Survey, after survey, after survey agrees -- meetings are a horrendous waste of time and everybody hates them.

But if every living soul in your office groans when a new meeting invite comes in, why do you still spend a significant portion of your week sitting in conference rooms?

Part of the answer is probably inefficient meeting practices. Some of the  problem could be alleviated by learning to run a fast and productive meeting. But some of these gatherings are beyond repair and simply shouldn't happen -- for you at least.

This last type of meeting can't be fixed with better logistics. They simply need to be eliminated from your schedule. Which is where you run into another big reason for the persistence of meeting bloat -- it's hard to say no to them. If the invite is from your boss, you don't want to insult the utility of the gathering. The same applies for a colleague, and clients can be the hardest to turn away of all.

But don't despair, it is possible to politely get out of meetings without offending anyone or looking lazy. On HBR recently, Liane Davey, co-founder of 3COze, offered specific suggestions based on common meeting issues.

 

1. When you're not ready for the meeting

Not because you're a slacker, of course, but because the team hasn't had enough time to research, think, prepare, etc. about the topics to be discussed. In this case, Davey suggests trying to postpone the gathering using language like: "This is an interesting topic. Based on our current year priorities, I'm not sure we're ready for a productive conversation yet. Would it be possible to push this meeting back and let the working group make a little more progress before we meet?"

2. When necessary people are missing

Sometimes you can spot a time-wasting meeting a mile away. For example, when all the relevant parties needed to make a decision won't be present, you know you definitely won't be leaving with action items in hand.

Highlight the issue to the inviter by saying something like this: "I'm looking forward to making some decisions on this issue. From the meeting invite, it doesn't look like Production [or whoever] is involved. I would like to wait until someone from Production is willing to join. Otherwise, we won't be able to make any decisions."

3. When you're the wrong person to contribute

Sometimes the problem isn't anything inherent in the planned meeting -- it's you. You simply don't know enough or aren't involved in the issue in the right way to usefully contribute. Davey offers this sample script for these situations: "I'm flattered that you are interested in my input. I don't believe I'm the best qualified on this topic. I did a little digging and it looks like Pat would have the necessary context. Would you be comfortable inviting Pat rather than me?" (Sorry, Pat.)

Alternately, you can kick the responsibility to attend down to a subordinate or up to your boss. In the complete post, Davey offers suggested language for these cases too.

4. When the timing is hugely inconvenient

In yet other cases, the meeting is well organized and you can contribute, but the timing of the meeting is just horrific for your productivity. Are you stuck? Nope, says Davey, who suggests you opt out but "take a few minutes to pull together some notes and to brief the chair or a suitable participant."

In responding to the invite, she offers this suggested language: "This is going to be an important discussion. I'm not able to attend, but I will find some time to share my thoughts so you can include them in the discussion."

5. When most of the meeting is irrelevant to you

How about when only one of five or ten agenda items at an upcoming meeting is relevant to you? Don't just sit there twiddling your thumbs through 80 percent of the discussion, advises Davey. Instead, make it clear that you'll be ducking out early, by responding to the invite something like this: "Would it be possible to cover the rebranding discussion as the first agenda item? I can't stay for the entire meeting but I'd really like to contribute on that one."

Of course, saying no isn't only difficult when it comes to meetings. You're likely to run into the same problem of ill-conceived or misdirected requests in other areas of your work life too. Thankfully, there's equally good advice out there on the exact way to nicely say no to other common office asks as well.

Published on: Jun 8, 2016