What feeling do meetings transmit in your workplace? Sadly, when we ask a colleague how the day’s meeting went, we’re so often met with an apprehensive shrug or a sigh. Meetings just .. happen, right?

While we hope -for the sake of your sanity- you and your colleagues aren’t quite so jaded, the truth is that so many organizations are lacking an actual language for discussing how their meetings went. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about something we aren’t accustomed to measuring in any discernible way.

Blissful ignorance also leads to completely ineffective meetings. According to a recent study carried out in the UK, we spend on average, a mind boggling 4 years of accumulated time throughout our careers in meetings. So it’s time we learn to communicate effectively about what went well and what can be improved.

Here are a few tips to help you assess if you just had a great meeting rather than one that just … happened.

Were there clear outcomes?

It’s surprising how many times meetings end and people walk out unclear on what was actually achieved by said meeting. This kind of outcome is no outcome at all, and it can lead to meeting-dread within your organization.

Patrick Lencioni takes on the air of a Surgeon General evoking a terrible disease when he describes the effects of bad meetings in his book, Death by Meeting. They “generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism", he argues. A fitting analogy for meetings that only serve to waste company time?

The way to ensure clear outcomes is by having a purpose for the meeting, facilitating it effectively and making sure there is a clearly set out agenda, all things we delve into below.

Did everyone get a word in...

As lead guide at Circles, Jonathan Hefter puts it, “you know you’ve had a good meeting when no one’s held back.” However, it can be tricky knowing when this is the case. Are cultural norms holding someone back? Maybe a Brit’s being too polite, an American too loud? Clumsy cultural stereotypes aside, it’s actually pretty difficult to know if everyone has said everything they wanted to.

While we can’t speak for someone in a meeting, what we can do is create a comfortable environment. See someone in the corner being particularly quiet? Could be because they’re using that time to think. They may have a brilliant idea, so ask them! In Circles online meetings we use a timer to allow everyone their turn to speak. Participants tell us it has really made them up their game when they know they’re going to be called on.

...without destroying momentum?

Everyone getting their say is great, but moderation is the key. There are important questions for the facilitator to think about at any given time. Why is the meeting grinding to a halt? Is it going off topic? Are people there who can’t add anything, causing them to nervously waffle for the sake of appearance (the dreaded bike-shed effect)?

Having a good facilitator is a key ingredient to a great meeting. They shouldn’t just be seen as someone who calls the shots. In fact, at times they could be there purely to facilitate. What they do need, is the ability to step in if someone is going off topic. Also important is a deft hand at dispelling tension within a meeting, while also knowing when it’s useful to dive into head first (see below). A great meeting needs a great facilitator, a great handler of team dynamics.

Was there a healthy amount of conflict?

Many of the skills mentioned below are transferable with another profession, theatre. A movie or theatre director has to oversee a team and often deals with clashing personalities. In this vein, Patrick Lencioni says his cure for boring meetings is to allow drama to come to the fore. A facilitator should treat a meeting like they were overseeing the set of a Shakespeare adaptation. His suggestion is to replace “agendas and decorum with passion and conflict.” Doing so results in an atmosphere that compels people to get involved. It makes them feel part of a narrative that they can influence, rather than sitting there checking items off a list.

As Lencioni puts it, “the good news, [is that] there are plenty of issues at every meeting that have the potential for productive, relevant conflict.” The bad news? This style may not be for every team and can descend into chaos, much like the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Was there a clear agenda?

Having an agenda doesn’t have to mean avoiding conflict. In fact, an agenda could be geared towards allowing time for airing tensions in a productive way. We use protocols to make sure meetings are carried out effectively and address important issues. Rather than just having objectives telling you what to address at any given time, protocols address the process itself giving the meeting clarity. Is something really holding part of the team back? Let’s pick it apart and really dig into the problem.

A great meeting is one where people feel safe bringing their tensions to the table. Our lead guide, Jonathan Hefter, who has facilitated his fair share of meetings, says you should “notice where the real tensions are, and welcome them.” It means you’ve created a space where people don’t feel they have to hold back. A purposeful agenda can allow a canny facilitator to do just that!

Did your meeting create other meetings?

It might sound diabolical. Coming out of a meeting to realize that, as a result of attending, you now have three more meetings on the agenda! But this is actually a sign that things went to plan. As Jonathan Hefter puts it, “don’t spend time on a money issue when it’s clearly more suited for the monthly finance meeting.”

Ian Fisher, who ran meetings as assistant editor at the New York Times for two years, used to employ a specific tactic when topics were brought up that were better suited to another meeting; he’d pretend he was a talk show host.  “I called myself Regis.” He explained to Fast Company. “Say what you want, but he knew when it was time to go to the commercial.”

Is the style a good fit for your company?

Some of the advice in this article is contradictory.

“Have a tightly knit and action packed agenda.”

“No, throw your agenda out the window and magic will happen!”

The fact is that a casual peruse through your social media timelines will instantly hit you with a barrage of contradictory information and advice, it’s enough to put anyone’s head into a spin! The only answer to this is in the real world and it’s called implementation. Try out agenda’s, try out no agenda’s. What gives your team the best results?

It ended on time

Much like a blog post, a meeting shouldn’t overstay its welcome. That means it’s gone off topic and people’s attention spans are waning. See this happening and it may be best to cut things short and leave the issue at hand for the next team meeting when people are coming in refreshed.. so with that, I bid you farewell!