Top tips for communicating well in difficult meetings

One of the things all researchers have to face is, occasionally, a difficult meeting. It might be a meeting with your supervisor where you haven’t produced as much writing as you said you would. Or it might be a meeting with a collaborator whose way of working is disrupting the team. It might be a meeting with a student to raise issues of potential academic misconduct.

Some meetings are stressful just because of the kind of meeting they are, even if everyone is delighted with how things are going and you are all getting along fine: for example research progress committee meetings, vivas, and annual reviews. Like job interviews, they are stressful because they have really significant outcomes.

Most issues can be resolved by good communication, but, when we are stressed, we often become worse communicators. Some people talk too much, or blank on what they were going to say. People use closed-off or aggressive body language. People obsessively rehearse what they are going to say over and over and over, but can’t listen anymore.

So what can you do to make sure you communicate well in difficult meetings? How do you make sure you both get your point across and hear what the other person is actually saying? I used to teach this stuff at Melbourne Business School for 4 years, so here is my boiled-down wisdom.

The first thing is to try to feel in control. If you are shaking with stress or rage or exhaustion, you won’t be able to think clearly, strategise towards your big goal, or to respond to things that come up in the meeting. This doesn’t mean you need to have no feelings (zombies have no brains), but that you need to avoid hyperarousal (what is sometimes called ‘fight or flight‘–though humans, like rabbits, are more likely to freeze.) You are going for ‘in control’ here, not ‘totally zen’.

If you are calmer, you will be able to think clearly and respond to things that come up in the meeting. Your body language will also signal to the other person that you are open to talking and listening and working together.

Before the meeting, think about things you can do to help you unfreeze. You only need 2-5 minutes to help you feel a bit more in control.  Can you go for a quick walk? What about shutting yourself in the bathroom and doing a power pose for 2 minutes? How about watching something that will make you laugh?

In the meeting, where possible, start by making a personal connection, to remind both of you that the other person is also a human being. We are all fallible and well-intentioned and making an effort. Physical contact like shaking hands is great, but some small talk (holidays, weather, traffic) will have a similar effect. (Avoid telling a joke. While laughter is great for building rapport, jokes are very delicate and nuanced, and they can go badly wrong if we don’t get all the words, pauses, inflections and body language just right!)

When you sit down, roll your shoulders back and down. It doesn’t really matter what you do with your hands or your head, but hunched shoulders are a sign (to others and to yourself) of defensiveness or defeat. My favourite posture is the ‘pentagon’: shoulders back and down, hands clasped in front of me resting on the desk.

Screen Shot 2017-09-18 at 5.01.51 pm
The ‘pentagon’ posture. By Katherine Firth

I just made this picture up, but it perfectly explains what I mean!

Every time you are asked a question, or anytime you are about to speak (or get stuck while speaking):

  • make eye contact
  • take a deep breath in
  • breathe out
  • smile
  • if appropriate, say ‘thank you’.

Feel free to write this little script down!

This script is so useful for so many reasons: it helps you feel calmer, it gives you a minute to think about what you are going to say next, it connects you to the other people in the room, it makes you look positive.

It’s also useful because it stops you falling into less useful habits: you aren’t frozen, you don’t scrunch your face up or look out the window to think, you don’t ramble on searching for your point, you don’t apologise.

Startup Stock PhotosBasically, with these strategies in your bag, you can be summonsed into a difficult meeting at short notice and still make it through to the other end.

But if you have a bit more time to prepare, or you are regularly having meetings that are difficult, here are 4 extra tips to help you get even more out of them. 

  1. Think about your big picture goal.
    – Knowing the biggest goal can help you deal with smaller issues.
    For example: ‘The point of this meeting is to contribute to me passing my PhD’ rather than ‘The point of this meeting is to get no negative feedback.’ (As you can guess, the negative feedback is probably there to help you reach your big goal, even if it’s unpleasant in the short term!).
    – Knowing the big goal can also help you compromise if the other person makes a suggestion that wasn’t your original recommendation but still gets you towards your end point.
  2. Prepare but don’t over prepare. 
    – It’s really useful to have thought in advance about what you are going to say and what the issues the other person might raise.
    Is there information it would be good for you to check? Are there things you should bring along?
    – However, going in with a rigid script you have written out or rehearsed too much means you can’t react to new information that might come up in the meeting.
  3. Take notes
    – Take some notes into the meeting (those things you prepared, the breathing-eye contact-smiling script).
    -But also take notes in the meeting to record what you discussed and any agreed outcomes!
  4. Listen to the other person.
    – About 80% of meetings called to resolve conflicts get solved in the first 5 minutes, when it turns out one or both sides are working from incomplete information.
    For example: ‘Oh, that’s annoying you too?’ or ‘We’re working from this schedule… oh, didn’t you get sent it? sorry!’ or ‘I said I couldn’t do Wednesday, but I’m happy to get it to you by Friday’.
    – Don’t be shy to ask follow up questions to make sure you understood what they are really trying to communicate.
    For example: ‘So when you say I need to find a few more quotes, do you see that as 2 days of work or a few weeks?’, or ‘Am I hearing you right that my next steps are to go to the Library and sign up for the NVivo and EndNote workshops?’
    – In the longer term, this will help you to imagine what the other person might be experiencing when the situation first arises, and help you prepare better or avoid the need for a difficult meeting in the first place!

Almost everyone you work with in universities is smart, well-intentioned, and trying to get the job done. Putting yourself in their shoes, asking around for advice, and practicing using these strategies will help you make your case, and hear the other person’s, to communicate well in meetings, even when the meetings are difficult.

However, if the meeting is difficult because of bullying or harassment, please don’t spend any time worrying about your shoulder posture! Instead, make sure you talk to a supportive person (perhaps the chair of your research progress panel, or a more senior manager, HR, or your Union representative) and get help to resolve the issues.  You can often invite a third person into the meetings who can help diffuse the situation or protect you (or at least be a witness if there is inappropriate behaviour). 

What have you found works best for you when preparing for difficult meetings? Share any tips in the comments!

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this great post Katherine. While I wish I’d read it while I was still immersed in my PhD, it certainly has wider applications in both my current work unit and when I’m supporting the research of postgrads. I really like the combined idea of the pentagon pose and the script.

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