has already been made, you can do other work on a pen and paper. Or try to end the meeting by politely wrapping it up, congratulating everyone on a decision well made and encouraging everyone to get back to work.
I’m more of a doodler when it comes to the final case. I try to continue doing working during those “beating a dead horse” meetings. In fact, most people are doodlers. Trust me, I have experience and I’ve seen it in a bunch of places.