Dear Val: The Secrets to Mastering Meetings

Dear Val,

How do I survive the “theater of meetings”? As an introvert, I don’t feel comfortable with the real-time verbal sparring and arguments.

I don’t have the snappy comeback, the rhetorical parlor trick that sways the boss or wins people to my side. My head gets so full of various ideas that I’m just not ready to pull it together in a neat package of words. And by the time I might be ready to share something, the conversation has moved on.

Because of all this, I don’t like meetings, and it shows. People can probably sense my discomfort. So what should I do about meetings when I am so uncomfortable?

–Miffed about Meetings

Dear Miffed,

I’m so glad you wrote about your struggle with meetings because just about every introvert I know has described a similar problem. After networking angst, it’s probably the top concern I hear. So we need to talk about it!

Introverts and meetings: a bad match?

First, let’s just say it: most meetings are not run well. Plus, they’re usually led in a way that ends up working better for extroverts than introverts.

The typical format of free-for-all discussions favors people who are more comfortable jumping in before thinking through their thoughts. Extroverts are naturally more comfortable jumping in quickly. Their way is not better or worse than ours—it’s just different.

Introverts prefer to think before speaking, to take in a lot of information about what’s happening in the room, and to integrate all that into a new contribution. All that internal processing doesn’t happen instantly, but it’s important, and it brings a valuable perspective to the conversation. I bet when you do speak, people stop and listen because you’ve put a lot of thought behind your words.

In the typical free-for-all meeting format, the faster responses (or what you called “snappy comebacks” or “parlor tricks”) can dominate. That’s why we get so frustrated in meetings!

Speed ends up being favored over quality of contributions. Both introverts and extroverts have something valuable to say. Speed is not the true test of value. Unfortunately, our culture seems to mistake speed for value.

Changing things starts with you knowing your input is valuable too—even if it’s not speedy.

Is there a better meeting structure?

 In QuietSusan Cain discussed research about what makes meetings effective and ineffective. Check out the aptly named chapter 3, “When Collaboration Kills Creativity.”

The research explored in Cain’s book showed that allowing for individual time to think leads to the best ideas.

For instance, live group brainstorming turns out to be ineffective, despite its popularity. Alternatively, online brainstorming, which allows time to think before responding, is effective.

Since introverts thrive on having time to think first, they’re in a good position to contribute a lot when the structure allows for that.

Do I have to change the meeting structure?

Ideally, you would lead the way to having better meetings or collaboration methods that get better results for the whole organization. I’m not just talking about making meetings work for introverts. I’m talking about changing meetings so they work for everyone.

To learn about better meeting or collaboration methods, a good starting place is chapter 3 of Quiet.

I know speaking up for change is not always an easy thing to do, especially depending on the work dynamics. But don’t dismiss the idea right away. Look for small ways you can ask for changes. You’ll build courage and gain respect of your colleagues and superiors little by little. People will thank you when the meetings improve.

In the meantime, I know you’ll still have to withstand a few not-so-fun meetings. So I’ll leave you with these survival tips that have worked for me and many other introverts.

3 meeting survival tips for introverts

  • Write your thoughts in advance. Get the agenda and think about the points that will be covered before the meeting. Write down your thoughts to help you remember them and to help you relax when the meeting begins.
  • Experiment with speaking before you have the perfect words. It will probably go better than you think. Part of what happens for introverts is that our love of thinking can lead to overthinking and perfectionism. To prevent that, we have to err on the side of talking before we feel ready. In reality, we usually do just fine. After all, you’re doing just fine every day when you speak naturally in conversations.
  • Ask for time to think. Accept that sometimes you simply need time to think and that it’s okay to say so. You might say, “I’m hearing some good points. I have some thoughts brewing about it and would like to come back to that a bit later.” It might feel awkward at first, but both you and they will be fine. Really. I carry this idea that helps me in those awkward moments: “Be you and the world will adapt.”

Readers, what’s your favorite tip for handling meetings? And I’d love to hear if you have taken steps to change how meetings are conducted.

Career or business worries? Send your questions here. 

Share your thoughts.

Let’s keep our discussions reflective, productive, and welcoming. Please follow our Community Guidelines and understand that we moderate comments and reserve the right to delete comments that don’t adhere to our guidelines. You must sign in or sign up to comment.
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  • Chris

    Love this! Anyone have any thoughts for refueling our introverted selves after four full days of workshops with consultants? I find these meetings extremely well-run with a solid agenda and I want to continue to be a part of them. By Friday though I am fried! This comes up in other situations too of course whenever I am surrounded by a number of people for too many hours in a day or too many days in a row.

