By Patricia Bouweraerts, Editor
When Jeff Weiner, CEO at LinkedIn wrote that productivity roadblocks most reported by people are email inboxes and unbeneficial meetings, he wasn’t kidding about the vehemence that employees give vent to about company meetings.
One of the 1,512 comments to his article was made by sales executive Robert Pilla.
“I feel paralyzed by meetings that are not worth my time,” he wrote.
Michelle Stevenson, a gaming compliance professional agreed.
“Nothing drives me up a wall more than an unproductive, useless meeting,” she wrote.
Weiner wrote that team leaders who schedule meetings can improve their effectiveness by eliminating presentations — instead attendees read the materials beforehand, defining the objective of the meeting, assigning someone to take notes, and additional strategies. And he isn’t alone with these types of organizational recommendations. There are numerous posts online written by leadership experts about effective meeting practices.
But what can the majority of those attending meetings — participants who are not running it — do to make this time productive when other facets of the meeting’s organization or pace are not optimal?
Inventive ideas may be found at the periphery of the management field. Career and communication coaches, linguists, and a business etiquette expert have written about topics crucial in meetings — listening, gathering information, and eliminating boredom.
Six strategies that may provide accidental benefits to those who’d like to improve their experience in meetings include the following:
- Listen in a way that lowers blood pressure
- Improve listening skills for work or life in general
- Learn the specific speaking style of co-workers and bosses
- Develop methods for handling negative comments
- Practice a technique that helps eliminate boredom
- Increase trust by practicing “connecting communication”
It’s possible to listen in a way that lowers blood pressure
Meetings can sometimes be stressful, and associated with that is a corresponding rise in blood pressure. But retired professor of applied psycho-linguistics Suzette Haden Elgin wrote about an interesting research finding in her book “The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.”
Blood pressure can actually be lowered by listening carefully to a speaker.
“His (James J. Lynch) experiments demonstrate that when people are speaking — no matter how seemingly trivial or dull the subject — their blood pressure rises; when people are listening, really listening and not just hearing, their blood pressure falls,” she wrote. “Proper listening is relaxation for the body.”
However, when people are composing their responses in their heads, or waiting for a chance to break into the conversation, the effect is absent.
“Their blood pressure stays elevated, just as if they were doing the talking,” she added.
Improve listening skills for life at work and home
“’My boss, co-worker, or direct report doesn’t listen’ is one of the most common complaints I hear in my professional life,” wrote leadership coach and best-selling author Marshall Goldsmith on his website. “People will tolerate all sorts of rudeness, but listening holds a special place in their hearts — perhaps because it’s something all of us should be able to do with ease.”
Goldsmith wrote that it’s important to look like your listening and demonstrating patience. And if the person speaking says “You’re not listening,” it’s a courteous practice to apologize and assure them that you will do better.
There are five basic types of listening styles and people often prefer a particular style, wrote Tim Ursiny, Ph.D., in his book “The Coward’s Guide to Conflict.” He wrote that frustration can arise when using the opposing listening style from the preferred style a speaker is expecting.
The five styles that Ursiny describes include the following:
- Appreciative listening is for pleasure. The person may be telling a story or joke that they’d like the listener to enjoy.
- Empathetic listening is a style in which the listener shows concern or support for the speaker’s situation or feelings.
- Comprehensive listening is employed to make sense of the latest information. It’s used to take direction from someone, or a speaker might want help organizing his or her thoughts.
- Discerning listening style is directed toward gathering the big picture and its supporting information. The speaker would like the listener to discern the main message and to ask good questions.
- Evaluative listening can be called the “fix-it” style, according to Ursiny. It’s a pattern that is characterized by a focus on making decisions based on information that is heard and weighed against a person’s experience, sometimes analyzing motives. This style is beneficial for voting on a question, or deciding to take steps toward fixing something.
A speaker will experience that co-workers are listening more closely if they appear to be listening in the style the speaker expects, and there is less chance for perceived differences of thought. Meetings are an intensive place to practice recognizing what types of listening styles are usually expected by team members.
