How to Run Meetings in a Humane Manner


Artwork by Nicolas Ménard

As a “productivity expert,” I once got roped into doing an interview about meetings. What I didn’t know was that the writer wanted tips about how to have efficient all-day meetings, which is an oxymoron in my book. My advice: “Don’t have all-day meetings.”

You can’t wring blood from stone after all. That said, I have recently stumbled on a few — dare I say — fresh ideas about how to run meetings in a more humane manner, which I think are worth sharing:

Problem: Our meetings are inefficient and unfocused.

Solution: Kick off your meetings with a group meditation.

A friend of mine did an artist residency at the Zen Hospice Project, a unique palliative care center in the heart of San Francisco that helps people die with dignity. (You can, and should, read an incredible portrait of its director BJ Miller here.) She told me that they begin every meeting with a 10-minute meditation. Not surprisingly, the practice felt quite awkward at first. But the benefits were obvious: Meetings at the Hospice Project were incredibly efficient, focused, and —most importantly — kind. Definitely an unorthodox approach to consider.

Problem: People talk over me and co-opt my ideas.

Solution: Band together with your downtrodden co-workers and amplify.

Getting cut off in meetings can happen to anyone but — let’s be honest — women experience such behavior with more frequency. Even the ladies in the highest office in the land deal aren’t immune. Case in point: President Obama’s female staffers just couldn’t get heard. So they decided to band together and amplify each other’s voices. From New York magazine:

Female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.

Problem: Our brainstorming meetings aren’t productive.

Solution: Forget about brainstorming, try brainwriting.

When people debate ideas in a standard “brainstorming” format, the loudest voices and the earliest ideas usually win—which cuts creativity off at the knees. A more effective approach is brainwriting, in which everyone (quietly) writes down their ideas at the beginning of the meeting. All the ideas are then posted on a wall without names attached, and the group discusses and/or votes on which are the best. Studies indicate that this method generates 20% more ideas and 42% more original ideas. You can read more about brainwriting here and… guess what? There’s an app for that.

Problem: I have too many meetings and can’t get anything done.

Solution: Implement an office-wide “no meetings day.”

When it comes to too many meetings, managers typically suffer the most. Too busy overseeing the day-to-day in endless meetings, they never have downtime to reflect on the big picture. And for employees at every level, meetings are a huge obstacle to getting into creative flow, where you can really grind out the work. So why not pick one day a week where you ban meetings altogether? Asana has “No Meeting Wednesdays,” has “Thinking Thursdays,” and Moveline has a “Maker Day,” on which any and all meetings are prohibited. It’s like recess, for adults.

Problem: No one is talking about what’s really on their mind.

Solution: Have an “anxiety party” to put everyone’s worries out there.

Sometimes it’s good to put on a brave face and pretend everything is okay, but you don’t want to make a habit of it. Being forced to be upbeat all the time when you actually feel anxious or worried inside can have a toxic impact on your health. It also keeps you from being vulnerable with your colleagues, which can help build trust and closeness. That’s why I love the idea, from Jake Knapp at Google Ventures, of having a very different kind of meeting: An anxiety party.

Basically, you and your team get together and reveal your biggest (work) anxieties — the stuff that’s keeping you up at night. Then everyone rates how much they personally are worried about each item. Sometimes you find out your worry is real and discuss what to do about it. And sometimes you find out that no one else even cares about the thing you’ve been obsessing over, and isn’t that a relief?

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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