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Chapter 6

Meetings: Getting It All Together

Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.

- George Bernard Shaw

The problem with Shaw's observation, of course, is that there frequently isn't time enough. Problems that need to be resolved in short order require the input and experience of more than one person. What to do? Hold a condensed-experience get-together, one where you can take advantage of what everyone knows. To use the more popular terminology, you call a meeting. (It beats waiting until you know everything, right?)

Some people complain that they spend far too much time in meetings. Others feel that group-based business gatherings are the very best tool for avoiding major organizational mistakes, and are thus worth the time and effort necessary to plan and participate in them. Whether you fall into one of these two camps automatically or are ambivalent about formal workplace gatherings, you'll want to know how to get the most out of the time you spend in meetings - and how to keep little problems from escalating into big ones with co-workers and superiors.

Once you follow the advice here on developing promptness, improving communication, and handling challenges, you'll be ready to take advantage of what you learned during the gatherings and put it to practical use.

Tip #66

Never arrive too early for a meeting.

Many people don't consider that arriving in someone's office more than five to 10 minutes before a meeting's scheduled time is a breach of privacy. Most of us are susceptible to tight schedules and to the "wrap-up-as-much-as-possiblebefore-the-pow wow" syndrome that accompanies full days. Early arrival can definitely be an etiquette no-no. How would you feel if someone were sitting across from your desk, staring at you while you tried to make the most of the scant time remaining for some daunting task on your lengthy to-do list?

Although arriving early at an in-house meeting is usually considered positive, remember that in this case, "early" means no more than, say, three to five minutes before the scheduled start time. Even while following that guideline, you may well run into a situation where a colleague or superior would prefer that you take a trip to the water cooler while he or she uses those precious minutes to attend to some last-minute detail or other. Don't make the person ask you to leave. Be considerate. Discreetly step out until the exact meeting time arrives.

Making a habit of showing up early - and first - to every meeting can have a potential negative impact on your career: Your colleagues and/or supervisor may conclude that you have too much time on your hands. Bring your PDA along and get some work done while you wait!

Punctuality and promptness are certainly values to be honored, however, avoid letting your commitment to them blind you to the unintentional messages you may be sending by arriving too early, too often.

Tip #67

Know what to do when you're going to be late.

When being late to a meeting is unavoidable, it is important to cover yourself and demonstrate courtesy and consideration towards others. Say, for instance, that you are on your way to a meeting and have hit a traffic jam that clearly will delay you by anywhere from five to 20 minutes. If you have a mobile phone, you can and should call ahead to convey the problem and to allow the person(s) waiting for you to decide whether they should continue to wait or to cancel the meeting. If you don't have a cell phone, look for the earliest opportunity to stop at a pay phone. If calling is simply impossible, then an apology and explanation upon your arrival will have to do.

Tip #68

Apologize when you miss a meeting.

You are hard at work at your desk, when the telephone rings. It's your client, Mr. Big, and he has been waiting at the restaurant for the last 20 minutes - where are you? You check your calendar and gasp in horror. Your lunch meeting with Mr. Big is clearly noted, but you overlooked it! As you fumble for an excuse, you look at the clock and note that the restaurant is 30 minutes away from your office. Mr. Big (understandably) chooses not to wait further and cancels the meeting.

However much you apologize by telephone, always follow up with a written apology. Acknowledge your error and the effect that it has had on the other person's valuable time, and assure him or her that it will not happen again. Then make sure it doesn't!

Tip #69

Know what to say when colleagues go off on tangents.

Just about everyone would agree that time is the most precious commodity we have. So what should you do when a colleague goes off on a tangent - that is to say, insists on talking at length about something that isn't on the meeting agenda?

It is the responsibility of the person spearheading the meeting to acknowledge what is being said and to redirect the off-track participant. The goal is to get back to the meeting agenda.

If you're not the person who's running the meeting, you're probably at the mercy of whoever is. You may be able to raise a couple of tactful questions for the group as a whole - and by extension, the individual running the meeting - that explore the possibility that the topic raised may not be directly related to what's on the agenda. ("Did we want to wrap up X issue first?" or "Have we resolved Y yet?") Avoid dictating what should happen next. That's not your job. If someone who likes to "explore all the avenues" is conducting your meeting, regardless of what's on the agenda, the sad truth is that your meeting may blaze a couple of uncharted paths.

