Dear Dr. Hills: Meeting facilitation is a large part of my job. I’m always struggling with folks being preoccupied and not being focused on the meeting at hand. They’re often looking at their email and other items on their laptop vs. paying attention to the meeting. I understand that everyone is busy. But sometimes it can be frustrating as I’m trying to get things accomplished during these meetings.
How do I address this? These are folks who absolutely understand meeting etiquette and often times facilitate meetings themselves. My issue is that I have to lead by influence as I have no direct reporting relationship with this people. I’ve tried giving them roles in the meeting when applicable and I’ve tried engaging them and asking them questions. Do you have any other suggestions? – Feeling Frustrated
Dear Feeling Frustrated: You’re describing a common yet difficult problem. We didn’t always have so many electronic escape hatches. But there have always been problems with people not paying attention at meetings and classes. I remember my sociology professor ejecting one of my undergraduate classmates from a large lecture hall back in the 70s because he was reading the newspaper instead of paying attention to the lecture. Today’s electronic devices just amplify things by giving people easier and more ways to disconnect from what’s going on in front of them.
I appreciate that you have no direct reporting relationship with the people who are attending your meetings. That makes it an even tougher challenge for you. I like the strategies you’re using of engaging participants by giving them tasks to do and asking them questions. I encourage you to do as much as you can to make the meetings as productive and engaging as possible.
However, realistically, that may not do the trick. There seems to be a white elephant in your meeting room and I believe that you may need to say so. I’ve found it helpful when things like this happen to be transparent, to call a spade a spade, to say what I’m seeing, and to say how it’s making me feel. Would you feel comfortable addressing the issue squarely with your meeting participants?
If the problem is with one or two people, you can address this with them privately. But if the problem is pervasive, you might tell your meeting participants as a whole what you’ve observed. A good way to broach this is simply to say, “I noticed….” You could stop there and see what they say. Ex: “I noticed today that several of you were engaged in activities on your laptop during our meeting.” Then pause. That’s sometimes all it takes to change the behavior. Often, people will realize that they’ve done something that they shouldn’t be doing. Some may actually apologize.
Or, they may try to defend their behavior. They may say something to the effect that they can’t help it because they’re so busy, or that the meeting isn’t a productive use of their time. If they say that, then that’s something you can then talk about. However, if they say nothing, you can go on to say that their practice of multitasking during your meeting makes you feel that they’re disengaged, uninterested, or otherwise unavailable to take part in the meeting you’ve planned. Don’t use emotionally-charged or judgmental words; don’t say they’re being rude or insensitive or that they should know better. Better: “When I see you engaging in tasks on your laptop during our meeting, I feel _____ because ______.” That’s not accusatory or disrespectful. No one can argue about what you’re entitled to feel.
This direct approach takes some courage. But I predict that if you don’t do something different that the behavior will continue or worsen. Electronic communication has brought us all closer together but has also enabled people to disengage from situations they don’t like. Some people use their electronic devices for escape. Some are afraid that they may miss something. And in some cases, other people may expect them to be on an electronic leash, available all the time. I believe our culture suffers when we can’t focus on deep learning and building trusting relationships. Don’t give up. Keep working on this. I think that with a direct approach that you can change the behavior without whining, begging, bullying, or belittling. – Dr. Laura Hills, Blue Pencil Institute, www.bluepencilinstitute.com