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Tips on Meeting Management

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Tips on Meeting Management

By Michelle Yozzo Drake

Last week I got a phone call from one of my large clients in Boston. They called me to work with one of their vice presidents who has been running meetings, and they're getting lots of complaints on how these meetings are going. So upper management asked me if I would work with her, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to share with you my best advice on good meeting management.  

No one wants to be stuck in a meeting where people are shouting at each other, talking over each other, making snide comments on others' ideas or boring everyone to tears. Because meetings are such an integral part of communicating with your team and thereby reaching your company's goals, learning out to properly facilitate a meeting is crucial.

So the first thing that I worked on with this client was setting an agenda. Without an agenda, you run the risk of having a meeting that skews off into a hundred different directions, and at the end, you're either wondering what the point of the meeting was or you're realizing all of the issues that never made it to the table. I said to this client, and I say to you: "If you don't know the goals or outcomes of the meeting, then you shouldn't be holding the meeting." Don't hold a meeting just because it's Monday at 9 a.m. Make sure there is a clearly outlined purpose to the meeting and a list of items that need to be covered during the meeting.

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Then my client and I discussed a few "what if" scenarios. She confessed that some of the meeting members were making inappropriate comments, off-color jokes and even sexual innuendos. She had been handling this by trying to laugh it off and half-jokingly chiding the culprits for their naughty humor, but she knew that some of the other members were offended by this behavior. She was uncomfortable with it herself, but she didn't want to seem like a stuffed shirt who "can't take a joke." I explained to her that losing fun points from your reputation was a better option than being part of a sexual harassment suit brought against the company! By allowing that behavior to occur and even by simply ignoring it, she was putting herself and her company at risk for major legal issues down the road. If someone in the meeting is saying inappropriate things, you need to make it crystal clear that the comments will not be tolerated if they are in direct violation of your company's harassment policy. Make a public stand against them, and be firm with your position. You may have to deal with a few eye-rolls but that's certainly preferable to harassment litigation.

Next, she asked, "What happens if people start arguing?" In her group - as with many groups - there are conflicting communication styles and opinions, resulting in some very heated debates. Several of her team were very aggressive during these meetings, raising their voices, cutting people off, being very confrontational, and generally making it a very tense environment. I reminded her that the role of the person who's running the meeting is to maintain control and to make sure that there is an open, safe climate that promotes the sharing of ideas and opinions. People must feel comfortable communicating freely during meetings or the whole purpose of the meeting - communication - is negated. When confronted by aggressive team members, acknowledge their point of view and facilitate the discussion, making sure that each person has their say and that the tone of the meeting stays neutral and non-confrontational. If these people keep rehashing their point of view again and again, don't be afraid to gently cut them off and re-direct them to the next topic. Make sure that you don't exacerbate the situation by feeding into their aggression by raising your voice and arguing with them yourself. Something as simple as lowering the volume and pitch of your voice can settle people down and keep them calm so you can get the meeting back under control.

After a little prodding, my client finally admitted that more common than people erupting into arguments is people basically falling asleep! "I try to keep the meeting as fresh and exciting as possible, but I'm limited by the information I have to present. There's only so much I can do to liven up spreadsheets!" I had to agree with her there, but I offered her a meeting rule of thumb: there should always be a clear reason - based on the agenda - for inviting each and every person to a meeting. If you can't think of a reason why someone should be there, then they shouldn't be there. Nothing will make a person tune out faster than realizing the content of the meeting has absolutely nothing to do with them. And watch out for the droners: those people who go on and on. And on. And on. It's a fact that some people just adore the sound of their own voice, and as the meeting facilitator, you've got to firmly (but tactfully) cut them off and get the meeting back on point. Again, an agenda can do wonders for that issue. If everyone has the agenda in front of them, it's easy to glide into the next topic and back on track.

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Finally, my client and I talked about the ultimate meeting nightmare: your meeting has dissolved into a complete and total disaster. What do you do? First, as meeting leader, you've got to take absolute control of the meeting and reign in all the chaos around you. Remind those off-color humorists about the harassment policy, calm down the aggressors, and waking up the sleeping beauties. And if all else fails, make the decision to end the meeting, but before you release the group, explain to everyone that the situation has become too volatile right now and you all need to take a step back. Ask your team members to put their opinions in an e-mail and send it to everyone else on the team, and then schedule another meeting for later on in the week to discuss those e-mails after everyone has had a chance to calm down and digest the information. 

Running good meetings is about being confident in your abilities as a leader. It's about carefully planning meetings so there is always a purpose and a clear strategy. It's about knowing how to guide people, keep them on task and the meeting under control.  

For more FREE tips on advancing your career and navigating the workplace, sign up for my FREE e-zine "Lipstick Leadership" at LipstickLeadership.com today! And check out the products I've developed to guide you toward the success you deserve!

�Strong reasons make strong actions.� � William Shakespeare