Communication strategies to professionally get out of meetings
Meetings – I’m yet to find someone who gets overwhelmed with joy at the mention of them. Considering meetings are costing us as much as 31 lost hours of productivity every month, you can understand the need for my sarcasm.
On average, Australian workers spend 16% of their day on activities that waste their time and effort, which include emails, technology waiting time and meetings.
There’s nothing worse than having to abandon your urgent workload for yet another meeting, only to realise halfway through that you didn’t even need to be there. But as the next invitation comes through, you resentfully squeeze it into your calendar and click ‘accept’. Why? Because it would be rude to say no…wouldn’t it?
Not necessarily. If pointless meetings are infringing on your productivity, it’s perfectly okay to set some boundaries. And the keyword here, is pointless. There are meetings which you must attend and that’s fair enough, but then there are some where you catch yourself thinking ‘why am I here’.
To help you get your time back, here are some these strategies for getting out of your next meeting whilst keeping your professionalism intact.
- Do you need to be there?
First, establish whether or not you actually need to be at the meeting. For information-sharing meetings, you can politely decline and request a summary afterwards. If you’re not clear on your role, though, ask to see an agenda or ask the organiser whether you need to contribute.
If you do need to contribute, find out in what capacity. If there’s a project issue to resolve, for example, you’ll probably be needed in person. However, if you simply need to give an update, you can distribute this to the attendees via email prior to the meeting.
If you don’t need to contribute, look at the agenda to see if you’ll miss anything important. If not, and it seems the meeting can progress without you, explain that you can’t make it this time. Assure the organiser that you’ll review the minutes afterwards and take responsibility for any necessary actions.
- Can you leave early?
You tried, but it looks like you can’t skip it this time. To make matters worse, the last time you attended, the meeting ran for two hours! In this case, find out if you need to attend the entire meeting. You may just be able to deliver your contribution and leave, or you may find that only the first half is relevant to your project.
Explain to the host beforehand that you’re stretched for time and you don’t want to miss out. Ask to see an agenda so that you can plan when you need to be there. If you’re contributing, request that your slot be moved to the beginning of the meeting, so that you can deliver it with minimal disruption. Arrive early, politely remind the host that you won’t be staying long, and sit by the door for a discrete exit.
- Lateness and no-shows
You’ve turned up to meeting but there’s no sign of the host. You could be doing something productive with this time, but what will they think if they turn up and you’re not there?!
If the host is a no-show, you’re perfectly within your rights to leave after a certain point. Wait around ten minutes, and then leave a polite note explaining that you had to run, but you’d be happy to reschedule at a later date. You can even drop them an email afterwards just to be sure they got the message.
- Limit your meetings
If you feel like you’re overextending yourself, consider taking a step back from any steering groups, working groups, advisories or boards you currently sit on to free up some time. You might also set a limit on the number of meetings you can reasonably attend in any given day or week.
Reinforce your availability by blocking out focused work time in your calendar. When secretaries or assistants are scheduling meetings, they often look at the calendars of key internal attendees to choose the best date. If you’re integral to the meeting, they’ll try to choose a time you’ve indicated as free in your calendar, or contact you directly to request flexibility. If they don’t, assume that you’re not needed unless you hear otherwise.
- Plan your escape
You’re in the meeting but it’s going in circles or worse – running over time. How do you politely extricate yourself?
If you’re sure you’re no longer needed, a simple ‘excuse me – something has come up’ and a discrete exit will suffice. If you feel uncomfortable, you can elaborate in an email to the organiser afterwards, explaining that you didn’t want to interrupt but you had a prior commitment and you were running late.
- When ‘no’ isn’t enough
Despite your best efforts to set boundaries, some people will consistently try to draw you in to unnecessary meetings. If this happens, stand firm. Be polite and respectful, but avoid excessive explanation or justification, because this invites debate and negotiation. If the person is a senior figure or somebody you don’t feel comfortable standing up to, seek the help of a supportive manager.
If your manager is the one monopolising your time, explain to your manager that meetings are cutting into your productivity. Show them your diary to illustrate your point if necessary, and highlight which meetings you felt you didn’t gain from attending. Your manager might not realise the extent of your other commitments, or they might simply have different ideas about your priorities or goals.
Take back your time today!
Setting professional boundaries can be a challenge, but it all comes down to effective communication. Janine Marin is a professional communications mentor, specialising in helping professionals like you to respectfully and confidently assert yourself at work. Visit Janine’s mentoring page for more information, or contact Janine today for a no-obligation discussion.
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