Have you ever sat in a meeting, rolling your eyes and feeling like there’s nothing you can do to save this meeting? Have you wanted to say something to help the group focus, but couldn’t find a way to jump in? Have you felt lost or confused in a meeting, secretly waiting for someone else to voice your concerns?
If you’ve encountered any of these scenarios, you’re not alone. As a participant, it can be daunting to interject. Maybe you feel the meeting is not in your control. You may be worried about how others would respond. You may be waiting for the meeting leader or a “meeting hero” to change the dynamics. But what if nobody does anything?
Everyone contributes to the meeting’s success
“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”-- John F. Kennedy
Nothing will improve if we decided to silently deal with a sticky meeting situation rather than taking action. A meeting’s success is not one person’s responsibility. It requires the whole group to contribute their best. Sometimes that means stepping up regardless of your formal role in the meeting. Sometimes a gentle nudge, a thoughtful question, or a firm statement can help the group achieve what the meeting is set out for. When you’re a meeting participant, it might not be easy to intervene in the moment, but with proper tools and preparation, you’ll be able to influence meetings and move the conversation forward.
Be a participant, not just an attendee
Ideally, you’re invited to a meeting because you have a unique perspective, specific advice to share, or are a decision-maker. Whatever is required of you, be prepared to offer it to the group. Before the meeting, regardless of your role, ask yourself, “What value or ideas can I contribute to this meeting? How do I help the team achieve the meeting outcome?”
When you shift your mindset from being a passive attendee who must accept whatever comes, to an active participant who has the capacity and responsibility to shape the meeting process and dynamics in order to achieve desired outcomes, you begin to feel a sense of confidence that comes from taking ownership. Consider the meeting from the team’s perspective. Your participation and engagement are one of the key factors for success.
In addition to asking yourself what you bring to the meeting, you can offer proactive support to the meeting leader. Meeting leaders have a tough job of juggling multiple roles in a meeting. Reduce their mental workload while also ensuring a more productive meeting by suggesting you keep time, take notes, or help facilitate. Even without taking on a formal role, you can volunteer for these meeting responsibilities.
Influence meetings with questions
One way to get you started is to ask powerful questions. In our previous article, we share how questions invite reflection rather than reaction. Unlike statements, question tend to open up thinking. You can use questions to help the team explore new ideas, get unstuck or reflect on its assumptions.
For example, if a meeting conversation keeps spinning, you can remind the group of the situation and use your experience as a baseline by asking,
“I’m wondering if we’re missing some critical information. What information do we still need to help us come to a resolution?”
Or, if you notice some team members are not able to find a way to chime in, you can say,
“Holly, you seem like you have something on your mind. Would you mind sharing with us?”
Or, if you find yourself feel confused of what’s actually been decided, you can pose this question to the group:
“I’m not 100% sure whether we reached a final decision, can someone recap the decision we made and any next steps?”
To learn about questions you can use in different meeting scenarios, click here to read this article.
Don’t let power dynamics stop you from taking action
When you’re an active meeting participant, even with a sense of ownership of the meeting’s success, you still may not feel you have the authority to take action or shape the conversation. It’s common for power dynamics to play out in meetings. While it can feel risky to say something when no one else is voicing concerns, take comfort knowing it’s unlikely you’re the only one who feels the frustration. Start treading lightly by asking a thoughtful question to help the group reflect, or sharing your observation of what’s happening with the group and bring the “unsaid” to the table.
If it helps you feel more confident, share your intention clearly, eg:
“I am asking this question because I believe all of us want to walk out of this room feeling we accomplish what we set out to do.”
If you still don’t feel comfortable intervening during the meeting, consider talking to the meeting leader or other influential participants in advance to share concerns or get their buy-in for how you might help. Remember, your goal is to support the meeting leader to achieve the meeting’s desired outcomes, not to undermine or assume his or her authority. Let the meeting leader know that you have a shared goal: for everyone in the meeting to feel his or her time is well spent, including yourself, and to move work forward.
How have you influenced a meeting as a participant? What was the biggest challenge you encountered?