More often than not, what gets in the way of a meeting going well has little to do with the subject-matter being discussed. It's far more likely to be about the behaviours going on around the table.
These may be obvious to everybody – yet no-one dares to voice a challenge. However, it’s more likely they’re going on – and being noticed – unconsciously.
Taking responsibility for getting a meeting to go well is partly about challenging behaviours that don’t help. It means making sure everyone is conscious of what’s going on. Some of the best team meetings I’ve attended as an observer don’t wait for unhelpful behaviours to crop up. They begin by establishing, or reiterating, some behavioural ground rules at the start.
These need deft handling (I’ve also seen this done badly, and it’s not a great idea to make people feel patronised). But for a group that meets regularly, drawing up a swift list of unhelpful behaviours that the group recognises as relevant can be really useful. ‘No open laptops’ and ‘Phones turned off’ are probably worth including. ‘No spitting, no swearing’ can probably be taken as read.
Setting these boundaries at the start provides a frame for the whole meeting that reminds everyone of their responsibility to the group. Sharing that responsibility means speaking out and naming such unhelpful behaviours if you see them. To do that, you don’t have to be direct – at least, not immediately. Try an impersonal, diffuse approach to begin with. For this, you do need to avoid making eye contact with any individual, apart from perhaps, the meeting’s Chair. Use "We seem to be…" or "There seems to be…":
“We seem to be getting into a lot of unnecessary detail here… “
“We seem to be over-complicating the issue…”
“There seems to be more focus on inboxes than on each other at the moment..."
You’re stating an opinion as a neutral, objective observation, not attributed to one individual. So you’re less likely to provoke angry defensiveness. This can work well – as long as you deliver the words with energy, confidence, and the kind of smile that shows you’re being firm, but not aggressive.
If you find this unsuccessful, you may need something more direct:“David, could you stop picking your nose? I find it disgusting as well as distracting.” Riskier, but occasionally necessary, alas.
‘Calling’ someone’s behaviour – i.e. naming what you observe – isn’t about being a Goody Two-Shoes; it’s about helping everyone to stay focused. Which is why agreed ground rules are a good idea: you’ve all signed up to that.
Even so, in a long, intense meeting, maintaining focus throughout can be a challenge. But it’s worth sticking at, and encouraging others to do the same – because that way, you’ll get through the agenda a good deal more quickly. And when debate gets animated or even fierce, there will be a more solid understanding that this is a safe space in which to air differences of opinion, because everyone simultaneously cares about serving the team.
By the way, did you know that we all lip-read – to an extent – in order to hear what is being said, even if our hearing is fine? Obligatory mask-wearing in response to the Covid pandemic may have made you aware of the problem; if not, try listening to someone whose mouth you can’t see, and you’ll find it much harder work to decipher what they’re saying. So if your meetings are on Zoom or in person without masks, beware of hiding your own mouth! One of the many disadvantages of sitting at a table is that it can encourage people to rest their elbows with hands at their mouths, and when they speak, to hide their lips. Makes it very difficult for others to understand you – even if they know you quite well and are used to your voice. Far worse when they don’t.
Touching or concealing your mouth a lot as you speak can also give the other person the impression that you have something to hide – or are at least reluctant to commit to your words. And when there are incongruent messages going on, we will tend to believe what we read in your body, rather than what we hear in your words.
So when you speak, stay aware of everyone in the room, especially if you’re turning your head to direct words to one individual. People on the other side of you won’t be able to hear unless you increase your vocal energy – and ensure your body language, especially your eye contact, is as inclusive as possible.
Even when you’re not speaking, your demeanour needs to stay open and outgoing. Think of your eye contact as a beam of energy that touches the person to whom it’s directed, but also spreads out to include everyone else at the table.
Long, intense meetings are the norm in many large organisations – but the best ones still make time at the end for brief reflection by all. It’s an important opportunity to step back from the subject-matter of your discussion, and take a few minutes to revisit the way everyone behaved. So give everyone a turn to voice a quick verdict on whether it was a good meeting or not. And why. (And if anyone tries to take this as their cue to reopen the discussion itself, make sure you steer them straight back on track.)
If you’ve been less than focused at any stage yourself, or guilty of other behaviour that hasn’t been helpful, fess up. Then agree your joint commitment to making the meeting go even better next time – and mean it!