How to Improve Meetings When You’re Not in Charge

©2004, Esther Derby

This column originally appeared on

Are you tired of attending endless meetings where the conversation goes in circles and nothing gets done? Even if you can’t stand up and take control, you can nudge the meeting in the right direction from where you sit. Here are some strategies for improving the quality of meetings when you’re not in charge.

Ask for an agenda ahead of time. When you receive a meeting notice, ask for an agenda. Make your request in the spirit of the best use of everyone’s time: “Knowing the agenda will help me come prepared to participate.” You can also say, “Knowing the purpose of the meeting will help me determine whether I can contribute.”

Sometimes a request for an agenda is unsettling to the meeting convener probably because he hasn’t though through the purpose of the meeting. Your request may prompt him clarify in his own mind why he called the meeting. If you’re really lucky, he’ll realize he didn’t really need a meeting at all (it happens!).

Sometimes though, a meeting convener will insist that you must be there, even though he can’t provide an agenda. I’m a little skeptical when the meeting convener assures me that I need to be there but can’t articulate the purpose of the meeting. If you feel like its not political suicide, tell the meeting convener that you can’t assess the priority of his request against all your other work without an agenda.

Send only one person. Sometimes the person calling the meeting goes overboard to be inclusive. If two or more people from your group are asked to attend a meeting, check to make sure that all perspectives are really required. In many cases, one person can speak to the interests of the group and you can send a representative. One person can go spend an hour at the meeting and then report to the rest of the group. Fewer people will make the meeting easier to manage and the people from your group who don’t go will have a bit more desk time.

Politely decline the invitation. When you don’t have relevant knowledge and expertise to contribute or won’t be affected by the outcome of the meeting, bow out. Ask to be on the distribution list for meeting notes or other communication.

Offer to take notes. Some times when I talk to people after a meeting, its hard to believe we were in the same room. Taking notes can help. As a participant you can offer to help by taking notes. Bring your flip chart paper and a marker and take notes so that all can see. Taking notes in public ensures that every one agrees that what is written is what was said.

Facilitate from where you sit. A well-timed question or comment has saved many a meeting. Here’s a sampling of tactics that I use to facilitate from the back of the room. One word of caution about facilitating from the back of the room: Do this only if you genuinely want to be helpful. If you’re feeling snide, it will come across in your voice.

Request a review of the agenda. When you arrive at a meeting with an overstuffed agenda, make a request to review and prioritize the agenda: “I’m wondering if we have time to cover everything we need to in the time we have. Can we please review and prioritize the agenda before we start?”

Ask for a progress check. When you see that time is getting short, ask for a process check: “I’d like to check on our progress. Its 1:50 and we still have three topics on the agenda. Can we prioritize them since we can probably only do one in 10 minutes?”

Help others participate. You can help the meeting when you help others participate. If you see a quiet person trying unsuccessfully to break into the conversation, say “I think Jennifer has something to say.” Don’t force her to speak, but make an opening if she wants to take it. You can also help when a speaker is interrupted: “I think we may have cut Josh off before he had a chance to finish. Josh?” Then Josh can finish his though if he wants to, and the interrupters will be a bit more aware of their behavior.

Rephrase. Sometimes rephrasing can help when someone is stuck on one point: “What I hear you saying is XYZ. Is that right?” Rephrasing helps people feel heard and can break the logjam.

Comment on what you observe. Sometimes it helps to comment on what you observe: “I think we’ve covered that already,” can help get people moving again.

Summarize. Summarizing important points and decisions can help the group move forward. “Here’s what I heard us agree to. Is that right?” Don’t be upset if people disagree with what you’ve said you’ve just turned up the fact that people really don’t have a common understanding. Once you’ve surfaced the misunderstanding, it’s more likely to be resolved before everyone leaves the room.

You may not be able to solve every meeting problem when you’re not in charge. But you can help many meetings to run more smoothly. After a while, people may start following your cues: they’ll write an agenda, pay attention to whom they invite and start attending to the interaction. And you’ll look good, too.

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