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Leadership

In Defense of the Meeting

Not paying attention in a meeting is arrogant.


You are in a pointless meeting. You have been in this meeting for forever and three days, and it’s his fault. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. You resent that this is a waste of your time. You are indignant. “Why won’t he stop talking? We already went over this. This isn’t relevant. He’s pontificating.” You find yourself in this kind of meeting all the time and your attention is slipping away…

I urge you: stop. Pay attention. Sit up straight and engage. Wallow in the pointlessness. Chew on this. Because you are watching the very worst version of yourself, and it’s something you need to see. Working with people can be frustrating—no “7 Tips to More Productive Meetings” article is going to make it simple. You can read 1,359 blog posts that tell you to “listen” or “empathize,” but the route to finding peace in collaborative communication is so much harder, because it’s about personal subjugation.

Meetings with colleagues are part of the creative process, not a distraction from it. To get things done, we have to work with people, and to love what we do, we have to embrace that. We are all on a journey toward being better. I suck at it. So many of you are further than me, but you aren’t there yet, because there is no “there.”

Meetings with colleagues are part of the creative process, not a distraction from it.

On a particularly excellent episode of the popular podcast Roderick on the Line, John Roderick, frontman for the rock band The Long Winters, spent a 25-minute portion of the episode talking with about his successful experience in Alcoholics Anonymous. He reveals the kernel at the center of it all to co-host Merlin Mann, and it’s totally unexpected and something we would all do well to remember:

Merlin Mann: “It seems like you have to find completely unknown and untapped levels of humility for [AA] to be something you stick with and progress with.”

Roderick: “It’s the core of it. It’s why it works. The people that manage to…get there are basically experiencing the toughest route to zen, which is being confronted every day with people who are exhibiting things about yourself that you hate the most and not being able to do anything except listen. Every single person in an AA meeting wants to take it over and be the chief. And no one can. There is someone that has 30 years of sobriety, there’s someone who has 40 years of sobriety, and there is someone who has 60 days of sobriety, and they want to take the meeting over and tell everyone how to do it.”

It’s right there, but to hit it bluntly: AA, and any other journey you take, works if you have the humility to accept that you’re just as full of shit as the guy who is rambling. 

Roderick: “The fundamental thing about a guy that has been sober for 40 years who keeps going to AA is that he keeps learning things about himself from listening to people who have been sober for 60 days. That is not something you can duplicate. It’s not something you can package and put a price on. Ultimately, the reason that he is there and subjecting himself to that which is uncomfortable and like…ARRGGHH. Listening to someone who has been sober for 60 days talking about how much they know if you have been sober for 40 years is just—ugh—its so bad, and yet you are there.”

So, yes, do all the stuff that you read about while your meeting runs painfully long. Listen rather than just waiting for your turn to talk. Empathize with the people you collaborate with and understand what motivates them. Think about what they need from the group to feel valued and make the best possible contribution. But find humility.

Don’t walk away from a bad meeting and try to implement some facile of a process change thinking it will fix “it.” Don’t think standing meetings are a panacea. Don’t assume that slavish devotion to scrum methodology or any other collaborative “-ism” is going to make your group better. To do so or think so is missing the point.

As a “how-to,” this is a horse pill, because it may require a total change in mindset. Humility is a process; it’s more like climbing a ramp than a staircase and the steps may seem as impossible as they are obvious. First, don’t let yourself zone out—it’s self-indulgent. Be self-reflective even while paying attention to every syllable of an interminable meeting. Look at your own worst impulses on display, because it’s arrogant to assume that you can take away nothing from the experience.

Humility is a process.

Second, don’t complain afterwards. It devalues what took place and squashes any possibility of growth. It also implies that your time is more important than everyone elses. Finally, resist the urge to tinker with the meeting’s format. Just because one meeting went off the rails doesn’t mean you need to change methodology. You might think you’re reacting to the fact that the meeting was monopolized, but what you’re really reacting to is that someone other than you monopolized the meeting for once.

Creative people are like Roderick’s description of alcoholics: We’re really great at telling everyone how it all should be done. We want to fix macro problems. In a perfect world, your newfound humility will spread like wildfire and dealing with your collaborators will become a beautiful dream. Don’t count on it. That’s also the wrong goal to start with. The only thing that you can do to guarantee better meetings and better teams is make yourself into one better participant. That requires humility in every single second, especially the ones that go the slowest.

Comments (9)
  • Richard

    I get the point of what you’re trying to say, focus and get what you can out of meetings. But grinning and bearing an unproductive meeting in the name of zen and humility, when meetings are the most expensive thing a company can do…sometimes the right thing is to wrap up something productive and move on to something that is.

    • Richard

      Unproductive and move on to something that is, I mean.

  • Barbara Dignan

    The only useful meetings I ever had to sit through were ones where EVERYONE got to participate. That rarely happens. Usually, it’s a big bunch of us set’n and get’n. HATE those!

  • beejay9085

    In the midst of a 30-year, successful career, I cannot stress how vehemently I disagree. Don’t conform; in fact, push back against time-wasting meetings. Humble people who waste time in meetings with no real agenda, deliverables, and objectives die in the middle. Don’t be sheeple.

  • drj

    Amen beejay. Patience may be a virtue. However, ignorance combined with arrogance is a toxic combination and is unacceptable. The ultimate of mind control achieved through enduring physical pain can have value in terms of personal growth. But save it for the ashram. The a-h who monopolizes and wastes valuable resources at meetings needs the lesson more than the listener.
    BTW… attendees of AA continue to attend after 40 years of sobriety becaude they are addictied to those meetings. They are also fear-driven that they are not free of their “disease”… and they will never will be with that mindset.
    Thank you for starting the dialogue. Breathe deeply, grasshopper, you have a lot to learn.

  • Greg

    I don’t disagree with the points Justin makes here – including experiencing humility and empathetic listening – these are very important and play an important role in the confusing and multifaceted nature of meetings. I think there is a missing call to action on the fundamental problem I see with every ‘pointless meeting’: it’s everyone’s responsibility for fixing the ‘too many meetings’ problem. Call out the decisions that were already made if they are re-tabled. Suggest combining together meetings that are running parallel subjects only to be followed up by a ‘coordination’ meeting. Question why you need to be in meetings where it’s not clear. Demand working meetings where deliverables are the goal and keep team members on track. What ever it takes to effectively reduce meetings and contribute to organizational momentum, do it. Pointless meetings happen for lots of reasons. The person sitting there silently fuming that their time is being wasted is as much to blame as the person who called the pointless meeting in the first place.

  • http://stephanbendall.com Stephan Bendall

    This is one of the best articles on meetings I have read in a long time. Thanks for putting this together. I can foresee me reading this many times.

  • opinionsarelikenoses

    I think this is article is more about changing perspective rather than surrendering to stupidity. It’s about being fully engaged, which requires a certain deference to others. That can only be done when you can see others as equal or at least valuable.

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