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How to keep meetings productive
How to keep meetings productive

According to research from the Annenberg School of Communications at UCLA and the University of Minnesota’s Training and Development Research Center, executives on average spend 40% to 50% of their working hours in meetings. With this much of your time invested, you want to ensure that meetings are positively productive and deliver results. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to derail a meeting. Here’s how to keep your meetings on track.

  • Learn to recognize the big offenders.
    Review the list of attendees and identify people who typically ramble, show off, naysay, criticize, argue, and so on. If you know one or more people with these behaviors will be in attendance, be prepared to handle them.
  • Send out a prioritized agenda.
    The agenda is the most important tool you have for keeping a meeting on track. Make sure it identifies the purpose of the meeting, prioritizes the items from most important to least important, and includes an estimated time allocation for each item.
  • Start the meeting on time.
    Start the meeting on time even if people are late. When your meetings always start on time, people who are chronically late quickly learn to show up on time for your meetings.
  • Focus on the agenda.
    Immediately review the purpose for the meeting and the agenda and gain agreement from everyone.
  • Establish ground rules.
    State the ground rules—no side conversations, one person speaks at a time, use good listening skills, stick to the agenda, and so on. Take charge of the meeting immediately when someone breaks a ground rule.
  • Control time.
    As each agenda item comes up, state the time allotted to it and use a reminder of some kind to let speakers know when they have five minutes left. Often just holding up your hand with your fingers splayed works. If someone goes over time, raise your hand in a stop gesture, thank the person for their contribution, and state that you must move on to the next item or speaker.

What do you do if someone becomes disruptive, unruly, or rude? One unruly person can quickly disrupt things and take your meeting off track.

Always start by referring to the ground rule that is being broken and stay focused on the person’s behavior, not their personality. Start with a soft admonishment and then get firmer, if necessary. Here are some tools to help you handle specific disruptive and unruly behaviors.

  • Side conversations: If people are having side conversations, ask them to share with the group or to continue the conversation after the meeting.
  • Arguing: If people are arguing heatedly, pointedly ask them to stop and take a breath. You’re a meeting leader, not a referee, so insist on proper behavior and communication.  People are free to disagree in a respectful manner.
  • Rambling: If a discussion goes off course, bring the conversation back to the agenda item. If something comes up that is not on the agenda, and it needs to be addressed, put it in a “parking lot”—captured on a flip chart—to be handled after the meeting.
  • Know-it-alls: If you have a know-it-all in attendance, give them a short slot on the agenda, so they can show off their knowledge within time constraints.
  • Naysayers: If someone always nay-says or is constantly critical, ask them to research best practices for making it work and report the results of their research at the next meeting.
  • Long-winded speakers: If someone hogs the conversation, wait until they take a breath and then quickly jump in by saying, “These are great points. Let’s hear what everyone else thinks about this” and call on someone else to speak. As a last resort, be firm and insist that the meeting move along.

Keeping meetings on track and managing unruly behavior means that you will accomplish more and be more positively productive at meetings. Plus you will gain a reputation for holding effective meetings that don’t waste people’s time!