Strategy for your next meeting: Listening

Our business life is comprised on projects and meetings. Mostly, it all comes down to project planning and execution and meeting producitivty. If you get both of these right, you can really make a difference.

This post regards meetings. In my experience (hundreds of conference room meetings), most participants don’t listen very well. You think they are listening, because they are writing in their journals furiously, but you find later that very little of your ideas sunk in. Why? Because listening is a highly visual experience.

To set this point up, ask yourself; does a phone call or a face to face meeting accomplish more? The answer for most is the face to face meeting. The reason why is because your face and body language communicate your intentions. Dr. Albert Merhabian (UC Berkely) studied communications for decades and published some of his key findings in his landmark book, Mixed Messages. He argues that when people aren’t sure of what they hear, they resolve their understanding based on what they see. Are you frowning? Do you have your arms folded? In fact, he concluded that 55% of our intentions are decoded by others visually (face, body language), 38% through auditory means (tone of voice) and only 7% verbally. That’s why email is such a poor medium to convey emotions.

Many times, though, we don’t use our eyes to figure out true intentions/emotions in a meeting. We are too busy writing things down, looking at our blackberry or out of a window. I’ve found that if I take less notes and look around the room, I can understand who feels what. This concept is called facial recognition. Dr. Paul Eckman spent most of his life researching this idea. He learned that from New Jersey to New Guinea, people express the seven basic emotions exactly the same way in their facial expressions. It can happen quickly though, so you have to pay close attention. He calls this concept emotional leakage. He’s trained police, teachers and even sales executives how to spot emotions this way and in two hours he can double the average person’s ability to facially recognize emotions. If you are a policeman, understanding the difference between guilt and fear can save someone’s life. If you are a sales exec, knowing the difference between surprise and disgust can prevent unecessary price concessions. If you’d like to examine this technology for yourself, visit my 7 faces page.

Here are a few things you can do in your next meeting:

1. Don’t write down anything except the promises that you make, or action items you are assigned. If you must, assign someone to be the official meeting scribe. Rotate such assignments for a project with frequent meetings so no one is cut out of the visual loop. I’ve also found that a handheld recorder can do the job. Get everyone’s permission to record the meeting and then send out the audio file to a transcription service. You’ll get back meeting transcripts at only a few dollars a page, which are alot more insightful than your scribbles.

2. If you see something, especially a disturbing emotion, ask them about it. You can say, “You look surprised/upset/happy — let’s talk about it.” You’ll find that the other person is usually happy to talk about it and in the end she feels like she’s been “heard”.

3. Don’t bring ANY devices to a meeting (unless there is an urgent phone call coming at any time). These gadgets are a big distraction. Leave cell phones, black berrys and especially laptops at your desk. If you are having a meeting in your office or cubicle, turn off your computer monitor.

Try this out, you’ll immediately see the results in your meetings driven life.

Recommended reading; Death By Meeting by Patrick Lencioni