For 35 years I’ve prided myself on running pretty good meetings. I keep people on the topic, complete the task, ensure everyone has a chance to contribute (even those shy or anxious members), and focus on action outcomes with accountability. But it doesn’t take much for a meeting leave the tracks and plunge into the icy waters below.

In fact, all it takes is forgetting to surface the hidden expectations and assumptions that everyone is carrying when they enter. I had to learn that again recently when I led a meeting to make some policy recommendations for the Center.

On the surface the meeting went well. Everyone spoke, although some more than others. One of the members had written a memo that sparked the meeting, so that person contributed more than others, but that would be expected, wouldn’t it? We’d had over a week of a virtual data collection process in which a wide range of other professional staff had been invited to write their experiences or expert advice. I asked that each person open the meeting with any concerns they’d like to raise and then we proceeded on the basis of proposals. We got them all covered in the two hours allotted and I took the results and wrote a summary.

So, how did I know that the meeting was a flop? Every member of the group (and a few other colleagues) called or wrote me after the meeting with a proposal to either strengthen or revise the recommendations I’d collected in the summary.

Why weren’t these raised in the meeting? Of course, it’s possible some people hadn’t really given the issue enough attention in the days leading up to the meeting. However, when I questioned those who communicated later, I found that a whole set of hidden assumptions had sunk our little ship:

1.    “Doug, I expected that you, as an expert in this, would have spoken up more.”

2.    “I didn’t want to be seen as just pushing my own agenda.”

3.    “I didn’t feel like getting into an open conflict with ______.”

4.    “I don’t think I really understood what was being asked of us.”

They all seem reasonable issues to me. They should have been addressed in the meeting.

So, what are the lessons I’m taking from this?

1.    When everyone’s attention is stretched thin, it may take two meetings: one to get participants to really focus and understand the issues and context, and another to knock out something that can stand.

2.    Taking time to get clear about the purpose of the meeting, the roles to be played by each of the participants, and the group norms can save a lot of time later.

3.    I should trust my gut. If I’m feeling hurried or anxious or frustrated, there’s a good chance I’m responding to something emerging in the group. Take time to figure out what it is and if I can’t figure it out, ask the group.

Why is it that the hardest lessons to learn are the ones we have known all along?

Good luck with  your meetings,


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