Rudeness is relative. Every culture and subculture defines their own rules. There are thousands of books and articles on etiquette in different countries and different cultures, covering topics like the difference between “low-context” and “high-context” cultures and how to improve cross-cultural communication. Your organization is located in a broader culture, has its own organizational culture, and is made up of individuals who each were raised in a variety of cultures and subcultures. They have their own personalities and their own levels of power within the organization.
In this sea of potentially conflicting spoken and unspoken rules and preferences, we still expect teams to be able to come together, make decisions, have ideas, and get things done. We expect them to meet. But all too often, we don’t think about how to meet productively.
What Seems to Be the Problem?
The first step toward building a more functional organizational meeting culture is analyzing the problems you might already have. Here are a few common meeting-related problems:
- One person talks the whole time and nobody else can get a word in edgewise.
- The meeting becomes a conversation between two people, without participation from anyone else.
- The meeting doesn’t stay on topic. People chase tangents and the meeting runs too long.
- There are never new suggestions or ideas.
- There are too many people in the meeting.
- There are too many meetings and nobody has time to get any real work done.
Playing By Your Own Rules
Most of these problems are related, and the root causes have to do with communication, power, and the relationship between the two. Specifically: the rules around communication, for who gets to speak, when, and how. When people participate in a conversation, they are acting according to their own internal set of rules, built over time. It’s a whole field of study in sociology. These rules govern:
- when they feel they can speak (in response to a general question? in response to a direct question? when they have a relevant idea?),
- how to make a contribution (raise a hand? speak up directly? interrupt someone?),
- what’s all right to say (criticism? a suggestion? an opinion?), and
- lots of other things, such as tone of voice, formality, and so on.
The rules will change for each person depending on who else is in the room. Everyone else is negotiating their own rules at the same time. It all happens mostly unconsciously, which is kind of amazing.
The first issue is when these sets of rules don’t align — Person A expects interruption, while Person B views that as extremely rude , and so Person A just keeps talking while Person B gets more and more annoyed. The second issue, more subtly, is when the rules do align but they don’t result in productive outcomes. Person A is the supervisor, and everyone agrees it is rude to criticize a supervisor’s actions, so Person A makes mistakes that could have been avoided if a team member spoke up.
Say The Rules Out Loud
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to human communication, but there is one strategy that is very effective: make your own rules, just for the meeting. The beauty of meeting ground rules is that, if everyone plays along, certain actions can stop being rude. The group, including leadership, has all given blanket permission for them to not be rude, in this one specific context. This isn’t a magic wand, but it’s surprising how effective it can be to adopt some simple rules and practices.
Why does this work?
Telling someone they need to be quiet and let someone else speak, or need to let go of a topic so the group can move on, or shouldn’t be in this meeting at all, is a pretty charged confrontation. It’s telling someone else what to do, in front of other people, and it may involve interrupting, which most people’s rules say is impolite. It’s especially challenging when the person you are trying to interrupt or direct is senior in the organization.
Having a set of meeting ground rules that everyone is aware of fixes some of these problems. The rules become a neutral reference, a source of authority that participants have accepted, and a driver for peer pressure. They remove the perception of personal authority. You are not telling someone what to do; you are just reminding them of the rules they agreed to, in front of other people who have agreed to the same rules and who now think breaking the rules is kind of rude. That’s a lot of social engineering on your side.
There Is No Blanket Set of Rules
The ground rules you set are choices that can be made, and you might want to make different choices for different types of meetings. Some of the choices will be more helpful for getting all participants to speak up — for example, critique welcomed only if asked for, facilitated or round-the-table speaking, hands up to speak. Some, such as expecting people to “jump in” or expecting that critique is always welcome, are more suited to teams where there is an existing level of trust and similar personal communication preferences. But in all cases, stating the rules up front means you have understanding from everyone as to what the rules are and implicit permission from everyone in the room to participate via those rules. Here are some examples:
- A rule for how the conversational baton gets passed. Is there a facilitator who calls on people? Do you go around the table? Is it alphabetical?
- A rule for how you get permission to interject. Hand up? An explicit invitation to jump in? A note in the chat, if it’s a remote meeting?
- A rule for how suggestions are treated. Parking lot? Discussed right away?
- A rule for how the group handles tangents. Parking lot again? Is there a tangent recognition technique like jellyfishing? Is there a “tangent spotter” who is in charge of raising it if it’s happening?
- A rule for how critique happens. Welcomed at all times? Welcomed if someone asks for it?
- Rules for general meeting culture. Is there a specific agenda with approximate times, or a list of bullets, or just a purpose? Is there a facilitator? Is the meeting minuted? Are minutes taken on screen?
- Rules for whether to have a meeting at all, and whom to invite. Should status updates just be sent via email? Should groups send a representative instead of everyone attending?
Start Small, Then Repeat Until It Sinks In
This doesn’t have to involve posters on the wall or getting everyone to recite the rules aloud in unison before a meeting begins. If you’re the meeting organizer, just mention a few ground rules at the beginning. For example:
“Good morning everyone, let’s get started. As a reminder, the meeting agenda is set, and I’ll be going around the table for input on each agenda item. If anyone has additional comments please jump in or put a hand up. We’ve got a lot to cover so we’ll have to be mindful of getting off topic, but I’ll make sure to capture items for offline discussion in the parking lot.”
Very simple, very straightforward, with clear reasons for why a rule is there.
For maximum effect, a team or even an organization can adopt a blanket set of principles, or even set rules for different types of meetings. Amazon famously requires six page memos to be read at the beginning of important meetings. Google wants every meeting to have an owner, and no meeting to be more than eight people.
Final Tip: Ask, Don’t Tell
What if someone breaks the rules? The last bit of verbal judo to keep in mind is the power of asking.
- “Are we getting off topic here?”
- “Can I just cut you off for a minute?”
- “I’m going to ask everyone to please come back to the agenda”
If you are the meeting organizer, and especially if you are junior to others in the room, phrasing a reference to the rules as a request is frequently easier for others to swallow. It also puts the person you’re asking on the spot: they have to say no to your face. They still might, but they’re much more likely to at least give a reason.
Tilting the Playing Field
Again, none of this is magic. Even with the best ground rules, a sufficiently determined or oblivious person can still steamroll everyone else, and you can still have meetings with twenty people where only two people speak. The adoption of ground rules is a push toward better communication, better meetings, and less stress for the meeting organizer. But culture is powerful, your team probably spends a good percentage of their working lives in meetings, and it’s possible to shift your organizational culture over time so that meetings are not only more pleasant, they also produce better outcomes. Games have rules too. Are your meetings playing to win?