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Use Meeting Complaints to Make Better Meetings

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 14:00
Meeting Complaints to Make Better Meetings

Anyone involved in business knows there’s no shortage of complaining about meetings.

Here’s a top-of-my-head litany:

  • Meetings are too long
  • Meetings are too boring
  • Meetings are too disorganized
  • Meetings have too many people – or the wrong people – invited
  • Meetings are too repetitive

There’s no shortage of tips for improving meetings, too. A quick Google search on the topic reveals pages of advice, stretching back years. The InterCall Blog has no shortage of these types of articles as well:

And if you take time to peruse this wealth of guidance, not only will you become a better meeting host but you may notice a pattern: This plethora of counsel hasn’t seemed to appease complainers. Article after article, survey following survey… the same issues seem to pop up. (See “litany” above.)

Maybe the issue isn’t bad advice. Maybe it’s just human nature. That’s one theory raised by several experts in a recent Fast Company article.

Complaining is one way people connect with each other, according to best-selling author Trevor Blake, who wrote the motivational business book Three Simple Steps. And aren’t most companies striving for a collaborative culture?

“Nothing unites people more strongly than a common dislike,” Blake told Fast Company. “The easiest way to build friendship and communicate is through something negative.”

Jon Gordon, author of The No Complaining Rule, sees an evolutionary angle. Focusing on negatives primes us for self-defense. As Gordon explains in the article, “The more we look at something that can hurt us and kill us, we are programed to be on guard against that.”

But there’s a limit to the benefits of venting our beefs. Neuroscience demonstrates negative thinking, like complaining, can release damaging stress hormones in our brains, affecting cognitive functions such as problem solving. So, in the case of meetings, maybe indulging a lot of whining is clouding our thinking, making it harder to take good advice and make things better.

The experts agree that the key is changing attitude before taking action. For example, Joanna Wolfe, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, advocated what she called “positive complaining” or “effective complaining.”

“Don't sit around and admire the problem,” Wolfe said.

Redirect your complaints toward finding a solution.

Here are some ways to apply counsel from Wolfe, Blake and Gordon to the challenge of improving meetings instead of just griping about them:

Know what is and what is not complaining

Saying “We have a lot of meetings” is an observation; complaining is adding “And I hate how they waste my time.” Understanding the difference between noting facts and expressing feelings is a big step toward finding solutions to vexing problems.

Track the number and the substance of complaints

Most of us have heard the business aphorism: “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” Complaining about meetings is no exception.

Be the change

Many of us also have heard the Mahatma Gandhi quote: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” So, when the conversation in informal business gatherings turns to bashing formal business meetings, politely withdraw. Because, to channel another old saying “If you’re not part of the solution…”

Buffer with a “but”

If you hear yourself grumbling, try what Gordon calls the “but-positive” technique to flip from the negative. An example: “I don’t like the way so many people burn time in the weekly update meetings, but I’m grateful for the chance to speak my mind, too.”

Convert “have to” to “get to”

By changing just two words, complaining can become appreciating. Instead of “I have to give a status report in tomorrow’s meeting.” Try: “In tomorrow’s meeting, I get to report on all the progress we’ve made.”

If complaining truly is wired into us, then making business meetings better will be evolution, not revolution. As Wolfe observed, “Things you do habitually are really hard to give up.” But some other neurological responses are built into us, too – such as the feeling of satisfaction that comes with making an effort to make a difference.


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