Meetings Matter by Paul Axtell
I finished this book in November 2022. I recommend this book 10/10.
This book is the field manual for how to make meetings productive. The book provides practical information about running meetings—and, equally important, how you should participate in meetings when you are not the leader. A section breaks down the different types of meetings you participate in or lead and the kind of questions for those specific meetings. This book is super helpful if you, like me, have more than a handful of weekly meetings.
Get your copy here.
My notes and thoughts:
P4. The way to start is straightforward. Choose something to look for in every meeting. For example, consider these possibilities:
Listen for the moment when a conversation goes off track, and then gently guide it back to the subject at hand.
Look for who is indicating they would like to get into the conversation and invite them in.
Notice when someone interrupts: what happens to the conversation and to the person who was interrupted.
Listen for when clarity is missing, and ask a question that causes clarity to emerge.
Pay attention to whether specific actions are agreed upon after a discussion.
P4. When you notice something that isn't working or that is missing, in the moment, you can choose to do something different. Awareness creates the opportunity for different responses—the choice to say or do something else—and therein lies the power of noticing.
P26. These are the fundamental practices for effective conversations:
Listen in a way that encourages others to keep speaking.
Be responsible for your speaking: be aware of what you say and how you say it.
Notice when one of these aspects of an effective conversation is missing: clarity, candor, commitment, or completion.
P30. Try this:
For the next week, stop and devote your full attention to everyone who speaks to you.
Allow people to finish without interruption.
Be slower to offer solutions or advice.
P33. The four Cs of conversation:
Clarity: means everyone understands what is being said in the same way.
Candor: means everyone says what they think. It means being authentic, honest, and straightforward.
Commitment: means you agree on who will take what actions and in what time frame after the conversation.
Completion: means everything that needs to be said or asked has been expressed before moving on to the next topic.
P35. Try this:
In your meetings for the next week, observe conversations for clarity.
Whenever you notice yourself wondering what someone else means, ask for clarity.
P36. Master these two questions, which are designed to elicit ideas, concerns, and questions as well as personal views, and their people's stand on an issue:
"What do you think?"
"Where are you on this?"
P38. Check for completion. This means not leaving a conversation until all parties are ready to end the discussion.
"What else would anyone like to add or ask about this?"
"Are there any lingering questions about this?"
"I'm ready to change topics; are you good with where we are?
P41. Try this:
After each meeting, reflect on what you said and how you said it, taking notes of your observations or insights.
Look for examples of how words shape the world for you and others.
P51. Focus on these four practices to develop relationships during the meeting:
Build some time in at the beginning for people to reconnect. Let people know you will be there fifteen minutes before the meeting starts. Then said aside ten minutes at the outset of the meeting and invited several people to share what was going on in their lives.
Be thoughtful about getting more people into each discussion. Invite people who have not spoken yet. Call on people who may have a different views or who can help add clarity to the conversation.
Ensure the group is attentive when each person speaks. Set up guidelines about technology and side conversations. If the group is distracted, ask the person who is speaking to wait a moment until people are ready.
Acknowledge the participation and value-added when people contribute. Use people's names. Note when they offer a view that wasn't in the conversation previously. Acknowledge then they cause you to think differently.
P51. Consider working the room to cover all the conversations before and after a meeting that allows you to meet and reconnect with people. This is not a skill set reserved for politicians and CEOs. It's a skill anyone will benefit from. Here is how to work the room in meetings:
Arrive early and stay late.
Greet people as they arrive.
Ask people to share about things that matter to them.
Use people's names. And ask if you don't remember. Confident people acknowledge when they've forgotten: "I'm sorry, I don't remember your name."
Make notes on people you meet and what you discuss.
P54. Try this:
Listen for what you can learn about people in each meeting.
Notice the response of others when you are intentional about connecting with them.
Leave each meeting with the name of someone with whom to follow up.
P64. Try this:
Listen in a way that honors each person who speaks. Devote yourself to each of the conversations in which you participate. Hold back your questions, and just listen. Use the phrase, "Tell me more." Stay silent when people finish a thought to see if they start speaking again.
Recover the lost art of checking in with people. Ask people about their interest, their projects, their travels, and their kids. It doesn't take much time. Ask a question, and then listen for three or four minutes.
