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  • John Clapham

Nine smart ways to deal with meeting requests

Here’s a secret; a good proportion of leadership coaching isn’t about leadership, or rather it’s more about leading self than others. The people I work with are already experts in their craft, so part of the work is figuring out when, where and how to apply all that talent and energy. This includes areas like time management, focus, goal setting, decision making, sustainable pace and inevitably, meetings.


In a previous post I described Fear of Another Meeting (FOAM), in which despite a nagging feeling that there is a better way, we still accept requests and overload our schedule and brains to unsensible, unsustainable levels.


One of the first steps towards improving matters is stopping the issue getting worse, essentially reducing demand to match aspirations and meet capability. This is in contrast to adapting to do more which, in a world of potentially infinite demand, can only go so far. This means scheduling meetings to a sustainable level compatible with other aspects of life and getting the most valuable work done. What sustainable, compatible and valuable mean are best interpreted by yourself, as are what elements of your role can be achieved in a meeting setting and what requires a different space.


To start your thinking here are nine ways to be smart about demand and meeting requests. With special thanks to Rebecca Grey for discussion and inspiration, and daughter Hazel for artwork, there's a printable version at the bottom of this page.



Direction - Know what’s important

A cartoon clock character following a distinct path up a hill
Direction - Know what's important

It’s almost impossible to make solid decisions and get where you want to go without an idea of where you are heading, both personally, role and career wise. I’m not suggesting a five year plan which relies on fortuitous alignment of the stars. Simply that there is a strong idea of where you want to take yourself next. This is especially true in transforming high autonomy roles where the emphasis and activities of the role are shaped more by the holder than being prescribed by the organisation.


This requires more than just knowing which meetings are important. It’s about imagining what an excellent work week looks like and designing a schedule around that vision, one which sees you prioritising work that matters, tackling the tricky stuff, making time to learn and connect.



Deflect - Reduce requests

A cartoon clock character bouncing or deflecting off a wall
Deflect - Reduce Requests

Wouldn’t it be great if every meeting request you received was so relevant, useful or interesting you could accept without hesitation?

Even the easy declines require thought, interrupts can derail thinking and invite longer distractions so it’s worth exploring how to reduce the number of incoming requests.


Deflecting is about training the world around you to offer more of what you want to be involved with, and less of what you don’t. The idea is closely linked to declining kindly, which is covered later. Deflecting takes a more active approach by setting expectations upfront. It links back to direction via role clarity, if what your role entails isn’t clear to you and communicated well you’ll be navigating all sorts of conflicting expectations…and meeting requests.


User guides to me, especially the original CEO versions are a good example of this, they are particularly effective when updated frequently with sections like ‘This month I’m working on’ and putting goals (or OKRs), and what you need to succeed, to the fore, which might even include your internal email signature.



Decide - Promptly

A cartoon clock character thinking deeply
Decide Promptly

Sometimes meeting decisions are simply about scheduling, on other occasions the attendance decision is more complex and embroiled in the work behind the meeting. If you’ve caught my kanban inspired decision making talk, you’ll know that I believe decisions should be treated with similar principles to work items. This includes turning around decisions promptly, and sticking to them. Partial unmade decisions clutter our mental backlogs and tend to pop up when least welcome.


Anything that isn’t an instant, confident ‘yes’ deserves pause for thought, but not for a disproportionate period. Scheduling when you make decisions is important here, a classic trap is half reading a request and not making a decision, leaving it hanging and carrying the risk of it being forgotten or being left so late that the only option is to accept.


Some employ heuristics and flow flow charts, blocking sections of schedule is an effective example, as long as you remain true to the original intent. All too often blocked calendar sections end up as overflow or recovery time (and there's something to learn from that…). As usual it matters more that you have a system and use it than what the system is. From this baseline you can experiment, learn and improve.



Delegate - To someone suitable

Passing a small cartoon clock character between two hands
Delegate to someone suitable

Obviously no one does it better, but maybe someone else could tackle the meeting? What’s routine for you may be someone else’s development opportunity, and with a short preparatory conversation chances are they’ll bring new perspectives and do (almost) as well.


There are perhaps some personal demons to defeat in this approach. It maybe be necessary to overcome Fear Of Missing Out, control and trust issues. It may even mean distance from your favourite initiative or team.




Diminish - Make it shorter

A cartoon clock character being squashed between a large thumb and finger
Diminish - make it shorter

Diminishing is about seeking opportunities to reduce involvement whilst still making a sound contribution and achieving meeting goals.


This means getting creative and challenging the ‘rules’. For example there’s often an expectation that meetings should be attended for the full duration. With prior agreement there are many approaches to reduce involvement, including:

Guest Appearance - Show up at an agreed time to offer what’s required.

