7 Ways to Stop a Meeting from Dragging On
A few years ago, when I got a speeding ticket, I was offered the option of attending traffic school in lieu of a black mark on my otherwise spotless driving record. I showed up at City Hall promptly at 6 PM, hoping my educational experience would end at the advertised 8:30 PM. The instructor was 25 minutes late and quite disorganized. By 8:15 PM he was on slide 18 of 123 and seemed to be just getting into the groove. My heart sunk and I was quickly getting resentful. At 8:26 PM he launched into what promised to be a lengthy story about a fascinating multi-car accident. I felt a toxic sense of dread and powerless. After all — this was his meeting, not mine — and I need the points taken off my driving record.
Why are meetings so predictably unproductive? Why is it that the more people you put into a room the more certain it is that the meeting will go late and everyone will act powerless to do something about it?
In 1964 John Darley and Bibb Latane conducted an experiment on group powerlessness. Subjects were led to believe they were part of a group discussion about personal problems, in which one participant is struck with an epileptic seizure. Darley and Latane wondered what conditions would predict whether the subject witnessing the seizure would either sit passively or interrupt the “meeting” and take action to help. It turned out that the larger the group the less likely the subject was to break ranks from powerless peers and leave the room in search of help. This has become known as bystander apathy.
If human beings can act so passively when health and safety are on the line, it should be no wonder that we turn ourselves into victims when the sole risk is an hour or two of wasted time. Meetings are so notoriously ineffective because most participants act like passive victims rather than responsible actors.
Interestingly, even meeting leaders often view themselves as constrained by unstated and untested group expectations that limit their ability to intervene effectively in the group process. They allow dysfunctional time-wasting behavior to go unchecked because they imagine it is the vox populi.
I’ve made myself a meeting victim more often than I’d like to admit, but over the years I’ve discovered that if I’m suffering, others are likely suffering too, and it’s in my power to do something. There are tactful things I can do to not only take responsibility for my own investment of time, but to become a healthy voice for the silent majority. In fact, most people silently cheer when someone takes action to refocus or cut off time-wasting activities.
Here are seven of my favorite interventions you can use to stop meandering in a meeting:
- Come prepared. You can organize a chaotic conversation and gain disproportionate influence by simply arriving with a clearly articulated straw position on the topic to be discussed. Don’t push it on others, but offer to share it if others believe that will help accelerate discussion. More often than not they will.
- Set boundaries. Take responsibility for your time. If a meeting is notorious for starting late and running over, let people know when the meeting begins what your boundaries are. For example, you might say, “I understand we’re starting late but I have a commitment to the Murphy team I want to keep so I have a hard stop at 10:45 AM.”
- Trust your gut. Go public. Check with the group. Notice, honor and trust your gut. If you’re feeling lost, pay attention. If you’re feeling bored, notice it. There’s a good chance others are, too. Then, tactfully and tentatively share your concern. Don’t express it as truth; instead, own the fact that it is simply your experience. Next, check to see if others are feeling similarly. Here’s what that might sound like: “I’m not sure I’m tracking the discussion. We seem to be moving between three different agenda items. Are others seeing that, too?”
- Restate the less-than-obvious. If discussion is toggling between two or more problems, summarize the topics on the table and suggest the group tackle one at a time. For example, “I’m hearing points about both whether this is a good investment and when we should make the purchase. I think we’ve already made the purchase decision and timing is the only question. Is that right?”
- Ask the question no one’s asking. If a sacred cow is glaringly obvious, ask for confirmation of its existence. For example, “I’m getting from some of the comments that some of us question the wisdom of the original decision. Is that right?”
- Spot the weeds. Periodically point out digressions into unproductive detail or tangents. Everyone in the group is responsible for the group process so if you say nothing, you’re part of the problem. Say something like, “It sounds like we’re in agreement about the policy. It seems like rather than wordsmith it now, it might be better to have someone do a draft?”
- Clarify responsibilities at the end. It’s rare that someone in the meeting takes the time to summarize decisions and clarify commitments at the end. This usually only takes 60 seconds but saves hours in misunderstanding and future meetings. Even if you aren’t running the meeting, you can speak up and ask, “Can we take a second to summarize what we’ve agreed to and who will do what by when? Maybe I’m the only one who’s fuzzy but I want to be sure I follow through on my commitments.”
As I sat festering in my misery in traffic school I began to suspect I was not alone. I had 175 other classmates who might be playing victim right alongside me. So I checked my gut, went public, and checked with the person running the meeting.
“Officer, I’m anxious to hear the end of this story — however, I’m wondering what time class ends.”
He looked a bit uncertain. “I thought it ended at 9:30 PM.”
I heard an audible groan from my classmates.
“What time were you told it ended?” he inquired.
“8:30,” I said.
He looked at his watch. Then announced, “Class dismissed.” The cheers were audible. I felt like the valedictorian of the class.
本文选自哈佛商业评论，原文链接：https://hbr.org/2016/04/7-ways-to-stop-a-meeting-from-dragging-on，作者Joseph Grenny, 四届《纽约时报》畅销书作者，全球顶尖的商业绩效社会科学家。