If you are the person who's running the meeting, and if you feel there's some merit in the points your colleague just raised, you might say something like, "Let's give that topic equal time by getting it on the agenda for an upcoming meeting." You also might request that the person form a committee or work group for the express purpose of pursuing the topic in question - and be ready to discuss it at an upcoming meeting.

Tip #70

Handle attacks during the meeting with grace.

It seems as though there's a meeting attacker in every group. How do you let an overaggressive colleague know that he or she is being heard, but keep your cool and avoid attacking in return?

One way is to acknowledge what the attacker is saying and praise the positive intent behind what appears to be a negative outburst. ("Jane, it's very important to have someone who's as concerned about quality as you are. I'm grateful that you have insights to share on our department.") Where you can, acknowledge the valid points the other person has raised. ("I think there probably are some areas where we can lower the reject level in the department.") Finally, shift the conversation into first person singular observations when you draw conclusions. ("I'll be looking closely at this area over the next few weeks, however in the meantime, I recommend that we address the point Charlie raised.")

One simple rule that can save your skin and keep your blood pressure from boiling over is to stay away from aggressive "you" talk. When your attacker hears responses such as, "You always," "You never," or "What you fail to realize is," he or she has little choice but to escalate the conflict.

Tip #71

Master the "five pennies in the pocket" rule.

Who doesn't like compliments? We all do. And the more time you spend with others, the easier it is to acknowledge their good deeds.

My favorite way to make sure I deliver enough compliments over the course of a day is the "five pennies in the pocket" rule. Every day, I put five pennies in one of my pockets. Each time I see someone in my professional or personal life who deserves a compliment, I share my kind words with the person, and then transfer a penny to another pocket. My goal, by the end of the day, is to end up with all five pennies in the second pocket!

Besides verbalizing your positive thoughts, the "five pennies in the pocket" rule helps you make people feel good about themselves and improves your relationships with others. Try it!

Tip #72

Stop stepping on other people's sentences.

It's happened to all of us. You're talking about something important - and your conversational partner interrupts you to make a totally different point. You're in the middle of a sentence - and someone finishes it for you.

Irritating, isn't it?

While it's easy to point fingers at others, it's more productive to take a lesson or two from the situation at hand. So I ask: "How can I avoid being the kind of person who interrupts people?"

Here's the best answer I've come up with: One, two!

In other words, the next time you are listening to another, simply count to two (or pause two seconds) before responding to the person. By doing so, you will avoid earning a reputation as the person who steps on others' sentences.

Tip #73

Navigate marathon meetings with caution.

Let's face it, it's tough to get out of meetings that run too long.

It's good etiquette to announce beginning and end times for meetings. If you're running the meeting, making scheduling announcements will (usually) be no problem. If you're not running the meeting, then a tactful question or two to the person in charge - well in advance of the meeting, if possible - will usually help you identify the ground rules.

If you've been invited to a meeting that is running more than five minutes beyond its predetermined schedule, you can try to excuse yourself discreetly, yet this is sometimes easier said than done. If you can point to a pressing commitment for which you must prepare, do so in a positive, polite manner, and see how far you get on your way to the door.

When you can predict that a meeting will run for longer than scheduled, let the person who is running the meeting know before the meeting begins that you must leave at a certain time. Explain the nature of your commitment and then stake out a chair next to the door to make your exit an easy one.

Suppose none of that works and you're trapped in a meeting that simply refuses to stop? You'll need to do whatever you can to make it through the session "alive." If there are regularly scheduled breaks, take advantage of them. Stand up, stretch, walk around, visit the restroom. If you're consigned to a marathon meeting that has no scheduled breaks, suggest some! People function better when they are able to take breaks.

What you say might sound like this:

"Wow, an hour and a half! Jim, what do you say we break for 10 minutes? It may help us brainstorm better."

"While we're between topics, how would people feel about a quick intermission?"/span>

"This is a critical problem and I know we want to tackle it while we're all at our best. We've been at this since 4 - may I suggest a break for dinner?"

Key point summary

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