I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Rick Brinkman and got a refreshing crash course in how to transform an ordinary, tedious business meeting into a team-building event. Brinkman is the author of the new book, Dealing With Meetings You Can’t Stand: Meet Less and Do More (McGraw Hill, 2017), which I reviewed for this site. We chatted about his surprisingly personal inspiration for writing this book as well as his powerful — and proven — strategies for making meetings better.
What led you to write this entertaining, illuminating book?
My parents met and got married in the ghetto at the beginning of the war [World War 2]. My father was German and mother was Polish. They were then sent to Auschwitz, and only survived through the grace of multiple miracles — including finding each other once again after the war.
I have always felt, because of that legacy and the miracle of being here, that I was on a mission to turn conflict into cooperation. I’ve been doing my part by teaching communication, performing four thousand programs in seventeen countries over the last thirty years, and writing five books.
My style as a speaker and in other forms (books, audios, videos) has always been “Educating through Entertainment.” I have always found that people learn, remember and act on new skills if they have a good time when they’re learning them.
You suggest a great model for an effective meeting — just think of the meeting like an airplane flight. Can you elaborate?
Think of people at meetings as passengers on a plane, trapped together in a contained space for a period of time. The flight or meeting maybe delayed, may not start on time, may go off course, maybe hijacked, maybe uncomfortable, or maybe filled with conflict if people bring too much baggage with them. It may end late and cause everyone to miss their next connections or meetings.
Are your types of personalities based on real people? What inspired you to develop these?
They are based on the “behaviors” people go to when they’re under stress. For our first McGraw-Hill book: Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, we researched people’s behaviors based on context — where are we, what’s going on, and who we are with. You may know someone who seems to be a bully most of the time, but you’d be shocked to see what a wimp they can be in a different context.
Meetings are a context that clearly brings out stress behaviors. Know-it-Alls and Think-They-Know-it-Alls will go on and on. Whiners and No people only look at what’s wrong with ideas. Judges nitpick unimportant details and make distracting, sniping comments. Tanks bully or declare martial law to push the meeting forward. Passive Yes, Maybe and Nothing people don’t participate, so you never really know where they stand until after the meeting.
You’ve laid out four basic problems that beset meetings. Does every hitch and hurdle fall into one of those categories?
The issues that make meetings unproductive fall into four categories, Preparation, People, Process and Time. To overcome those issues, preparation should include questioning the meetings existence in the first place, and having a proper agenda that is thoughtfully and realistically timed out and relates to all the people in the room. People — those behaviors I mentioned earlier. Process should mean having a clear speaking order, otherwise some people will talk too much and others not at all. And Time should means starting and ending on time, and having a limited time to speak so people go on and on.
Redundancy is such a killer, especially in larger meetings. Can you talk a bit about how to eliminate it?
People repeating themselves can be eliminated through Flight Recording: record what people say so everyone can see it, whether with a flip chart or a computer and screen. That gives the speaker’s point both importance and visibility over time: even minutes later, it’s still in the group’s awareness. If you don’t have a visual, people tend to repeat their point to keep it in people’s awareness. Having it there for all to see eliminates that need for repetition, and saves a lot of time.
How can we improve those seemingly endless and confusing conference calls and virtual meetings? The ones where half the participants are probably multitasking — ?
First there must always be an agenda with a realistic schedule. Second, there needs to be a speaking order — which I call Air Traffic Control. Though most meeting software has the ability to “raise a hand,” it is much simpler and more efficient to establish a circular order at the beginning of the meeting. A speaking order controls the people who talk too much, and forces the passive people to contribute.
There should also be a shared screen, not just people who “call in.” It will keep the meeting on course. It could be a PowerPoint slide on which you take notes – in the title area, put the topic being focused on at the moment, and the process to be used, i.e. discussion, brainstorming, etc. Only allow people to speak to the topic, using the specified process. The approach eliminates inappropriate tangents.
Recording people’s ideas on the PowerPoint slide will reduce repetition and get everyone to see all points in their totality, depersonalizing them into factors to consider. When people see all factors, the group arrives at “holographic thinking.” Ideas are more complete and solutions are more effective. Even better, there’s no personality in it, no X versus Y, only perspectives.
Make an agreement with everyone in advance that so long as there’s no multi-tasking, the meeting will get done quicker. For extra accountability and a feeling of connected-ness I suggest turning webcams on so everyone can see each other. If there are too many people for webcams, then call on people in a random order — they’d better be ready to speak.
And it goes without saying, but still needs to be said: Everyone should know how to mute themselves.
What’s your ultimate goal for readers of this book?
When it comes to meetings, they can either be a complete waste of time or events where a greater good gets done. My goal is to empower people to make a positive difference in the world — by making every group they are associated with more successful and effective.
To learn more about Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dealing With Meetings You Can’t Stand, visit his website.