Having Meetings that Work

By: Paul Godin

Have you ever walked out of a 2 hour meeting with the feeling that you’ve just wasted two hours of time and accomplished next to nothing, or that something was accomplished but no-one is sure what? Even when we pride ourselves on being effective or experienced negotiators, we may be less successful than we’d like, particularly in contexts where we don’t necessarily see ourselves as negotiators. Other than our ‘negotiations’ at home, a perfect example of this problem is a typical meeting.

Now that time is increasingly at a premium, we can all benefit from a few simple guidelines on how to make meetings more effective. There are steps that we can take both before and during meetings to better use that time and better satisfy our goals. An effective encounter will not only make you feel better, but others in the meeting as well. You will present more effectively and accomplish more.

Meetings come in all shapes and sizes, from the single person being called into your office to discuss a particular issue, to the production line chat, to the room full of characters formally assembled to deal with a complex variety of topics (a kickoff meeting, for example). In many cases, the problem is that we spend time thinking about what we want to accomplish in these sessions, but not about how to get there.

Here are some common sense tips to assist in preparing for a meeting. Use them as a guide or even a checklist for the conduct of meetings, whether you are running them or just attending. Although not an exhaustive list, it provides a good overview of many key issues to consider. I deal first with issues concerning preparation and then with issues that arise at the meeting.


a) Conceptual Issues

  • Identify the purpose of the meeting.
  • Identify what product is desired.
  • Think about your role in the meeting.

b) Substantive Issues

  • What are the interests (wants, needs, concerns, desires), which you would like to satisfy as a result of the meeting? Consider the interests of the other participants.
  • Get the necessary facts;
    • do you need advance submissions?
    • do you need to interview anyone?
    • review/research/find relevant documents.
  • Research any policies, rules, or regulations applicable to the meeting issues.
  • Does information need to be exchanged in advanced? Do views? How?
  • What are the expectations of the other participants and do those expectations need to be addressed?
  • What background information and objective fair standards need to be present to make the necessary decisions (financial projections, experts, photos, quotes, etc.)

c) Physical Issues

  • What is the location that would work best for the meeting (neutral/your place/theirs)?
  • Consider the environment for the meeting, including such issues as formality, the impact on parties, the physical setting of tables, chairs, windows, food, etc.
  • What resources need to be present (e.g. overheads, powerpoint projector etc.)?
  • Who should attend or be available by phone? Ensure all necessary parties are at the table.

d) General Issues

  • Consider relationship issues (What is the relationship going into the meeting? What do you want it to be? What can you say to get it there?)
  • Consider whether the meeting may need ground rules for procedure.
  • Consider and design the process for the meeting (Who needs to be heard? How and for how much time? Which issues need to be addressed as priorities?).
  • Draft an agenda (How formal? How do you get buy-in to the agenda? Input?).
  • How do you communicate your ideas effectively (Presentation? Notes? Visuals? Order of issues? etc.)?
  • How do you get others to contribute effectively (e.g. Do you give advance notice of the agenda so they can contemplate the issues and amend the agenda?)


Even when you’re in a meeting, there are many things you can do to move the meeting in a productive direction, whether you’re running the meeting or not. In my experience, if direction is lacking, most participants in a meeting will ultimately appreciate having a good structure developed for the meeting.

Among the issues to consider in terms of making the meeting more effective when you’re actually in the fray are:

a) Conceptual

  • Identify and clarify the purpose of the meeting and any agenda up front without generating hostility. For example, you can encourage participation and buy-in by proposing an agenda, then asking for comments, changes, and additions, listening to and acknowledging the concerns of the others present.
  • Clarify the interests (wants, needs, concerns, desires) of the parties present.
  • Clarify the roles of the parties present.
  • Maintain focus.

b) Substantive Issues

  • Are the necessary materials, documents and information present?
  • See items under (b) for Preparation.
  • Don’t forget closure:
    • summarize what’s been done;
    • identify and outline the steps to be taken after the meeting (be specific);
    • clarify expectations: who is to take what steps and on what time schedule;
    • complete whatever you can while all are together (set the next meeting date and time, don’t just say, “we’ll meet later”);
    • complete any necessary documentation; and
    • take notes of necessary information.

c) Physical Issues

  • Does the room environment need to be changed?
  • Are the right people present and do they have authority?
  • Are there agency/representation issues?

d) General Issues

  • Are Ground Rules needed?
    • Timing (of meeting, individual submissions)
    • Respect / no personal attacks
  • Clarify chair / facilitator role if appropriate
  • Appoint chair/facilitator (should it be you?)
  • Role of parties/ introduction
  • Timekeeper?
  • Are minutes necessary- who keeps them?
  • Decide on how to structure the process (it may be the first, though hopefully not the only, thing the participants agree on).
  • Manage the emotion; you can:
    • Take breaks
    • Acknowledge and deal with concerns
    • Actively listen
    • Remind of the ground rules if necessary

At the end of the day, many of these tips can be summarized simply as the 4 P’s:

  • People – are the right people there?
  • Purpose – why are you meeting?
  • Process -how do you structure the meeting to achieve the purpose?
  • Product – what do you hope to obtain?

A little time thinking about how you hold a meeting, particularly in advance while there is still flexibility, can reap tremendous rewards in terms of what you cover in that meeting. As an example, I was able, in one thirty minute meeting, to solicit two ideas each from 15 people, then spend 20 minutes on analysis of those ideas. How? By spending 3 short minutes at the beginning, outlining and clarifying the purpose and process of the session. Simply by spending five minutes thinking about some of the concerns listed above, you will see benefits in productivity, in morale, and in creativity.

About Paul Godin

Paul Godin is a lawyer, mediator and educator at Stitt, Feld, Handy Group in Toronto, one of Canada’s leading firms for the practice and teaching of negotiation and dispute resolution. He also teaches negotiation and contracting for Project managers at CDI Corporate Learning. (Paul,sfhh.com)

About Stitt Feld Handy Group

The members of the Stitt Feld Handy Group teach, practise, conduct research, and publish in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Negotiation. The Group also provides consultation advice for the design and implementation of ADR and conflict-management systems.