"Meetings are, in essence, a series of conversations, and effective conversation is like a puzzle with all the pieces in place. Improving your meetings by improving your conversations is not mysterious, but the impact can be dramatic."
If you’re like the rest of us, a typical workweek consists of meeting after meeting after meeting with several meetings added—at the last minute, of course—into any remaining gaps in your calendar.
In Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, Paul Axtell doesn’t expend energy bemoaning the prevalence of meetings. Instead, he makes them seem less, well, meeting-like by zeroing in on what they’re ultimately all about: conversations and relationships.
In Axtell’s words, “each person, each conversation, and each moment are what really matters.” As a result of this gracious, empathetic mindset, his advice throughout the book is practical without ever seeming prescriptive or, worse, manipulative.
To hammer home his point that better conversations lead to better relationships, he shares a story from his childhood. Each Christmas, his grandmother, Esther, had one demand: at some point, everyone had to spend two hours in the same room taking turns talking about whatever came to mind.
If we approach each meeting the way Esther approached the holiday, we’ll enjoy successful meetings—and greater success in everyday life.
Master everyday conversations
"We work on specialized conversations—presentation skills, negotiating skills, sales approaches, conflict resolution. We have not focused on the everyday conversations that make up most of our life—catching up with each other, exchanging commitments, showing appreciation, sharing concerns, making decisions."
Someone once told me that public speaking will always be intimidating if I’m not working on eye contact and other basic presentation skills every night with my family over the dinner table.
Paul Axtell has similar advice about meetings. If we master everyday conversation skills, we can improve our meetings. He outlines four basic elements of effective conversation: clarity, candor, commitment and completion.
- Clarity is about making sure everyone leaves a conversation without confusion about what was really said and meant.
- Candor is “not about saying anything and everything that occurs to you.” Instead, it’s about saying what needs to be said if there will ever be alignment.
- Commitment takes a conversation beyond mere discussion to make sure everyone agrees on what will happen next.
- Completion is sticking with a topic long enough for everything to be said that needs to be said.
If we can master these elements when deciding where to vacation next summer, we’ll be better prepared to make every professional meeting matter.
Develop a system to track relationships
"This is not about getting ahead. This is not about manipulating people. This is simply a way to remember and add value to important business relationships. And ultimately this is about making it easy for them and for you to be effective when you work together."
If we want to master everyday conversations—in professional settings or elsewhere—we really should know who we’re talking to. We need to know and care about each other’s joys, frustrations and challenges. If we don’t, our conversations will suffer and our time in meetings will be misspent.
In Axtell’s opinion, a great way to build supportive relationships is to develop a tracking system. While that may sound gimmicky, our culture bombards us with too much information to pretend this can be done any other way.
To stress this point, Axtell shares a pre-internet story about a successful rancher. For more than fifty years, this man kept a detailed diary of every person he met and what was talked about. Not because he had a grand scheme to sell anything. Because he cared.
Once we have a system, Axtell suggests we reconnect with two people each week. And he offers this Dale Carnegie quote to keep our motivations pure: “You can make more friends in two months by being interested in other people than in two years of trying to get people interested in you.”
Game-plan each conversation
"If you love sports, you might think of the design for a meeting as similar to having a good ‘game plan.’ A team with a good game plan will not only be more likely to succeed, but the game will also be more enjoyable for those participating."
In the above quote, Axtell uses a word that’s not often associated with meetings: enjoyable. Is it wrong to expect our meetings to be enjoyable for everyone who’s in the room, on the call or reading the follow-up notes after it’s over?
To make meetings matter (and be more enjoyable), Axtell encourages us to take an active role in designing the conversation. How will it start? Where will it end? What will happen in between?
After evaluating the content of hundreds of meetings, he discovered that six conversation designs cover most:
- Checking progress on projects, goals, or initiatives
- Requesting input from the group
- Responding to a problem
- Starting a project
- Making a decision
- Creating alignment for a goal, decision or plan
He then provides process steps for each. For example, if you’re designing a meeting to respond to a problem, process questions to answer might include: What do we know, what questions are to be answered, what criteria should shape our response, what are our options, are there other thoughts and what will we do.
Again, the goal of meeting design is not manipulation. It’s empathy for each participant. Axtell cautions that “most of us walk into meetings concerned about one person—ourselves. We’re not usually looking out for other participants or thinking about how to support the person leading the meeting.”
But by improving our relationships and mastering our everyday conversations, we can create a quality experience for everyone in the meeting.
In fact, Axtell hopes we start to feel like the oarsmen in David Halberstam’s book, The Amateurs: “When most oarsmen talked about their perfect moments in a boat, they referred not so much to winning a race, as to the feel of the boat, all eight oars in the water together, the synchronization almost perfect. In moments like these, the boat seemed to lift right out of the water. Oarsmen called that the moment of swing.”
Let’s make our next meetings that boat. And let’s achieve the moment of swing.