Learn to work the room. For many people, working the room and interacting with others in a wonderful, gracious way does not come naturally. That's fine, but it doesn't excuse you from getting good at this if you work in an organization.
Keep track of your relationships. Maintaining a journal of people you meet and your conversations with them will help you remember.
Reconnect with two people each week.
P71. I was there to ask him to speak at a leadership seminar. He pulled open his desk drawer and took out a list, "I appreciate the invitation. I'm sure the seminar is worthwhile. But this is how I decide where I am going to put my time and energy. This is my list of imperatives for the year. If you can show me how speaking at your event will forward one or more of these imperatives, I'll do it. If you can't, I won't."
P73. What merits time on the agenda? What are the conversations we as a group need to have? Given what this group is expected to accomplish and given what we think we might produce by working together in a remarkable way, what should we be discussing?
Discussing strategic topics.
Discussing complex issues.
P74. A good guideline is two meaningful topics per hour. If a topic warrants the time and attention of the talent in the meeting, then it deserves enough time to do thorough work. You must have enough time to discuss the topic, reach alignment, and agree on the next steps.
P75. Here's a suggestion: Keep the meeting on the calendar as scheduled. Then each week, determine whether you have a good reason for the meeting. If not, cancel. If yes, limit the meeting to the amount of time needed to discuss the topic that requires the group's attention. When you cancel or shorten the meeting, everyone will appreciate the time you've given them back to focus on their individual work.
P77. Discussing something in groups of four or five is easy. If you go beyond eight, people become more careful in what they say, and there is simply less time for everyone to speak. Expand this to twenty, and you can see the problem.
P90. To begin your design process, each item on the agenda should be examined to determine the following:
Who is the owner?
What are the desired outcomes?
How much time is required?
What input do you seek?
What is the best process?
What preparation would be helpful?
Who should lead the conversation?
What group size and structure?
P96. Setup elements for each topic:
What do you want to produce?
Where do you want to be at the end of the discussion?
What input are you seeking from participants?
What is needed to bring people up to speed?
Why are we having this conversation?
Any concerns you have coming in?
Any concerns you expect participants might have?
What process steps will we use?
How much time will we allow for this conversation?
Do we need to track this conversation visually (charts)?
How will we capture and share this conversation (summary)?
P99. Process steps for checking progress:
Where do we stand on this project?
What questions does the group have about where the project stands?
Is our progress to date where we intend it to be?
What concerns, ideas or reactions do we have?
What are the next steps or actions we should take?
When does it make sense to schedule the next progress update?
P100. Process for requesting input:
Here's the situation.
These are my thoughts about the situation.
What do you think? Questions? Ideas? Concerns?
What else? (Please keep adding to the conversation.)
Anything else? ( I sense everything has been expressed.)
OK, here's what I've heard.
Here's what I suggest we do.
Is everyone OK with this?
P103. Process for responding to a problem:
What do we know?
What questions are to be answered?
What criteria should shape our response?
What are our options?
Are there other thoughts?
What will we do? What are the next steps?
P105. Process steps for starting a project:
What have we committed to do?
What specifically are the outcomes?
What's the timeline?
What milestones make sense?
What will it take to produce this?
What relationships should we ensure are in place?
What actions will get us off to a great start?
When should we check in with how the startup is going?
P107. Process for making a decision:
This is the decision we face.
Who has decision rights?
How should we decide? What are the objectives and criteria?
What option do we have?
What are the benefits and risks of each?
What is our decision?
Is everyone OK with this decision?
How do we communicate this?
What are the next steps?
P109. Process for creating alignment:
Here's what I'd like to do.
What thoughts or questions do you have?
Is this clear? Does it make sense?
Is it worth doing?
Is there anything in the way of your supporting this?
Is there anything missing that would help?
If we address these items, will you align?
P112. Process steps for closing a conversation:
Check for completion:
Is there anything else to be said or asked?
Check for Alignment:
Is everyone OK with where we ended up?
Is anyone not able to live with this?
Is there something missing or in the way that, if addressed, would allow you to align?
Check for commitment:
What happens next?
Who will do what by when?
When do we follow up?
Who will keep track of progress between meetings?
