Meetings, it is said, are events where people "take minutes and waste hours". Well, normally, only one person takes the minutes (Protokoll führen), but lots of us feel that we waste hours in meetings of all sorts - formal, informal, in large groups or with just one other person, internal meetings or external appointments with clients, customers or service providers.
Recently, I asked a colleague at Spotlight Verlag if we could meet to discuss a new project. "Ian, could we make it tomorrow instead?" she replied. "I've been in meetings all morning, and now I'd like to get some work done." I knew what she meant, but the implication is that meetings aren't work. And when was the last time you heard someone scream with ecstasy, "Wow, fantastic! I've got another three-hour meeting to attend this week!"
A study by the Executive Time Use Project at the London School of Economics found that CEOs spent 18 hours of their average 55-hour week in meetings, or about a third of their time. In a report in The Wall Street Journal, one manager commented, "I don't know when I'm not in a meeting". Another said, "While you are sitting in a meeting, your competition is getting stuff done".
Active listening: Just grunt some cow noises
Yet, I believe that we have an unnecessarily negative view of meetings. I mean, think of all the opportunities they provide: you can have a snooze; you can read a good book while pretending to analyse the latest financial results; you can plan your shopping list, or simply daydream about friends or lovers. And all the time you're being paid. What exactly is your problem?
Just nod now and again and say things like, "I totally agree", "I'm not sure about that" or "Have we considered this from all possible angles?" Or, at the very least, grunt some feedback such as "aha", "hmm" or "uh huh" - what my colleague Ken Taylor calls "cow noises". I'm not joking, by the way, about this feedback: "active listening" is a key part of any conversation.
Despite all the negative feelings about meetings, they are "the lifeblood of organizations", as Deidre Boden described them in her book The Business of Talk. This means we have to make the best of them. Too often, meetings are badly planned and badly executed. I'm not excluding our Business Spotlight staff meetings here. At a recent one, there was a surreal moment when person A (I will protect the guilty here) thought we were talking about topic X; person B was talking about topic Y; person C was responding to topic Z; and I, as the chair, was slowly losing both my grip on reality and the will to live. All I could think of to say was, "So, shall we just end this meeting?" It worked.
The grace of chairity
The chair - otherwise known as the chairperson, chairman or chairwoman - has a key role to play. This includes organizing the agenda, making sure that all the points are covered, that someone is taking minutes and that the others don't waste hours. Useful phrases include the following:
Non-native speakers often feel that they are at a disadvantage in meetings with native speakers, who may dominate the discussion. So I'd like to offer you some help. First, I can reveal the most important word you need to know for meetings, because, according to research by Michael Handford for his book, The Language of Business Meetings, it is the most commonly used word in such contexts.
Are you ready? That vitally important word is "the". OK, maybe that's not very helpful, because "the" was also found to be the second-most frequent word in everyday conversations. But the word that is used much more in business meetings than in everyday conversations is "we". This is because we (!) often use the word inclusively to mean "everyone present" or "both companies", as well as exclusively to mean "our company", "our department", etc. So practise using "we" in your meetings rather than "I" (which is the most common word in everyday conversations).
An important part of meetings is giving and listening to opinions. The simplest way to say what you think is simply "I think that " or "I believe that ". Other useful phrases are "in my view" or "in my opinion". Try not to say "my meaning is".
How to make sure that your voice is heard
Typically, there is a difference between the way people agree and disagree. Agreement is often direct: "I agree"; "That's a good idea"; "Brilliant!" Disagreement, on the other hand, tends to be more indirect. The phrase "I disagree (with you)" often appears in textbooks, but it is rarely used. Instead, people tend just to say, "Yes, but " or "Yeah, but ". Other variations in meetings are:
So, try to soften your language when disagreeing, although again at Business Spotlight we don't always practise what we preach. When I asked for reactions to a proposal, this was the first comment:
Another important skill for non-native speakers is to be able to interrupt if necessary. Standard textbook phrases include, "Sorry to interrupt you, but " or "If I could just come in here". To make life easier, however, you could copy typical native-speaker behaviour and simply say, "Yes, but ", "Well, " or "OK, but " - and then pause before giving your view. To prevent someone from interrupting you, say, "Sorry, could I just finish this point".
If all else fails, here are two strategies you can adopt to make sure your voice is heard:
Finally, here are three tips for successful meetings from Adrian Furnham, professor of occupational psychology at University College, London, and a columnist for Business Spotlight:
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