Meeting Etiquette

I remember sitting in a big meeting once where I found myself getting more and more frustrated with the behavior of some of the leaders in there. We had 16 people at the “grownups” table and another 20 along the wall, there to give presentations or answer questions for the big folks. These 36 people were all long-time government employees, senior managers in a big government agency, and to be honest, they acted like children. As I sat there I started observing the behaviors around me. I managed to turn a boring meeting into a pretty entertaining organizational sociology clinic.

The biggest thing I saw was people cutting each other off mid-sentence. I don’t mean two people who start talking simultaneously, nor do I mean thinking someone is done when they have merely paused for a breath, but instead, actually interrupting someone in the middle of their point. You are sending a message like “what you are saying is unimportant” or “I am smarter than you so let me talk instead,” and believe it or not, most people do not like that. It is bad enough to do that to a peer, but I saw one guy who kept doing it to his boss, and yeah, she noticed. And the leaders were doing it to representatives from other agencies, and that does not help the cooperation between offices.

Perhaps one reason for all the interrupting (and seriously, it was continuous) was that too many people went on and on and ON when talking. They got really detailed when it was not necessary, they repeated points multiple times, and no doubt others cut them off because they were taking up too much time from everyone else. I have always noticed that people listen to you more if you talk less; keep it short and sweet, ok?

One thing that was especially annoying was one fellow who could not be bothered to answer the questions he was asked after his presentation. Every time he was asked the same pretty specific question (4 times in all, by my count) he seemed to be answering the question he wished he had been asked. That hurt his case, because it made him look like there was not a good answer to the question. I felt like I was watching a White House press conference. He was proposing something pretty far out of the mainstream and needed to be ready to answer the “why are you doing this?” question.

Lastly, when the guy running the meeting says “OK, let’s move on,” it is not a good idea to cut him off and keep talking about it. Especially when he is the big boss. And an ambassador.

These may seem like minor things but they really have the potential to hurt the ability of people to work together and get things done during the meeting and afterwards.

So, how can you use this example? Well, first of all, consider that many of your employees, especially the younger ones, may not have a lot of experience in meetings and might display many of these same behaviors themselves. Maybe their ego is so big they are sure that what they say is far more important than what anyone else might offer. Perhaps they have been working solo their whole lives and now have to learn to play nice with others. Maybe they have a vision in their head but forget that others do not have the same vision and are currently unable to read minds. Whatever the reason, if you see this, you need to stop it…you can tactfully deflect their behavior during the meeting and then later discuss it with them one on one, so they do not embarrass themselves or create a poor work environment in the future.

But the perhaps the most important thing you can do is watch your own behavior. As a leader, what you do sets an example for your employees, and they will follow the standard you set. After all, if this is how you operate, and you are successful, well then that is what they should do, too, right? This kind of poor meeting etiquette makes for a less productive meeting and ends up wasting time, and can also create some resentment and unnecessarily bad relationships between people who have to work together.

Even if your mother did not teach you some manners when you were younger, it is never too late to learn.

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