Identify and express value:
What did we produce?
What are we taking away from this conversation?
Is there anyone in the meeting we should acknowledge?
Is there anyone not present who should be acknowledged?
P113. Because managers are unlikely to prepare for the meeting, they appreciate it when you do.
P115. Try this:
For two weeks, listen for the setup on every topic and assess whether it was adequate.
For two weeks, listen for the elements of closure and assess whether the wrap-up for each topic was adequate.
Set aside fifteen minutes to prepare for each of your next five one-on-one meetings and see if you notice a qualitative difference in how they work.
P116. Leading Virtual meetings:
Devote more time to allow people to connect in the beginning.
Consider adding process steps for clarity in the agenda for each topic.
Make sure you keep track of who has not spoken and make sure everyone is heard.
Reflect back to people to verify that you understood what they said. Refer to people by name.
Call on people. Call on people. Call on people.
Get a summary out of the meeting within a few hours via Slack.
P117. Participating in Virtual meetings:
Don't leave something you need to say or ask unexpressed.
P121. Meetings are too important not to be working to take them to the next level of effectiveness. In fact, meeting skills should be at the heart of every leadership training program. Organizations often bring in a facilitator to lead important meetings, and for strategic meetings or retreats, this makes sense if expertise does not reside within the group. However, it makes even more sense to build this expertise into the group. All of your meetings would benefit, and the greatest leverage lies in the meetings that happen day in and day out.
P123. The essence of leading an effective meeting includes sharing with your group how you intend to lead it, asking for the permission you need to manage the conversation, and establishing agreements with the group for working together.
P124. You might ask the group's permission to do any of the following:
Pull the group back if the conversation goes off track.
Remind the group if distractions get to be an issue.
Call on people to enrich the conversation.
Ask for specific commitments for the next steps.
You might remind participants that they have permission to do any of the following:
Ask for clarity at any time.
Invite others to speak.
Suggest a change in the process steps.
Point out when the conversation goes off track.
P130. If the conversation has veered from the intended path:
"I'd love to stay with this conversation, but I think we should get to the agenda."
"It seems to me that we are in a different conversation than we intended; do we want to stay with this new conversation or get back on track?"
"This sounds like an idea we should note and revisit at another time. Is that OK with everyone?"
P137. Bottom line: If you stop reading this book right now and spend the next three weeks closing every conversation in a deliberate, thoughtful way, you will see immediate shifts in what gets done. This extends way beyond meetings. as a manager, if you take time for the process step whenever someone meets with you one-on-one, the conversation and what happens, as a result, will shift dramatically.
P138. When you wrap up a conversation by sharing something you are taking away from it, you validate not only the conversation but the other person involved in it. Plus, if you know you plan to express value at the end, you will listen for and actually see more value.
P140. If you want anything in life to happen, you must follow up, follow up, and follow up. Persistence is a key influence skill.
P151. Take care of people. Taking care of people begins by listening. This is how you, as a person leading the conversation, take care of people when they speak.
P152. Manage the conversation to balance participation levels. You can make an exponential difference in the success of your meetings by managing the way people participate in the conversation.
P153. Invite people to speak. Many people will not speak if you leave it completely up to them.
P161. Try this:
Focus on critical variables for managing the conversation:
Has the conversation veered off track?
Has each conversation been taken to completion with the next steps identified?
Was everyone taken care of during the conversation?
P167. Most of us walk into a meeting concerned about one person—ourselves. We're not usually looking out for the other participants or thinking about how to support the person leading the meeting. We sit where we feel most comfortable, and we speak when we feel like it or not at all. Looking out for ourselves is normal and will always be part of who we are. Still, as a perspective, it dooms us to be less than brilliant—to squandering value we might add. On the other hand, if we walk into meetings with a focus on supporting others and doing whatever we can to ensure the meeting turns out well, we will see opportunities to do both.
P169. Practice focused listening. "An example of a system well managed is an orchestra. The various players are not there as prima donnas—to play loud and attract the attention of the listener; in fact, sometimes you see a whole section doing nothing but counting and watching. They're there to support each other. That's how business should be." W. Edwards Deming.
P169. Focused listening has four components: paying attention, having patience, being nonjudgemental, and choosing to listen for something in particular in every meeting.
