I have had this happen to me SO many times.
I’m sitting in a meeting, and something is going on. Not something like an actual thing, but a tense, negative, or unproductive social dynamic between two people or within the group. I must be like The Terminator of sociology because I can actually sense these situations, like in the movie where the heat-seeking goggles glowed red when there were humans around.
Bad vibes like this are why I usually hate meetings. Particularly because people are generally averse to working out conflict openly, so I have to watch it and not talk while it’s actually going on. Just sit there and have to wait it out till it’s over and I can be real again.
Here are some examples beyond the usual Blackberry/smartphone/cellphone abuse:
1. Asserting, without explanation, that an idea will definitely not work
2. Completely ignoring a suggestion and going on to the next person
3. Making the “are you crazy?” face
4. Rolling eyeballs behind someone’s back
5. Responding to idea with blank stare/silence
6. Ganging up on someone (meeting their suggestion with two “no’s”)
7. Laughing at someone’s ideas
8. Standing up and leaving the meeting without explanation
9. Going into “deep chair slouch”
10. Closing eyes
True, sometimes I find myself entertained by the goings on. Sometimes I hear things that are funny, or the group gets along and there are decent jokes. Always there is some gossip, that’s not too bad. Meetings can be educational as well, seriously. But more often than not, as soon as they get into full swing I feel like I am 9 years old again and watching a big family dinner degenerate.
Please don’t start writing comments about how YOUR place of work has fantastic meetings and how you feel bad for me, OK? It’s not about any particular agency; I’ve been around for more than a dozen years, both in government and outside it, and they all generally stink. As soon as you call it a “meeting” and whip out the leather portfolios and play business card roulette, group dynamics start going into motion and the pain begins.
I actually did have a good meeting recently. I had to participate in a phone call to plan for another meeting (yes, this is Washington, land of meetings) and to be honest I had dreaded the phone call all morning. Not because of the participants, but just because I get nervous about planned social interactions. Surprise, surprise. My skin is about as thick as wax paper.
Then, mercifully, the whole thing lasted maybe 15 minutes. Fortunately for me most of the other participants did not remember to get on the call! And those of us that remained agreed: We were so relieved not to have to continue the meeting and everything would work out just fine and we would immediately get back to our cubes, or Starbucks or whatever place we could go to with our notebooks and hide from the rest of humanity to recover.
Actually, wait. I have to admit that I had another good meeting today. And that is because the vendor forgot to show up. We all sat around waiting for awhile until it was clear that we had been stood up, and it couldn’t properly be called a meeting anymore. That was when the dynamics stopped and we started to just be ourselves.
Maybe the problem with meetings is that we associate them with the pressure to seem like a grownup, when inside we’re all just little kids. We think that grownups at meetings have to show up and seem to know some amazing, mystical important thing. Like the meeting room is a gladiator ring, and our brains and smart mouths are our weapons. And if we don’t show up and fight, we’re dead.
And then there’s all this talk about being collaborative! And we’re surprised when people are not!
I wonder what life would be like at meetings if we forgot that we were at work. We could imagine that work is over, that it’s happy hour or back in college or even back to the days of our childhood, when we sat outside and waited on the porch for the ice cream truck.
My mother told me yesterday that some rabbits gave birth on her front lawn and the neighborhood girls hung around to watch as my mom figured out how to deal with it. I’m sure they gave her advice too. Maybe it was kind of a – meeting – because surely my mom called the neighbors and they all weighed in.
I know this sounds totally disgusting, the whole rabbits giving birth part, but I have a feeling that the rabbit meeting was sort of cool. Because the getting together was not about a fight to the death but rather about actually hanging out together and solving a problem too. Which is really what meetings should be about.
Elderly people know how to have meetings too. I see them sometimes hanging around in packs. Comparing notes, complaining, yakking away the time.
Funny how kids and the elderly seem to understand a paradox of time: how it can at once seem to stretch out endlessly and be just about gone. It’s not that they aren’t ever hostile to each other, just that they either haven’t learned or have gotten past the need to aggressively prove themselves by excluding or being hostile to others.
I say we get rid of meetings altogether and replace them with potluck lunches, vegan. Or make your own ice cream sundae parties. Or heck, we could just go out on the National Mall and ride bikes. Wait there for the ice cream truck.
Anything but try to act like grownups.
Copyright 2016 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D. The opinions expressed are her own, and the content of this post is not intended to represent any federal agency or the government as a whole.