Why is this meeting so hard to follow?

I’m going to make a confession here, often in meetings I am totally lost.  Totally.  Lost.  I like to think I’m a pretty capable person, but some meetings make my eyes absolutely glaze over.  If the meeting is virtual, compound that by about 10X.

Why are meetings so hard to follow?  And why does everyone seem to have a different interpretation of what was decided?  Is there anything a participant an do about it or is this just the nature of the beast?

Here are 5 things that I find, make meetings hard to follow.  Then let’s see if we can experiment with an improvement.

  1. Topic hopping
    When there are 2 topics on the table and the discussion is bouncing between them, it can be hard to connect comments to the right topic. Worse still is that you have brain power split between two (or more!) topics.  You hear things like “wait are you referring to the budget or the sales numbers?”  Topic hoping also makes it hard to interject a question or clarification because the topic keeps changing.  You might hear “Can we back up.  I have a question about an earlier topic.”

  2. Rabbit holes
    Discussions can get lost in the details.   Are the details actual factors in making a decision or are they just “work to be done later”?  Rabbit holes are usually full of jargon, and jargon tends to be hard to follow.  When a discussion gets into the weeds, it can be hard to connect back to the purpose of the meeting.

  3. Ramblers
    C’mon you know who I’m talking about right?  The people who go on and on and don’t seem to be saying anything?  It’s exhausting to try and figure out the point they are making and at some point I just give up and start checking email.  Oops did I say that out loud?

  4. Unclear decision factors
    People keep throwing out information. It’s hard to tell what's important and what's just a red herring.  Sometimes the same factors keep coming up.  It sounds like this, “I still think we need to consider the costs”.  And sometimes it feels like a bottomless pit of decision factors. “Well we haven’t talked to Jim in accounting, we should get his perspective.”

  5. No explicit decision
    We talked and talked and now it’s time to make a decision. Someone proposes a path forward and then the discussion is rehashed. “But what about the performance risks?”  “What about the cost?”  It’s everyone’s opinion on what’s important and what isn’t and the group has no idea how to come to a decision.  Sometimes the meeting just ends and someone makes a de facto decision.  Sometimes there’s another painful meeting because there was no decision

What can you do as a participant to help make the meeting easier to follow?

Experiment:  Make the Discussion Visual.
Making the discussion visual is something you can do whether you are a participant or the leader of the meeting.  Use a visual anchor to orient the group.  A technique like Dialogue Mapping or Visual Facilitation can help discussions stay on track.   Try using an online mind mapping tool like coggle.it or just grab  a whiteboard marker.  A word document works too!  It takes a little practice to keep up with the discussion so give yourself some leeway to learn.  Tell the team you want to experiment with it an enlist their help.  

If it's your meeting, you can plan and set this up ahead of time.  If you are a participant, I recommend you just grab a marker.  

1. Start with a question the meeting is seeking to answer.  “Which cloud platform should we use?”
2. Each time a new idea or proposal is raised, add a branch.
3. Each time pro/con is raised, jot that under the proposal branch.
4. If you miss a point, don't worry.  Just write something and if it's wrong, another participant will let you know. 

How it helps:
— It’s visually evident when you’re in a rabbit hole
— When a point is revisited, you can just point to it on the map
— People feel heard
— Proposals and Decision factors are explicit
— People who struggle with auditory information can see it visually (me!)
— Ramblers can visually show the group where their point fits in
— Miscommunications can be corrected immediately
— Topic Hopping is explicit

I'd love to hear from you!  Please share things you've tried when meetings have become hard to follow.