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November 2000
Vol. 9, No. 10, 47, 48,
Workplace Perspectives
Business Meeting Basics

overhead photo of a meetingBe prepared to participate and contribute in a positive way.

Internal company meetings can be a great opportunity to get noticed, create company allies, and participate in group efforts. This can be particularly important for new employees and chemists in new assignments. Yet many chemists tend to sit passively during meetings, letting decisions be made without their participation. Or worse, they practice inappropriate meeting behaviors that can certainly damage their workplace reputation. How can you participate constructively in meetings and help achieve the meeting objectives while using them as an arena to boost your reputation?

Begin each meeting with a clear understanding of its subject, its purpose, how you can contribute, and what you can expect to learn. It may be that the potential benefits of the meeting to you and others do not justify your attendance.

For example, my former employer, in trying to be open with employees, often held large meetings in which high-level managers presented information already sent to us by e-mail. Although the speakers at these large meetings always asked for questions and input, there was very little. Hence, the information presented rarely extended beyond what had already been provided to employees. Many people, including me, soon decided that such meetings were not a productive use of our time unless we did not understand some of the information e-mailed to us or had a particular question to ask or a point to make to a manager.

Appropriate Attire
Begin by dressing appropriately in accordance with the workplace culture. For example, when meeting engineers in paper mills, I wear a polo shirt or sports shirt and casual slacks. Jackets and ties are definitely out of place in a paper mill. Even in this attire, I am often overdressed compared with customers—but not so overdressed that I am regarded as a rookie in the business.

At my former employer, where internal, all-day meetings were often held in small rooms that grew warmer as the day passed, it was understood that jackets and ties and the equivalents for women were not worn for the sake of comfort.

However, in business meetings with customers, and when you attend conferences (particularly when you present a paper), business dress is usually the most appropriate attire. At many conferences, business casual is encouraged. However, this term is vague and means different things to different people. One should err on the side of conservatism when deciding what clothes to wear. When in doubt, ask the advice of someone who has recently attended similar meetings.

Arrive at the meeting on time. Be prepared by being familiar with the agenda or subject of the meeting. When in doubt, ask the person who is organizing the meeting what it will be about. This will enable you to prepare by thinking about the subject and possibly reading background material. You will better understand how you can participate and contribute. When you know what the meeting is about, you may even want to mention some of your thoughts on the meeting to the meeting organizer.

Choose a strategic seat when you arrive. If your boss is already present, sit near him or her. This shows support. Latecomers and people who oppose the boss or the subject of the meeting often will sit far away from the boss or meeting organizer.

If your boss is not there yet, choose a seat that will give you a good view of any visual aids that will be used. Try to choose a seat toward the middle of the table, where you will have the maximum number of neighbors and be at the center of the discussion action.

Active Listening
Effective, active listening is an important teamwork and meeting skill. Follow the presentations and discussions closely. Asking pertinent questions at appropriate points, restating someone’s position in your own words, and nodding to show understanding all serve to indicate to the presenter and other attendees that you are an interested participant in the meeting. However, don’t ask questions or engage in these behaviors to show off. Appropriate use of these behaviors lets speakers and discussion participants know whether their message is getting through or if they need to clarify a point.

You can also use body language to indicate interest, support, and understanding. Sit erectly and lean toward the table. Look at the person speaking and make frequent eye contact. Take appropriate notes.

Avoid negative body language such as crossing your arms across your chest, frowning, or gazing into space. Don’t slouch in your chair or lean back from the table. All these behaviors indicate opposition or rejection.

Asking questions indicates your interest and is a means of obtaining additional information. Avoid asking questions in an abrasive or overly aggressive way. Open-ended questions, often beginning with “How”, “Why”, or “What”, should prompt an extended response. They are usually most useful early in a discussion, when the parameters of a problem or solution are being determined. Open-ended questions can help to settle major issues and define options.

Closed-ended questions often begin with “Who”, “Which”, or “When” and usually solicit a relatively brief response. Closed-ended questions are best used to solicit very specific information and as a process check to be sure you understand a previous answer.

Speak up at appropriate points to ask questions or state your own views. Speak distinctly. Nervousness has a tendency to make you speak rapidly, often in a low tone. For me, my nervousness often puts a quaver in my voice. Be aware of your poor speech behaviors and guard against them.

When you do speak up, be concise. By being concise, you avoid inappropriately taking over the meeting. The other attendees will lose interest if you make a long, poorly organized statement. If possible, prepare an organized statement. For example, starting with “I think there are three factors to consider” will guarantee your audience’s interest as they prepare to listen and learn what these three factors are. Go to the blackboard if appropriate.

Being Open-Minded
Be open to opposing points of view. Don’t go into a meeting with your mind made up before hearing others’ points of view. There may always be a significant factor you haven’t considered. This practice will reduce the number of times you are in opposition and help you be on the “winning side” more often.

In the interest of group harmony, once a decision is made, go along with it even if you disagree. When you disagree before a decision is made, never apologize for your position or become emotional. Rely on facts. However, opposing prevailing logic too often can give you a reputation as a nonsupportive, negative person.

If you are utterly convinced that an already-made decision is incorrect, figure out what appropriate remedial action can be taken and be ready to propose it when the problems of the decision become apparent to others. Often, working out alternative courses of action alongside the decided course of action in the form of a decision tree is the best way to present your suggestion, because others may be resisting change and holding to the original, incorrect decision. A sketch or printout of your decision tree is an excellent visual aid for presenting suggestions on how to recover from a poor team decision.

If you think that you find yourself in opposition to decisions and prevailing logic too frequently, it is a good idea to consider whether you are truly compatible with the prevailing corporate culture. If you feel you are not compatible, find out whether your team leader or supervisor thinks you are in opposing positions too often. It may be that there is a deep-seated compatibility problem and that you should seek employment in another department or company. You should also find out whether your supervisor thinks you are being abrasive when speaking in opposition.

When listening to people speak, being patient lets them feel that they are participating without feeling that you are trying to take over the meeting and “railroad” them into accepting your point of view.

Be supportive of others. Saying, “I agree because …” is a low-risk way to speak up at meetings. However, be sure you thoroughly understand the facts before speaking.

These techniques are also useful in meetings with customers and suppliers, in professional society committee and governance meetings, and during question periods after technical presentations.


John K. Borchardt is a research chemist who has published more than 100 technical papers and has been awarded 30 U.S. patents. He is also the author of Career Management for Scientists and Engineers, published recently for ACS Books by Oxford University Press (http://www.oup-usa.org/acs).

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