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How to Survive a Meeting
If you're like me, you often have to attend meetings. Many of these meetings are typically huge time suckers, yet you still have to attend. In this article I provide some tips on how to survive these meetings and maintain your sanity. Of course, the best tip is to avoid meetings to begin with, unless they are actually organized and productive meetings. In my experience, about 1 out of 25 meetings has been organized, held on-time (started and stopped on-time), and been productive. These tips are in no particular order.
Disclaimer: Just because these tactics work for me, doesn't mean they'll work for you. Don't blame me if you still fall asleep in a meeting or if you get a bruise from pinching your arm too hard!
Pinch / Breath Holding
Just this past week I found myself in a meeting that tested my wit. The person briefing was a "low-talker". No one could hear this person. Periodically someone would say "Please speak up, we can't hear you". This caused the briefer to speak up for about five words....then, back to the low-talking. This person has been in meetings numerous times and has always been asked to speak up or been told "I can't hear you", yet nothing improves. I guess people feel guilty for having to ask every minute for the person to speak up.
The pinch method works with these meetings. Basically, I pinch one arm with my fingers as hard as I can to stay awake. Also, periodically, to make things interesting, I hold my breath and time myself. I figure after many meetings, I should be able to hold my breath for a long time. Also, best case, if you actually pass out from holding your breath, you'll get out of the meeting! If the meeting is really bad, you can combine the pinch and hold breath techniques - pinch yourself very hard while holding your breath!
Dream of Something Better
If the meeting is boring and unproductive, I often try to make productive use of the time by writing down my goals, thoughts, plans, etc. I try to intermix meeting related stuff in the notes, just in case someone asks what I'm writing or looks at my notepad. Also, periodically, you must nod in agreement with the person speaking when they make a point, otherwise, you run the risk of getting caught "daydreaming" or not being a "team player".
If you can't take it any longer, the best course of action is to send a text to a coworker. You have to coordinate with the coworker in advance for this to work. It's also best if you already have a saved text message. The last thing you want to do is finger your phone or blackberry while typing the message. You should have the message ready to go, because you must be covert. Ideally, you can simply reach in your pocket and press one or two buttons on your phone to send the text. Your coworker knows in advance that if she receives your text that she is supposed to interrupt the meeting and mention that there is an urgent matter that needs your attention. This will get you out of the meeting 99% of the time. You must also have a story to tell about the urgent matter though. Good planning is required for this tactic. Warning: for this tactic to work, the coworker you text should not be in the meeting with you!
Observe People / Predict Behavior
In order to make meetings less painful, I typically observe people and try to predict their behavior. Specifically, I try to understand people and predict when and what they will interject into the meeting. In my experience, most meeting participants are talkers. There are few listeners. This means everyone is typically searching for an opportunity to state their position, rather than actually listening. These people simply listen in order to find an interjection point. God forbid any real communications occur in a meeting!
Subtle Key Questions
As in most cases, the meeting will get off track, people will ramble on, and the vagueness will leave you wondering what people are actually talking about. A couple key phrases that I've found useful are the following:
"Perhaps it's just me, but I'm unclear how this is related to that?" Of course, replace "this" and "that" with what's relevant for your meeting.
If you're lucky enough to have an agenda for your meeting, you can simply ask, "Where are we on the agenda?"