Tim is working towards equity partnership in a city law firm, “I struggle to make myself heard in meetings with senior partners. They are dominant and loud. I don’t want to talk for the sake of it yet I am considered to be too quiet. How can I make an impact?”
Anna is in her first management role and keen to do well. She is unused to management meetings and lacks confidence in her new role “I am nervous that I won’t be able to answer questions and will appear out of my depth”.
Chris has spent most of his career in the lab but following a recent promotion is expected to attend an increasing number of meetings, “one of the regular project meetings is attended by two particularly difficult senior people who are combative and aggressive. I can’t avoid the meetings but am worried that I won’t keep my cool”.
Tim, Anna and Chris received one-to-one coaching to develop their skills and achieve their specific performance goals, utilising their own styles and strengths. From each case, some common themes emerge which can be addressed as follows:
Before the meeting
- Be clear as to the purpose of the meeting. What is the agenda? What are your goals, i.e., what should you be contributing to the meeting and what do you want to get from it?
- Be clear as to the structure of the meeting - timings, the running order of agenda items, etc.
- Prepare appropriately: Gather any material, information or data you may need. Think about what you will say and when you will say it. Be sure to allocate sufficient time in your diary for this activity.
- Find out who the other attendees will be.
At the meeting
- It may sound trite but be sure to turn up to the meeting on time (how many meetings do you attend which are delayed because of the poor timekeeping of others?) Rushing to get to a meeting, and arriving late can put you under unnecessary stress. Arriving panting and out of breath does not look professional or leave you feeling confident. It is also inconsiderate to others...
- According to the formality of the meeting there may be a brief period of time before the meeting starts for "small talk" which gets everyone interacting and "warmed up". This can be valuable to you in many ways. If you are anxious about speaking in meetings this provides a good opportunity to use your voice.
- Get seated and take a short time to arrange your papers in front of you and to "use your space" - use your posture and body language to convey confidence and assertiveness (sit straight and slightly relaxed with arms comfortably in front of you, do not shrink into the chair or lounge around).
- Look confidently at the other meeting attendees, making good eye contact with them (but don't stare).
- As you settle into your space, remind yourself of your focus points (i.e., what do I want to contribute and take away from this meeting?) Ideally you will have these goals written down in front of you.
- Listen to what is said, taking notes where appropriate, and follow the direction of the chairperson if there is one. Build constructively on comments and ideas made by others.
- When you wish to make a comment or where it is your "turn" to speak, your prior preparation should ensure that you will be succinct and focused in what you have to say and clear in what you are communicating. If you wish to check that others have understood you, ask them to confirm their understanding or rephrase the point and be explicit in clarifying/agreeing any resulting actions. Be clear about what you are requesting.
- When you find it hard to interject or to make yourself seen or heard in a meeting, a number of tactics can be used ranging from changing your body language (e.g., leaning forward, raising your hand, moving your papers, etc) to making a more forceful vocal interjection. Watching others in meetings to see what they do can be instructive in these situations.
- Try to ensure that your attention is maintained and that you do not get distracted (at best, when you are bored or distracted, ensure that your body language does not give that away).
- If an appropriate place has not been provided in the meeting for you to raise your points, ensure that you raise them during the AOB section at the end.
- If a meeting becomes heated and you find yourself becoming very angry, anxious or otherwise stressed, paying attention to a relaxed posture and slowing your breathing down can help while you gather your thoughts and refocus on your meeting goals. In more 'extreme' situations, removing yourself from the situation for a brief period with a 'comfort break' can be very valuable in calming you down and thinking through your approach.
- Where you feel 'put on the spot' without an answer to a question, don't be tempted to 'wing it' and risk getting it wrong. It is usually far better to state confidently that you don't have that information to hand or that you are seeking clarification on one or two points, and that you will get back to them promptly (state when and be sure to do so). Check that they are happy with that and ensure that you follow up. Where appropriate, make a mental note for next time to enhance your pre-meeting preparation. Be sure to record accurately any actions you have agreed to undertake.
After the meeting
- Ensure that you complete all actions assigned to you fully and on time.
- Reflect on your meeting goals and assess the extent to which you have achieved them. If you have not achieved them all in full, think about why that is, and what you will do to correct the situation.
- Finally, reflect on your behaviour in the meeting. Does it accurately reflect the professional “you” you aspire to be? If it doesn’t, think about what you can do differently next time. Trusted colleagues can be a useful source of feedback, if you have them.
In short, you must start by being clear about what you want and how you will get it:
- Focus on your goals
- Behave courteously and assertively
- Follow up
** All names and identity-related information in this article have been changed to maintain client confidentiality