In a meeting, an employee can learn more about the speaking styles of others
In addition to matching an expected listening style, people working together can also better learn each other’s speaking style and sync their overall communication.
One of the three communication techniques that Elgin calls “syntonics” is the use of sensory modes when responding in a conversation. She writes that most people prefer speaking using semantics of either sight, hearing or touch. Smell and taste are used less frequently.
Examples are “I see what you’re saying,” or “This sounds good to me,” or “I can’t put my finger on the answer.”
In stressful situations, like a contentious meeting, a person’s sensory mode may come out more clearly.
Thus, if a person with sight style says something like “Can you see that these numbers need to rise,” and the co-worker says “It looks like we can accomplish that,” the first person will perceive that the two are on the same wavelength, Elgin added.
Her second technique called “Satir modes” is named for psychologist Virginia Satir.
“In her (Satir’s) work, she has noticed that people under stress tend to use one of five patterns of language behavior, which she calls blaming, placating, computing, distracting, and leveling,” Elgin wrote.
These patterns are different from sensory modes, because there are specific modes appropriate as a response to each one, instead of matching, as outlined in her book.
“The first rule is a basic emergency kit item: if you don’t know what to do, go to computer mode and maintain it always,” she wrote.
- In computer mode, the speaker expresses nonjudgmental, logical thoughts, divorced from emotions and the real world, and uses few facial expressions and hand gestures. In this mode, pronouns like I, me, you, your, mine and yours are avoided.
- In blamer patterns, the sentences include words such as “always, never, nothing, nobody, everything, none and not once.” In this style, an emphasis is placed on the question word, like the “why”.
- In placater mode, there is a noticeable desire to please, and body language of leaning, fidgeting or cringing away.
- The distracter pattern changes among the modes at random during a few sentences, with disorganized body language.
- When leveling, speakers may use the same words as the other styles such as blamer, placater or computer, but they don’t use them in an emotionally loaded way, simply to gather more information. There will be no abnormal stress on parts of the sentence. In this style, rudeness can be present, but questions aren’t an attack, and blamer body language like a pointing finger is absent.
“The second rule is: except for leveling at a leveler, try not to match the Satir mode coming at you,” she wrote.
The response may be chosen based on one’s communication goals, the real-world situation at the time, and the language behavior of the other person, she wrote.
Elgin’s third technique is verbal attack pattern recognition and response. She describes 12 patterns in her book. One notable response to an attack pattern is using computer mode. An example of this particular attack sounds like, “A person who really wanted to keep his job would make an effort to get the reports in on time.”
The part of the sentence that is the bait is the insinuation that “a person” is you, and “you” don’t get reports in on time. Elgin suggests responding back in computer mode, “You’re absolutely right. Promptness is one of the most important factors in the efficient functioning of a business.”
She added that the speaker will likely hesitate to make it personal to “you,” unless there is truth to the statement about not getting the reports in on time.
Develop methods for handling negative comments
If a meeting becomes argumentative, participants may say something negative — directly or indirectly — about a colleague’s work.
Diane Gottsman is an etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas. In an article on HuffingtonPost.com, she describes strategies for responding to a perceived insult.
One strategy is to first think about whether the comment was a one-time mistake, or a mean-spirited, purposeful insult. Sometimes remarks may be misread because of other things that are happening at work. If not, employees may decide to ask a trusted mentor for suggestions to handle the situation professionally.
Think, breath and compose thoughts before responding, she wrote.
“Thoughtfully neutralize the remark by saying, ‘I’m not sure I understand what you are trying to say to me,’” Gottsman added.
Or form a question.
“By saying, ‘This is obviously a topic that concerns you since you mention it every time we are in a group meeting,’ it will put the other person on alert that you are not afraid to hold your ground,” she wrote.
Inner power can be lost by becoming angry, or letting eyes fill up with tears. Gottsman suggests to excuse yourself for a while and regain composure, before addressing the issue privately. When speaking privately with a person who repeatedly makes negative remarks in front of others, mention expectations for the future and that if not met, it will be reported to the next level of authority. After face-to-face meetings, an email follow-up can document the conversation and express hope for a professional relationship going forward.
