Understanding Meeting Etiquette

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by Jo Lynn Barnicoat

Etiquette is a way of being—not a set of rules or do’s and don’ts.

Each day, we interact with our co-workers and clients in a manner that, hopefully, puts us and others at ease. Good behavior isn’t always about following the rules. Rather, it’s about making behavioral choices that benefit those around us and make it safe for others to put forth their personal best.

A receptive and respectful environment is never more important than in meetings, where emotions can run high and investments of time and money are on the line.  Whether speaking with clients or discussing issues internally, good etiquette is essential to efficiency and morale.

In the words of the Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare:

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…”

In order to play these parts harmoniously, we each need to maintain a certain decorum that puts others at ease and facilitates honest communication. However, with so many personalities at work on any given team, how can we establish behaviors that put everyone at ease?

Set the stage

The following tips offer guidelines for behavior, dress, and communication and can help to streamline any social interaction, in or out of the board room.

1. People

All present should dress in appropriate business or business casual attire, depending on your industry. Cleanliness and good grooming is essential in any professional setting, so be sure to practice good hygiene prior to attending.

Be alert and present. You are participating in the meeting because you have information to learn or contribute. Avoid chewing gum or eating, and be aware of habits like scratching, face touching (no eyes, ears, nose or toes), hair playing, etc. These habits can be off-putting to those around you and send messages of distraction or lack of confidence.

Most of all, avoid positioning your back to anyone else. If you must have your back to someone, do not allow your chair to swing into him or her, and always say, “please excuse my back.”

2. Place

Your meeting room provides the atmosphere for your interaction and should be clean and well-lit, with shades open or drawn depending on computer screen usage. There should be enough chairs for everyone so as to avoid chair-hunting expeditions. Make handouts or materials relating to the discussion readily available.

etiquette

3. Pre-Meeting

Preparing properly for your meeting can mean the difference between time-well-spent and stressful time wasted.

  • Be prepared and know the purpose of the conversation as well as the hoped-for outcome.

  • Know the names of the people attending and do your homework prior to attending.

  • If you are actively involved in the meeting, have notes and questions prepared prior to.

  • Keep a pen and notepad on hand at all times. Take note of the names of people you’ve met and important meeting points to remember or follow up with later.

  • Bathroom breaks and coffee/water prep: This is not Kindergarten; there are no hall passes at professional meetings.  Do your best to prepare ahead of time so as not to disrupt the meeting by getting up to use the restroom or to get coffee, unless it is for a client. If you cannot wait, politely excuse yourself, leave the meeting, and re-enter with a minimum of disruption.

4. Getting Started

Be punctual or early for meetings! Time is money and business. Keep the following points in mind as you begin and participate:

  • Seating is surprisingly important:  Whether you call it the “power seat” or just the head of the table, the front and foot of the meeting table should be reserved for people in authority. Place the primary presenter and organizer of the meeting next to the person at the head of the table and the second most important across from them.  If you know the order you are presenting, seat people in order of their presentation.  This creates a sense of order and trust.

  • Greetings: Stand when meeting someone if space and logistics allow and shake her hand while making eye contact. Be sure to repeat her name back to show respect and acknowledgement.

  • Pleasantries: Brief conversation unrelated to the meeting can give the conversation a kick start and create a comfortable environment where everyone feels familiar with their surroundings and others in the room.

  • Organizer starts it off: Summarize what’s about to happen and get clients / everyone’s approval to proceed. Starting this way helps manage expectations and gives the meeting a framework.  It also helps reduce anxiety and can get everyone on the same page as well as shape the meeting into a highly efficient and effective event.

If there’s a burning issue or concern that someone needs to voice, be sure to discuss prior to moving onto the main focus. Mentioning this issue first gives the presenter an opportunity to table the concern for later and direct attention back to the topic at hand.

5. During the meeting

As you begin to run through the list of important points, be sure to:

  • Listen carefully and pay attention: Don’t let your mind wander; focus on others’ faces, not your screen, and limit the use of smart phones and computers when possible.

  • Put yourself in your client’s shoes: Read their body language; how are they feeling?   Interested? Comfortable? Do your best to engage, comfort, inform, or all three, based on their needs.

  • Avoid interruptions or talking over people: This can be difficult when multiple people are on the line with a client during a conference call.  Wait for a natural break in conversation and always check in with others when you’re the one speaking. If you are leading, ask for feedback. Call on individuals specifically for responses if your only response from the group is “crickets.”

  • Avoid side conversations:  One of the most disruptive and disrespectful things that can happen in a meeting is side conversation while others are speaking. If it’s THAT critical to tell someone something, write it down.  You can also ask if you may voice an important question if you think it will affect the outcome of the meeting.

  • Practice Wonesty = Wisdom + Honesty: Use discernment and candor in your comments and feedback. How? By choosing your words carefully for a positive impact that conveys constructive truth. Address one issue at a time, and if you have a question about something that will draw everyone into a different topic, write it down and ask when appropriate.

  • Be mindful of the meeting organizer’s direction: The meeting organizer has a goal, and it’s their job to keep the meeting on track toward that goal. Brief diversions may be okay periodically to lighten the mood.  However, watch for cues from the organizer when you speak. If he nudges you under the table when you speak, it may be time to follow his  lead.

  • Involve and engage everyone in the meeting: Confirming the role and participation of those attending your meeting is important. You may need to remain flexible and allow others to speak . Keep everyone on track and board things (write down things) that need to be addressed in a different meeting.  Your objective is to stay on track while making sure to validate others’ ideas, even if these topics cannot be fully addressed in the current discussion.

6. Summarize

Before ending the meeting:

  • Review outcomes/agreements, expectations, and timelines for the future.

  • Note who is responsible for what and when.

  • Always ask if there are any outstanding questions or concerns that should be discussed prior to disbanding.

Finally, thank everyone for their time.  Be sure to be hospitable to those you’ve just met and appreciative of the time everyone has invested in the meeting.

Thank you for your time and attention!

What works for your team? We’d love to hear your feedback!

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