Top and Tail - Be present at the beginning to set the scene and the team running, then return later for debrief and decisions.

Phone a friend - be ‘on call’, reserving the space to be available if needed, whilst enabling work on something else until needed.


As always this involves blending your goals and the meeting host’s. The host may just need to hear a report which wouldn’t take long and be part of the meeting goal, staying to gain situational awareness may be a useful outcome for you, which takes longer.



(Co) Design - A better way

A cartoon clock character pointing at a white board full of drawings and discussing something with another character
Co-Design a better way

If you sense there could be a more effective, efficient or enjoyable option, co-design something new.


If diminishing duration isn’t an option it could be worth exploring a better way with the organiser. Thoughtful design and preparation make a significant difference as does competent, productively detached facilitation.


If ideas run short, Liberating Structures offer a wealth of tried and tested patterns for getting good outcomes from groups.






Defer - For a better outcome

A cartoon clock character with two circled calendar dates above them.  The character is pointing at the future date.
Defer for a better outcome

Would a later date provide a better outcome? This is often the case where it allows key people and useful data and inputs to become available.


This option should be used with caution and a healthy dollop of self awareness, it can mask procrastination, and avoidance of decisions or challenging conversations.


For hesitant Don’t and Defer replies an interesting exercise is to try explaining, ideally out loud in simple words, the honest reason behind your decision. The catch is that you can’t say “I don’t have time”. Dig into what’s really going on and check your motivation, asking yourself ‘Why?’ a few times if needed. This will often reveal the underlying reason for deferring, or provide more confidence in the Don’t response.

Note that defer is not the same as a ‘maybe’ response, it’s a tactical postponement for a specific reason.



Don’t - Say no and explain why politely

A cartoon clock character with a large cross above it's head.
Don't - Say no and why politely

Declining and saying Why gives the requester useful feedback, enabling them to learn and seek alternatives.


The art of this is to explain your view and priorities, whilst recognising the meeting organiser may have different information and a different view of what’s important. A good decline leaves the door open, and actually allows you to be gracefully wrong.


This approach is similar to intent based leadership, declining using a format like “My understanding is A so I intend to B”, invites discussion when the understanding is mismatched.





Do - Commit and contribute

A cartoon clock character with a large tick above it's head
Do - Commit and contribute

This post isn’t about how to hold successful meetings, but If you do accept, be fully present, get the best out of it, and support others in doing so. Everyone has committed their time so help make it worthwhile.


In particular if you hear your internal monologue say “I’ll go along and do something in the background”, stop right there.


As Yoda famously said on the subject of meetings “There is no try, only do or do not”. Multi tasking in meetings is generally detrimental to both tasks [1] and if you’re in an influential position this sends a clear message about how much you value the meeting, the people in it and how others should behave. People do notice, and yes, they are judging you [2].



Definitely Maybe

Not included in the original nine, but the ‘Maybe’ responses deserve a mention, they are often used to mask awkward declines or avoid letting go.


Maybes should be used sparingly, and definitely not for decision avoidance. A good Maybe response includes the conditions under which you’ll attend, and ideally an indication of likelihood. This allows organisers to make decisions to ensure the meeting is successful or move it. Here we are trying to avoid that familiar situation where the host says “I was hoping [decision maker’s name] would be here” and the awkward shuffling as the rest of the meeting realise they can't proceed.



Closing Thoughts

These are just a few light hearted ways to process meeting requests, and I’m sure you’ll find more. Underneath the alliteration there are three key themes:

Awareness - that you have agency and are not beholden to your calendar.

Direction - knowing where you want to go improves decision speed and quality.

Investment - collaborating with requestors helps learning and improvement, benefiting you and your organisation.


As we accept meetings with weary abandon, we seldom view our response as an investment. It’s far easier to hit decline than explain why you’re not contributing to someone’s initiative, or to make tough decisions that enable you to end involvement.

These silent declines simply mask issues, especially unsustainable pace and excessive work in progress.


What I’m suggesting is investment in activities which take you towards the kind of work, schedule and pace you seek. These small steps are likely to improve your schedule, while offering more information and exploring alternatives invites collaboration, learning and wider systemic improvement.


References

[1] Spink A., Cole C., Waller M. (2008) Multitasking behavior, Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 42 (1), 93-118 | DOI: 10.1002/aris.2008.1440420110


[2] De Bruin, R., & Barber, L. K. (2022). Is Electronic Multitasking Always Viewed as a Counterproductive Meeting Behavior? Understanding the Nature of the Secondary Task. Psychological Reports, 125(1), 422-447. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033294120973946



Nine drawings of a cartoon clock character in various situations suggesting how to deal with meeting requests
Nine ways to be smart about meeting requests

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