Meetings can be far more productive, less stressful and more interesting if they are conducted mindfully.

In my work as an executive coach with CEOs, senior executives and managers, the number one complaint is meetings—specifically how they are a waste of time. As renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

Several studies have shown that many, if not most, meetings are not worth the time. For example, in a survey reported in Industry Week, 2000 managers claimed that at least 30 percent of their time spent in meetings was a waste of time. According to a 3M Meeting Network survey of executives, 25 to 50 percent of the time people spend in meetings is wasted. And according to a survey by Office Team, a division of Robert Half International, 45 percent of senior executives surveyed said that their employees would be more productive if their firms banned meetings for a least one day a week.

Mike Figliudo, writing in SmartBrief on Leadership, asked this question in a poll: “How much time do you spend in recurring meetings?” He was shocked by the results. Thirty percent of the respondents are spending between 30 and 75 percent of their time in recurring meetings. He claims much of this time is a waste of money. Figliudo calculates the cost by taking the total annual compensation of each for the people in the meeting, dividing by 250 days per year and dividing that by eight hours a day. Using an example of a typical company of senior managers, a monthly two-hour staff meeting was costing the company $180K per year. Figliudo asks, is the resulting productivity worth the investment?

And brain research may provide us with another reason to not have meetings. Research by University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues, as well as other neuroscientists, indicates that we have a limited amount of cognitive or what they call “executive” resources. Once they get depleted, we make bad decisions or choices. Business meetings require people to commit, focus and make decisions, with little or no attention paid to the depletion of the finite cognitive resources of the participants—particularly if the meetings are long. So if that is true, the three or four hour project meetings may be counterproductive.

For meetings to run well, participants should be encouraged to employ some of the techniques of ‘mindfulness’ to help them focus clearly and make more effective contributions. With heads typically buzzing with a thousand things these techniques ensure attention is focused in a purposeful way on the specific issues in hand and on what is happening throughout the meeting.

Mindfulness techniques enable people to be aware of the present moment without reacting too quickly to information. This allows new perspectives and innovative ways of doing things to be explored before making a decision. At its core, mindfulness is engaged awareness.

To get to this happy state, the chair of a meeting needs to lead participants into a “mindful space,” a space that provides both the meeting facilitator and participants opportunities to be aware both of their internal state as well as what is going on externally in the meeting.

Here’s 10 tips to run meetings more mindfully:

  • Do a self check-in before the meeting. This is particularly critical for the team leader or meeting facilitator. This means determining what your mental and emotional state is. Are you anxious? Fearful? Angry or irritated by one or more of the participants? Are you carrying some baggage from a previous meeting or conversation that could contaminate a productive involvement in the meeting to come? Take a few moments meditatively to clear away these things from your mind, so you can enter the meeting calmly and manage your thoughts and emotions.
  • Conduct a quiet one to two minute grounding meditation exercise. This will allow people can clear their minds of previous brain activities and mentally and emotionally prepare themselves better for their new tasks in the meeting;
  • Conduct a group check-in. Go around the table and have people express how they are “feeling” (not thinking) that day. This will help the meeting leader and participants can gain a better appreciation of the inner states of the participants;
  • Encourage open-mindedness. This can be accomplished by insisting on people asking questions for clarification or further elucidation of the speaker before adding their perspectives. Also encouraging participants to practice “beginners’ mind”—approaching every issue as though they had never experienced that issue before, so that unconscious past experience and habits don’t drive perspectives;
  • Encourage the practice of acceptance. This means encouraging participants to accepting the person who is speaking and respect their point of view, even though issue may be taken regarding their specific perspective or ideas. Acceptance does not mean agreement, but it does mean avoiding judgment;
  • Encourage the practice of compassion. This may apply to participants who have made mistakes or may be experiencing personal emotional challenges;
    Ensure the meeting leader/facilitator regulates and prohibits personal attacks on individual participants. This means encouraging participants to withhold personal judgments on others, and rather, to focus on the issues;
  • Encourage participants to monitor their internal mental, physical and emotional states. This means encouraging participants to conduct an ongoing or continuous internal check-in for the purpose of enhancing emotional self-regulation.
  • Demonstrate and practice intentionally responding rather than automatic reactivity. Often in meetings, particularly when contentious issues arise, participants may get irritated or aggressive to defend or advance their perspective. This is usually an indication of the unconscious, emotional and protective aspects of the brain taking over behavior. Encouraging participants to be breathe, pause and consciously and intentionally respond in a calm manner can counteract and replace that reactive behavior.
  • Breathe. Often when emotions run high, or anxiety is elevated, people begin to shallow breathe, and this can have a viral effect in the meeting. The meeting leader can monitor breathing, and if needed, have everyone pause and breathe deeply for a minute or two.
    In conclusion, meetings can be far more productive and less stressful, if they are conducted in a mindful way, utilizing the practices described above.

To learn more about how to integrate mindfulness into the workplace, read my new book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.

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