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  • country club

    My favorite is the squeaky wheel. You know, the person who always has something to say (usually pointless), raises their voice, pounds on the table, throws up their hands, etc. At first this tended to shutdown any plans I had about speaking up. It took me a while to learn that I’m not the only one who takes note of the squeaky wheel and its more derailing than helpful tactics. But I realized that everyone wants to break the pattern and eventually everyone begins to drown out the squeak. If you have something valuable to add, you don’t need to yell to be heard. And what you have to say just might silence the squeak.

    • Oh yes that unproductive squeaky wheel is probably familiar to many of us. I’m glad you’re not letting it derail things. Thanks @disqus_Ds98qAqiLt:disqus

  • Mark

    “Theatre of meetings” is so very apt. Very often it seems the best performer/saleman or most dominating power rather than the best solution wins 🙁

    I try to get most things done without meetings by seeing people individually or in ad-hoc small groups informally so there isn’t chance for the ‘theatre’. Often you have no choice so prepare well and write down to relevant points so you are not totally on-the-fly, if you have a solid though out case with fact to back it up it is difficult to ignore or shout down. Speak with decisive authority, a different voice delivered this way will people sit up and listen.

    • Hi @disqus_CZZtpTsn9w:disqus, thanks for commenting and sharing your experience. It does seem people are resonating with his calling it “a theater.” Sounds like you are coming up with some good ways around that problem.

  • Rue

    Great article! I’m still in university and interning at a hospital. I always felt bad about not being able to process my thoughts quickly and respond in meetings when asked about my ideas. I like the tips you suggested of asking for time to think or writing my thoughts in advance

    • Hi @disqus_Ex5TguNeZn:disqus, I’m so glad it feels helpful to you. No more feeling bad about your way of thinking before speaking! I hope it goes well in your next meetings.

  • Thank you for sharing this story. It’s one thing to tell people that they should have an agenda, or learn how to use introvert-friendly techniques like the round robin, or mute brainstorming & grouping, but many meeting leaders like to talk. They see these practices that give people time to think and prepare as optional. This insight into how winging-it shuts down a good portion of the team can help these meeting leaders better understand why following best practice is more than just a nicety.

    • Regular Joe

      If your definition of “round robin” is where you go around the table and everyone takes turns to speak this is far from introvert-friendly. Yes it gives everyone a chance to speak but what if you don’t want to speak? During my less confident days, this would be my worst nightmare. It would fill me with dread and panic as I would have to say something. There I sat racking my brain of what to say, whilst everyone else took there turn and I just wanted to run at the room.
      My way to combat this would be to go first (I found the less time I had to think, the better) so I would position myself closest to the chairperson. Sometimes this would go well and I would go first, other times it could backfire and I would have to go last.

      • Alan Tecker

        I often feel pressure during the round robin as well and sometimes feel out of energy to speak when this happens at the end of a long meeting. Overall though, my view is that a round robin is a valuable opportunity for an introvert to be heard without being interrupted. There is always the option to say “not at this time.” Something I appreciate is when the leader of the meeting monitors participation and, after a flurry of discussion, asks a quiet person a question that gives him or her an opportunity to add to the discussion. The question could be “are you in agreement with x?” or “what other considerations or solutions are there that we may be missing?”

        • @disqus_zigw6GUmya:disqus, thanks for sharing that experience. I understand what you mean about pressure to speak. There’s no perfect answer for everyone. The key is having a sensitive meeting facilitator who is paying attention to participation and acting accordingly. The facilitator has to value equal participation because s/he understands it adds to the best outcomes.
          When I lead a meeting with the round robin approach, I always make it clear that people can pass and we’ll come back to them for another opportunity. It’s not the order that matters but the opportunity.
          Thanks @alantecker:disqus for adding more thoughts here. I like what you’re describing. Sounds like good caring facilitation to me.

    • Thanks for your comment @elisekeith:disqus. You’re pointing to an important element in that the meeting facilitator needs to care about equal participation and adjust accordingly to what’s needed in the moment. It’s not about following a strict rule list but about tuning in to what matters. Unfortunately we sometimes have to make do with facilitators that aren’t so invested in that idea. At the very least, participants who are feeling frustrated shouldn’t take it personally, and they can begin to take steps to ask for something else, or even offer to lead the meeting!

  • Alan

    Important question and excellent advice on a very relevant topic for many introverts in business settings! As an introvert working in Silicon Valley the past 20 years, I can easily relate to the “challenges in the theater of meetings.” One additional survival tip to consider is to try and capture the “bottom line” or “net” of your planned input. As a simple illustration, calling for an agenda is important, and probably stands on its own merit, but to add weight to this request and connect with action-oriented colleagues, be ready to bottom line it or net it out, as in “the net of advanced agendas is better discussion and decisions for everyone” or “the bottom line is, we will have better discussions and decisions with an advanced agenda.”