If an insult is made that has a humorous tone, one is not obligated to laugh.
“You can send a powerful message with silence, or by immediately moving on to another topic,” Gottsman wrote.
If a co-worker typically uses provoking language at employee events, one choice is to set a boundary by politely asking him or her to keep the focus on the activities instead.
“Rest assured, the insults are ultimately not about you,” she wrote. “It’s always about the other person. Some people simply try to make others feel bad so they can feel better about themselves. Don’t allow someone else’s opinion to influence the rest of your day. Take actionable steps, even when the step is to ignore the other person, or go to your supervisor for additional assistance.”
Practice a technique that helps eliminate boredom
“One of life’s most constant irritations is the speaker who bores you frantic, going on and on and on about some subject that seems to you an awful waste of time and energy” Elgin wrote in her book.
In this situation, the listener may feel bored or stuck in an inescapable one-sided conversation. She offers a technique that may conceivably be applied to meetings, as well.
“Assume that what the person is saying is true, no matter how outrageous you would ordinarily think it is,” Elgin wrote. “Just arbitrarily assume that it’s true. Now try to imagine what it could be true of. You will find that this turns otherwise maddening conversations into the linguistic equivalent of really good crossword puzzles.”
Not by staring at the clock or preparing a response — but by listening closely — can the listener get new clues for the challenge.
“Only by listening with total attention can you get the information you need about the sort of world in which what the speaker is saying to you could be true,” she wrote. “Each little detail becomes one more piece of the puzzle.”
This technique is not easy, she added. When the listener’s mind starts to wander, practice bringing full attention back to the speaker.
Increase trust by practicing “connecting communication”
When an employee observes positive and negative communication in meetings, and recognizes that the tone can have an effect on a listener’s own physical hormonal balance, awareness may be created for more effective communication styles to use both inside and outside of meetings.
“Once I coached a senior executive from Verizon, Rob, who thought of himself as a ‘best practices’ leader who told people what to do, set clear goals, and challenged his team to produce quality results,” wrote Judith E. and Richard D. Glaser on ExcellenceEssentials.com. “But when one of his direct reports had a heart attack and three others asked HR to be transferred off his team, Rob realized there was a problem.”
Judith Glaser is an organizational anthropologist and Richard Glaser holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and master’s degrees in medicinal chemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry. They wrote that when humans have negative experiences, a hormone called cortisol is produced in the body, in contrast to positive feelings, which stimulate the production of oxytocin. They observed Rob’s communication style.
“Instead of asking questions to stimulate discussion, showing concern for others, and painting a compelling picture of shared success, he tended to tell and sell his ideas, entering most discussions with a fixed opinion, determined to convince others he was right,” they wrote. “He was not open to others’ influence; he failed to listen to connect. When I explained this to Rob and told him about the chemical impact of his behavior on his employees, he vowed to change, and it worked.”
High levels of cortisol can decrease activity in the thinking center of the brain — the prefrontal cortex is responsible for innovative and strategic thinking, empathy, connections and trust — thereby making people instead more prone to avoiding conflict and protecting themselves. Triggers for cortisol can take place in a nanosecond, .07 seconds, the Glasers added.
“We become more reactive and sensitive,” they wrote. “We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior.”
On the other hand, praise and positive conversations lead to oxytocin production, but oxytocin is less long-lasting in its effect.
“Fear trumps trust because cortisol trumps oxytocin,” the Glasers wrote.
To grow trust, they suggest beginning a conversation with an open-minded, nonjudgmental attitude.
“That way, you can influence your own brain and that of others to choose to be influenced by the trust signals over the distrust signals,” they wrote.
And trust is no kidding matter — most working people would prefer a place where trust breezes through the atmosphere and meetings are emotionally safe and productive.
- Follow etiquette expert Diane Gottsman on Facebook at Protocol School of Texas. Gottsman also posts a blog
- The Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog is a video series on the topic of effective leadership. “Triggers,” by Marshall Goldsmith is a #1 New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller
- Tim Ursiny, Ph.D., leads Advantage Coaching & Training