P170. Be attentive: Go into every meeting prepared to devote yourself to each person in the conversation. His level of attention will always add value to your meetings—in fact, to all of your conversations. As you focus on listening in meetings, you will notice that most people end up speaking directly to you, making eye contact with you because they naturally move their focus to the person paying attention to them; in a world of multitasking and technology, you might be the only person in the room truly listening.
P171. Multitasking has no place in meetings. You may think you are able to follow a conversation as you do something else. But your mind does not actually hear and think two things at the same time. It simply switches back and forth very fast. The moment you look at your smartphone and read the text, you miss what is said in the meeting.
P172. Be patient: A saying that has served me well when waiting in life—in airports, in traffic—is there is no place to get to. It's also a perfect companion to being attentive. When you are listening, set aside your impulse to jump into the conversation. Wait for the other person to finish. There will be plenty of time to ask a question or make a comment when the other person is finished. Slow down and stop anticipating when you might get a chance to speak.
P173. Be nonjudgemental: "In true dialog, people learn to listen to one another, to hear each other's ideas without judgment—for people to realize what is on each other's minds without coming to any conclusions or judgments." David Bohm.
P174. Try this:
Listen for what others are interested in or care about.
Listen for the value being created in the conversation.
Listen for what each person is dealing with in his or her area.
Listen for what you appreciate about each person.
P175. Be clear: It's easy to compliment someone on doing a good job, but it's far more impactful to list three specific things you liked about what they did. Or you might share your concern that employees feel as if no one cares about them, but you add clarity when you express what exactly they are saying, doing, or not doing that gives you that impression.
P176. Be concise:
Set up your speaking. Saying " I have two points to make" not only tells people what is coming, it helps you organize your speaking.
Provide only enough explanation to achieve clarity. Add extra detail or examples only if someone asks for them. Make your point, and then look at your audience to see if anyone needs clarification. Adding unnecessary examples wastes time. Adding an explanation that isn't asked for can be interpreted as being defensive.
An exception: Sometimes, you may want to say something in a meeting without the constraint of being concise. You may not be sure exactly what your point is or how best to say it. That's fine. Just set up your speaking with the group before you start: "With your permission, I'd like to think out loud for a minute or two."
P177. Is it OK if I don't speak? Not everyone has to speak in every meeting or as often as others. You want to be thoughtful and responsible for how you contribute to the conversation. Still, if you don't usually speak up in meetings, you owe it to yourself—and the group—to consider these questions:
Do I have ideas I am not contributing?
Do I have insights or thoughts about improving the group process that would be useful if expressed?
Are there times when I am not aligned with where the group ends up in a conversation, yet I am not expressing my perspective?
Do others in the group have a sense that I'm actively participating?
P177. Try this:
Listen for opportunities to contribute to the conversation.
Notice when you have an idea to share, but don't speak up.
P186. Helping the group set up a conversation properly is a powerful way of adding value to the meeting:
"Before we get into this topic, could you explain where you want to be at the end of the discussion?"
Sarah, is there something specific that you are looking for from us?"
P186. Notice what's missing and provide it:
"I'm struggling to make sense of our conversation and wonder if someone could summarize the conversation for me at this point."
"I would appreciate hearing from some folks who will be impacted by this discussion."
P189. "Ask your questions because then you may elicit answers that someone else desperately needs. Discuss your doubts because by doing so, you may allow others to share theirs." Jaida n'ha Sandra.
P189. Try this:
After each meeting for the next two weeks, reflect on what you said, how you said it, and what impact your comments had on the group conversation.
Reflect on what you bring to a particular meeting or group:
What do people rely on you for?
What do they appreciate about their interactions with you?
Begin to observe people who speak in a way you admire. What is it about what they say or how they say it that elicits respect?
P197. "One day, I decided to help wherever I could & it was almost like magic because I was exactly what the world needed everywhere I went." Brian Andreas
P204. Be responsible for everyone's success. It also means doing whatever it takes to have the group be successful rather than putting all of your energy into your own agenda. Start with noticing how people are doing and offering your support when you think it will be useful. Recognize that the group is not successful unless each individual in it is successful. The beauty of this is that, by focusing on each other's success, you end up advancing your own.
