As a 52-year-old corporate man by day, and an entrepreneur by night, I’ve attended my fair share of meetings over the last 30 years or so. Some good, some bad, some amazing and a lot just downright pointless.
It’s all bullshit when the meeting is a waste of time. No resolution is reached.
Meetings can be an odd experience. Before you know it the meeting can get out of control. Multiple leaders of differing seniority wearing the new casual dress code, as if the clothes they wear will remove the barriers between them and their subordinates. They can quickly lose the plot, as they flex their ego with words. In other words, they talk a lot. Then, as the meeting wears on the verbal jousting between leadership egos continue. Leaders throw words around. Those looking for their next promotion do the same. Some use graphs and data to appear in touch, some insert phrases into peer’s mouths to ensure they get agreement, a lot hide behind a wall of excuses to avoid blame for any failure. It’s all bullshit of course. Most meetings are a complete and utter waste of time, where no resolution is reached. It's another hour I won't get back and another rebooked meeting. Mostly, if you sit back and observe, you will see that very few have the headroom to be true leaders, a few may be strong managers, but most will be followers trying to be noticed, but inside waiting for instruction.
But it's not all about what is said. Being in more meetings than I care to remember has taught me a valuable lesson: it's also about what isn't said. There are these hidden people that attend meetings. They say nothing. You can attend ten meetings in a row and never hear them say a word. Their words are a privilege reserved for special moments. You find yourself dying to know what they would say. They act as a fly on the wall. With every meeting, they get smarter, by saying nothing at all. They observe the loud beasts, rather than become a beast. My father is one of these special people. No matter how loud and obnoxious the conversation became at our family dinners, we all knew that Dad had that cut-through line up his sleeve - reserved for when the conversation got beyond tedious. I so wish I had seen my Dad in action in the workplace, because in hindsight when I was growing up, he made his skilled and complicated work, look incredibly easy.
I used to be relatively outspoken in meetings, in a bid to leave a good impression. These quiet people like Dad changed my mind. Now I try to sit quietly in most meetings and only speak with relevance. I’m a long way from mastering this skill because I need to control my frustration better - but it has already taught me so much. I have learned through painful attendance of so many meetings three things; 1. Those people with lots to say end up with lots to do 2. Those of us that know our expertise, sit silently - watching the stags rutting, and waiting for the perfect pause to add the relevance the meeting needs. 3. It's not about the quantity of contribution, it is about quality.
The most common misconception is that the loudest person in the room is the most senior, or the brightest spark.... not true. Job titles make people do stupid things. Two of those misdemeanors are talking too much, and courage beyond capability or pay grade. You can have a posh title today and have it gone tomorrow - as far as I am concerned, call me a bucket of frogs if you like, as long as you pay me the money I deserve. You see, what ruins many a business, is people that don’t listen. They think they know the market but actually, they don’t know anything at all. It is fair to say, I think, that the brightest spark in the room says very little. They are there taking notes and paying attention to what is going on. They watch the duel of egos and see no room to interrupt. When the meeting is over they go back to their desk and help complete the list of actions. They are a doer, not a talker.
It’s okay to sit in silence. It doesn’t make you a loser; it makes you smart.
Be that guy or girl - know when to shut up.
Of course, there are times when you’ll be asked to speak about a topic and it would be rude to say no, or act out like a game of charades. You know your shit, that's why you are being asked to comment. So, don't fanny about, speak succinctly, and make your point. Then, once you’ve said what you need to say in the shortest amount of time possible, know when to shut up. Because knowing when not to talk is an art. If you can learn to shut up at the right times, you can hear the unspoken people. You can also hear what is not being said. You become a far more powerful force when you understand dynamics this way.
This is what makes intelligence, knowing when to listen, and learn. Being silent gives the opportunity to listen; listening gives the opportunity to change your life - because when you listen you learn. I distinctly remember my first post-grad job move. It was from a general retailer to a specialist. Both had the same job as store manager, but a very different ethos. One was geared up to sell, in quantity, the other appreciating quality and knowledge. I was working a job and was way out of my depth product-wise... but I listened my way to mastery. By sitting in meeting after meeting and saying nothing, I learned what the customer found important, I learned which key products to throw out as a bluff, I learned how my employer’s business worked. Nobody in those meetings ever found out that I had no idea. This is because, when you listen, people then assume you know what you’re doing. And guess what? You will soon know what you’re doing if you listen. I believe I progressed much faster in my career because I always tried to stay ahead of the knowledge curve.
Yep, it's fair to say, my aim in meetings now is to be the least loud person in the room. There is so much hot air and noise in meetings that achieves nothing. Even in the post-pandemic World of teams and Zoom, where there is a little icon to click, to alert the meeting you wish to speak - even then the egos in the room interrupt and talk over. Egos that talk too much. Egos will never learn to take themselves lightly and dial down his/her own importance. The loudest person in the room is usually the most egotistical, and by default the least smart, because he/she doesn’t know, or have the discipline to shut up. It’s tragic.
So here it is, the summary: Don’t make your life a tragedy by talking too much in meetings. Quiet people change the world because they hear things others don’t. You too can be a quiet person if you choose — but first, you have to stop and see the magic, to be moved to silence.