Here’s How to Handle Difficult Meetings

As leaders we all know that feeling of not wanting to go to a difficult meeting and that we’d rather be anywhere else! It’s par for the job, so we must model calm, high standards and belief in the organisation’s purpose to keep the team on track and inspire them to greater things!

Sarah Gornall and Jenny Bird, co-authors of ‘How to Work with People… and Enjoy It!’, discuss below the vital considerations to make in company meetings.

What can we learn from others? And what’s just plain good sense?

Dissimilar though they are, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk both emphasise that thorough preparation is vital for effective meetings. Not showing up and winging it, either for the leader or team members. Bezos famously expects meetings to start with a study time, when everyone gathered reads and reflects on a carefully crafted 6-page memo which then informs the discussion. A good memo, he says, could take a week to write and rewrite. Musk’s first principle of running productive meetings is that everyone should come prepared – thoroughly versed in the subject area and ready to answer any pointed questions. And the leader should not expect others to work harder at this than they do themselves.

So as a baseline, prepare yourself and expect others to come prepared as well.

What to prepare? Certainly not just subject matter. Mind and strategy too.

Visualise a positive outcome. Know what success will look like. As people leave the meeting, what will they look and sound like? At tricky moments, focus on this picture and breathe. Only then speak. Your unconscious mind will have got into flow and will help you frame what you say towards achieving the outcome you desire.

Rehearse. Decide key messages in advance and rehearse them. Use a critical friend to feedback on your stance, expression, tone of voice, pace of delivery and the coherence of all these bodily clues with your words and intention until you are 150% ready.

Decide your boundaries. What would break the deal? What’s your acceptable range? Draw out a scale, mind map or diagram to show the boundaries of the ideal, satisfactory, acceptable and out of the question. Stick to your boundaries.

Map stakeholder influence. On a matrix of on-side/influence, map who is likely to champion your ideas, who likely to scupper them. Where is it worth putting most effort? Who might be in your blind spot? Decide where it’s worth putting the effort beforehand to get people on side and where others could champion the cause on your behalf.

Work out levers for influencing. Stand in the other people’s shoes. Where are they coming from? What motivates them? What do they fear? What clues might they give to what’s going on for them in the meeting? Note levers that could move them towards your desired outcome.

Identify triggers. identify aspects of other people’s behaviour and tactics that might trigger a negative reaction in you. Make a note of them: eg “manipulation”, “bullying”, “poor me”, “no time”… Be prepared to set them aside. Each time you notice one in a meeting, tick it mentally, let go of it and keep focused.

Seek Win-Win. Remember the framework for a win-win outcome. It’s normal that parties start in polarised positions. Find out what each one wants. What common ground is there? Keep your eyes on what may seem a far-off mutually desired purpose as you explore options, draw together, decide on a way forward and agree next steps.

Build the culture. Build trust in the team before meetings get tough. Expect all meetings to be/have: – clear agenda; right people; start on time; no devices; focus on business; breaks for energy. Draw up a charter for behaviour. Establish what people expect of themselves and each other, within the frame of organisational values and purpose. Review aspects in every meeting. When behaviour is not in line, call it out and request change.

Frame in advance. Plot psychological and strategic aspects as well as key messages. Mapping for example, “outcome”, “behaviour”, “hooks”, “refocusing strategies” “motivations” will help you be more aware and more at choice. Create diagrams of how the meeting might progress and how you could move away from danger zones towards the ideal.

Put it into action. Do what you prepared to do. Remember it’s a process. Stay calm. Breathe. Listen to others and be ready to learn from and with them. Model the behaviour you want. Match your progress against your diagrams and stage gates. Focus on the bigger purpose. Articulate the vision. Succeed!

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