Modern Etiquette: Meetings still matter

(Reuters) - Pay no attention to sceptics who claim that meetings are nothing more than an irritant.

Meetings - and your meeting manners - are vitally important, especially in our ever-changing business environment. For better or worse, we learn and make judgments about our colleagues that are based on their behavior.

Meetings are opportunities to observe - and yes, judge - others. Remember, though, that we are being judged as well.

Consider the inevitable cast of characters (in the interest of efficiency, clarity, and brevity, I am using masculine examples; but, rest assured, each character listed definitely has a female counterpart!).

I’ve learned to identify these characters by pet names I would never repeat out loud. I chuckle to myself, which mitigates against their objectionable behavior, thus helping me stay centered and on track, because I don’t take their appearance, words, or actions personally.

The Lounge Lizard sprawls all over the place, wrapping himself around chair arms and legs, sinking into any cushion in sight. Once he’s in the seat, he stays there, never bothering to get up and greet others. No one would be surprised if he put his feet up on the table. Rude, rude, rude, spiced with an attitude of entitlement.

The Wise Guy takes no prisoners when telling you how absurd your ideas are. He as much as says that no sane company could or would embrace them. He knows this because he got his education from Life - i.e., he has street smarts - and heaven help anyone who fails to revere those credentials as one would a Nobel Prize. We are talking slick bully here. He thinks he’s tough.

The Bobble Head says nary a word, offers nary a contribution. Yet every time a good idea is being put forth, the Bobble Head nods knowingly as though he thought of it himself, eons ago.

The Pundit jumps at every chance to tell you how it was done 97 years ago, or that he had come up with every new, worthy idea himself. You don’t need to say anything because he already knows what you’re going to say. Or so he believes.

This merry band of mischief makers is familiar to us all. Why? Because it’s easy to descend to any one of the personas - or, heaven forbid, a combination of all of them. And that can - and does - make a mess of any meeting. These characters make for miserable meetings. Small wonder many people consider meetings a waste of time. And what could be more disrespectful than wasting anyone’s time?

These characters have ignored the old military saw, “Remember the Five P’s: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” Or, as any number of famous litigators have observed, “A case is won or lost before your enter the courtroom.”

Letitia Baldrige, former Social Secretary at the White House and my mentor, chaired superb meetings. She learned by sitting across from heads of state. Here is her recipe for making meetings meaningful, productive, efficient, and enjoyable:

- Choose a convenient time for the meeting and provide necessary information. For example: 8 a.m. - 9 a.m. continental breakfast will be served.

- Invite the key people who will be involved or affected by the meeting’s outcome. No cast of thousands; yet no omissions.

- Distribute the agenda to everyone within a week of the meeting. Attach supporting materials required to fully participate in discussion.

- Always arrive early to greet the participants, shake hands, and direct them to the conference table or coffee buffet. Let them know the seating arrangements. Consider double-sided place cards on the table. Supply pens and paper at each place.

- Begin the meeting on time, introduce everyone or ask each person to introduce himself, then briefly state the purpose and goal of the meeting and its time frame.

- Always look good; dress authoritatively and colorfully, with perfect grooming. Keep in mind that you are seen sitting, from the waist up.

Consider the big picture: One international colleague of mine offered, “Try to predict the self interests of each identifiable subgroup; imagine their arguments, proposals and fall back positions, and likely compromise alliances. Watch, during the time just prior to the meeting, perhaps at water cooler or coffee, for the shy or unallied individuals who may hold back. Try to draw them out, gently, when the meeting gets going.”

He continued, “Overall, keep it crisp and respectful of time. Get them out of the room, earlier than expected, feeling they have been heard fairly, and have been respected.”

Most of us agree that getting undivided attention is a relic. Frank Catalano, a tech consultant and columnist, addresses the issue this way: “One of my favorite tricks is when the meeting chair asks everyone to take out their tablets and smartphones, and put them face down on the table. The first one to pick it up to check it has to put a dollar on the table beside the device. The fact that they are upside down and visible to everyone else (versus being surreptitiously used under the table) seems to work. It also has the benefit of keeping meetings short because the level of separation anxiety in the room tends to rise over time. I’ve never seen anyone have to pay.”

What if the individual chairing the meeting is the worst offender of short-term tech dependence? That’s the time to ask him or her - preferably while they are using their smartphone - a pointed question about something. Mischief can be a very effective teacher.

(Mary M. Mitchell has written several books on the subject of etiquette, now in 11 languages, most recently “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to ModernManners Fast Track” and “Woofs to the Wise”. She is the founder of executive training consultancy The Mitchell Organization ( The opinions expressed are her own.)

Editing by Michael Roddy