Everyone loves to hate meetings. The fact is they are a core part of working within any organization. Gathering to discuss issues, develop options, and make decisions is often the most efficient way to get work done. Done well, meetings can help quickly clarify challenges, advance ideas, and lead to clear implementation plans.

Bad meetings are typically the result of a lack of a focus, agenda, or structure. And one of the best tools you can use to make sure you stay productive is agreeing on a set of meeting ground rules. Here are eight that I use on a regular basis.

1. Use Vegas rules

Like in Las Vegas, what happens in meetings should stay in the meeting. We don't keep this rule because we want to discuss people's dark secrets or talk ill of people who are not in the meeting, but because we want people to speak openly about what they think about the issues on the table. If people worry that something they say will come back to haunt them, they will be less likely to share. Keep things respectful, but agree that what is said will not leave the room without everyone's agreement.

2. Tackle issues, not people

Too often, when things get heated, people fall into the trap of ad hominem attacks. This only leads to people becoming defensive, taking intractable positions, and dragging in unrelated issues to counter attack. Instead, agree that the team should focus on finding solutions to the problem, not assigning blame and doling out punishment. I often use the phrase "don't make things personal, and don't take things personally" when setting the tone for the meeting.

3. Assume positive intent

I like everyone to agree to approach problems with the assumption that everyone involved is doing everything they can to help the organization. Even if their actions or decisions may look bone-headed in retrospect, assume everyone acted in good faith. It will help focus on finding future solutions rather than who's to blame.

4. Speak now, or forever hold your peace

Sometimes people are hesitant to speak up in meetings. As a facilitator, I do everything I can to remove barriers for people to be able to speak their minds, and I use techniques like silent brainstorming to accommodate different thinking styles. In return, I ask that people have the courage to say what they have to say during the meeting. I want to avoid situations where the group reaches a decision and the next day someone brings up a reservation they held onto, unwinding the hard work we put into reaching an agreement.

5. Own your own experience

You can lead a horse to water, but only they can drink. Same with meetings. Just bringing people together will not cause a meeting to happen. Each person needs to actively participate. This ground rule reminds people that if they want a great meeting, they need to engage and speak up.

6. Be present, or be elsewhere

When I come into companies with bad meeting habits, I'll often suggest they adopt a meeting optional policy to shake things up. It does two things. First, it forces the meeting organizer to run a good meeting with important topics so people actually come. Second, it means that anyone who shows up will be fully engaged, otherwise why bother attending.

7. Have one conversation

While I love heated debate and passionate discussion, chaos will ensue if people are having multiple conversations on top of each other. Insisting on one conversation at a time will allow everyone to fully participate and follow along. If you're dealing with a particularly unruly crowd, you can pull out the talking stick and pass it around to focus the conversation.  

8. Follow the 40 second rule

Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen, explains why some people tend to talk too much in meeting in this Harvard Business Review article How to Know If You Talk Too Much. He says that when someone talks more than 40 seconds, people begin to feel like they are hogging the floor. I encourage my teams to be aware of how long they've been speaking and find a way to hand it off to someone else after a half a minute or so.

While there are many other things that you need to run good meetings, these ground rules are an important place to start. To be most effective, don't foist them on your group. Discuss them and get full agreement on them before enforcing them. Agreement on the ground rules shifts the dynamic from you trying to control the meeting to you reminding others of the agreement they made.

Published on: Nov 8, 2018