P215. Key variables for designing and leading meetings:
Have permission to manage the conversation.
Give everyone the freedom to say or ask anything.
Have a clear outcome defined for each topic.
Be clear about the process to be followed.
Have one conversation at a time with one person speaking at the time.
Ensure everyone else is listening and paying attention.
Take care of everyone throughout the conversation.
Take each conversation to completion and the next steps.
P215. Key variables for participating in meetings:
Be clear about outcomes and process steps.
Ask for what you need to participate effectively.
Practice focused speaking and be self-expressed. Practice focused listening.
Take care of people; notice who is not yet in the conversation.
Commit to specific actions.
P215. Try this:
Use each meeting as an opportunity to develop meeting mastery. In every meeting for a series of ten, pick something to look for from the list above. Make notes on what you notice. Then pick something else for the next ten meeting, and so on.
P222. Try this:
In meetings, split your note-taking paper into two sections. Use the left-hand two-thirds for notes on the topics that are discussed. Use the right-hand third of the page to record your insights about the meeting process.
P226. Try this:
Don't allow yourself to do other work in a meeting or take anything into the meeting that might distract you.
Keep side conversations to a minimum.
Create three blocks of time each week for uninterrupted work.
Replace the "smart" technology gadgets that connect you with (and pull you into) the world outside the meeting with a small paper notebook to record your insights.
P229. Getting better at meetings—or anything in life—takes work. And give yourself a break. You won't get to where you want to be overnight. The beauty of working on meetings is that you have opportunities almost daily to put ideas into practice as you learn.
P234. "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Maya Angelou.
P236. After observing a group as they discussed a number of issues, I suggested they try the simplest design I know for reaching an agreement:
Ask: "Where are you with this?"
Ask, "What else?"
Ask someone else in the group: "Where are you on this issue?"
Ask: "What else?"
Close: "Okay, here's what I am taking away from this conversation..." (briefly state your takeaways) Does that make sense? Listen for understanding. Clarify briefly if necessary. "Thank you."
P238. "We need to stop giving advice. We hire people for their thinking. We should provide the 'guardrails' for their decision-making and then let them own and run their part of the business. When they get close to the guardrails, then they owe their manager a conversation." Paul Garcia.
P238. Here is the perspective for managers to take on these complaints (and this may surprise you): Their expressions of interest. Most people want to be actively engaged with their managers. And if people are complaining, it means they haven't given up—they still hope that speaking up will make a difference. Now, in most work settings, we haven't trained people on how to complain in a powerful way, so look past how it sounds. Assume that people have their hearts in the right place. Questions don't equal resistance or opposition.
P241. Just listening and appreciating where they are coming from is a contribution to people. Even though people seem to want certainty and answers, what they really need is a chance to be heard and clarity about what has happened or is going to happen. People won't always thank you for listening or let you know that your conversation with them made a difference. Trust me. It does.
P265. Remember: "Everyone is a little scared and a whole lot proud. And if you remember this, you'll be better with people."
P278. Process steps for setting goals for the year:
What have we specifically been asked to produce by the organization or our customers and stakeholders?
What is expected even though no one has asked?
What else do we know we could do, and no one is asking us?
What do we think we might be able to do but can't guarantee?
On our best days, what do we sometimes allow ourselves to dream about doing?
Now, given everything we have listed, what is it we will publicly commit to doing this year?
P280. Process steps when checking in with your group:
Here's where we are going as an organization.
Here's where we need to focus right now.
What support do you need for your work?
What support do you need personally?
Is there anything you'd like to know or ask me about?
P283. Process steps for reviewing accomplishments:
Began with these broad questions:
What should we be very proud of?
What have we produced, discovered, or made possible?
Where and with whom have we made a difference?
Individually and collectively, what should we feel good about?
What have we made possible that wasn't before?
What new thinking do we have?
What new systems and structures have we created?
What have we learned? How are we different?
What limits and problems have we uncovered?
What would our stakeholders say we have accomplished?
What new capabilities do we have as individuals and as an organization?
How have we improved how we work together?
P312. Conversational checklist for managers.
P314. Speaking checklist.
P316. Influence practices checklist.