Meetings done right

Meetings are an integral part of academic life. Actually, it’s not only important at the university, but almost everywhere. You either have to work with people, give report to your suppervisors or receive updates from your subordinates. Organising a meeting is the most wide-spread way to do that.

Often people will argue about its efficiency and necessity, however let’s assume that you cannot escape having them. What is there to be done besides trying to make them as effective and pleasant as possible? Also, sometimes it’s you who is in need of having a meeting for receiving feedback for your work or directions for what to do next. Having a super busy supervisor means that you don’t get to meet them often, which is an extra reason why you should focus on having good meetings.

Preparing for a meeting

The first step in preparing for a meeting is realising there is a need for one. However, since sometimes realising the need for a meeting means that you need something urgently, it might be smart to plan meetings with your busy supervisors even if you don’t have something to discuss about yet. If you plan the meeting within a reasonable timeframe, there will be something popping up for sure. And in case there is not urgent enough matters to discuss, your supervisors will be more than happy to free up the timeslot from their agendas.

A very important part of preparing for a meeting is actually having a list of topics to discuss in mind. And even better is to have it not only in mind but also in paper. Make a list of topics and group them in a logical way, ordering them by level of importance and urgency. This way you can make sure that you won’t forget to discuss anything and that important things will be discussed first, without worrying of running out of time. Once you have a list of topics in mind, it might be useful to communicate it with the people involved in the meeting. This is important for two reasons: a) people can come prepared for the meeting (or even not come at all if the topics are not in their concerns) b) someone might want to add something relevant in the list of discussion topics.

During the meeting

Having efficient meetings is a very important part of your career, whether in academia or not. But how can you make sure that you get the most out of the meetings you attend. Well, preparing the agenda is one thing, but actually following it is another (maybe even more important) one. The thing is that most people tend to drift away from the topic of the discussion, usually causing the opening of subsequent topics without realising. Without paying good attention, you might end up discussing about completely irrelevant topics and without finalising what is important for you.

Even though this might sound like a recipe for disaster, drifting discussions might also lead to new and potentially good ideas and solutions to problems. People tend to be more creative when they are left unconstrained, and a creative mind is better in solving problems. That’s what brainstorming is all about.

Therefore, the aim of your meetings should be to balance the two aspects somehow and the best way to do this is by good facilitation. Make sure that there is a facilitator for the meeting (either you, or someone else). The purpose of the facilitator should be:

  • To address every issue of the agenda and find a solution for it if needed.
  • To make sure that all opinions are heard and not that a few people are dominating the meeting.
  • To keep note of the things decided for each point of the agenda.

To do that, a good facilitator needs to keep track of time used for each topic, to pay attention to not drift too much out of topic, but on the other hand to give room to everybody to express their opinions. Usually it is advised that the facilitator does not take active role in the discussion, as he/she can be biased towards his/her favourite direction and streer the discussion (often involuntary) towards that direction. It is also difficult to pay attention to all the things if you need to develop and express your own ideas. Therefore, if you want to facilitate the meeting, it is better if you are not planning to actively participate in it. Otherwise, it might be better if you ask someone else to facilitate it for you.

After the meeting

Many people think that a meeting is over when everybody is leaving the room. However, a meeting should be considered finished only when all the discussed outcomes are noted down and preferably communicated with everyone involved in it. The worst thing that could happen is that decisions are forgotten and things have to be discussed all over again from the beginning. If that is not a waste of time and resources, then what is it?

Therefore, it is a good practise to always write down all the decisions right after the meeting. If there is a lunch break after the meeting, then take 5-10’ before that to first write down your thoughts and outcomes. Then you can enjoy your lunch and the company of your colleagues with a more clear mind and with the security that you won’t forget something.

In conclusion

Contrary to common logic, attention during a meeting is not only needed during it, but also before and after it. Therefore, if you want to make the most out of these few minutes that you get to spend with your supervisors or subordinates, pay attention to have a clear and predefined agenda that you will follow during the meeting and that you write down all important conclusions and outcomes to communicate them with anyone involved….

Happy meetings!

Tassos Natsakis
Lecturer on Robotics and Biomechanics


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