How to Own a Meeting You Don’t Lead

Recently I gave Part 1 of a webinar on ProjectManagement.com entitled “Meeting Facilitation: How to Own the Meeting You Lead.” One of the participants asked me a question after my presentation which got the wheels of my mind turning, because while I did answer on-the-spot, my answer could’ve been a lot more robust and thoughtful if only I’d had more time to really dive into it. So…here I am, diving. Let’s start with the question the participant asked, heavily paraphrased since my memory isn’t quite that good!

How do you own a meeting you don’t lead, such as when you’re invited to a meeting as a SME (Subject Matter Expert)?

I answered that if you didn’t call the meeting, then you can’t (by default) actually own the meeting. It’s not your agenda, not your objectives, not your goals. That’s not to say you wouldn’t attend the meeting with a few of your own objectives in mind, but unless you’ve previously worked those out with the meeting organizer/leader/facilitator, then you’re pretty much at the mercy of how that person conducts their meeting, whether good, bad or indifferent. And that, I think, is where I need to drift in a direction that is less about owning the meeting you’re not the leader of, and more about owning yourself, your thoughts, your words and your deeds in any situation, meeting or otherwise.

Your Fault

Human beings are really good at playing the Blame Game. Sometimes we blame another person for something not being the way we think it should be. I have an acquaintance who, when she can’t find her scissors, immediately asks her long-time roommate, “What did you do with the scissors?” which is basically her saying, “You took my scissors and didn’t put them back, and now I’m put out because I need them!” This immediate knee-jerk reaction of blaming someone else before even thinking about it, leads to all kinds of drama in this case because so far it’s turned out that it’s always her who’s misplaced the scissors rather than her roommate taking them!

Many times we blame a Higher Power, whichever one you happen to believe in (if any). For example, blaming “God” because you lost your house to foreclosure so it must be His will that you be homeless and poor, never mind that you spent your money on “stuff” rather than paying your mortgage. This kind of blaming happens throughout a movie musical that I love, Fiddler on the Roof, with main character Tevye always conversing with God and asking Him why He made him poor, why He brings him bad news on his daughter’s wedding day, etc. It’s funny in the movie, but not so much so in real life, because blaming someone else – even a deity – for your problems is the ultimate in not taking responsibility for the Newtonian physics of your own life! (Newton’s Third Law of Physics: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.)

Then there’s self-blame. A lot of people – and I mean a lot of people – walk around Earth truly believing that absolutely everything that happens is their fault, even if it happens thousands of miles away from them. Many do actually have the idea that everything they touch turns to ashes, including a close friend of mine, because her entire life seems to have been one long streak of bad luck. And while it’s true more often than not that we are the orchestrators of our circumstances on some level, other peoples’ behaviors aren’t your fault anymore than yours are theirs.

I admit to frequently joking that when things go haywire it’s my fault because everything is my fault…but there’s more truth to that in my philosophy on life than you might think. However, I’m not here to talk to you about my beliefs, I’m here to talk to you about how to own the meetings you don’t lead…and understanding the Blame Game (as well as refusing to play it) is where my answer begins.

What is your first instinct when that bombastic boss who’s a little too in love with himself invites you to a meeting? A friend of mine experienced that week in and week out at what used to be one of the top television networks in the US. She and her coworkers got invited to all sorts of meetings that kept them away from their desks, thereby preventing them from getting work done, and all they did was sit quietly in the meeting while the bombastic boss told them this, that and the other thing. If she or anyone else spoke up they were advised that they weren’t there to participate. Talk about immediate disempowerment.

That may have made you laugh nervously or groan, but that’s because it’s probably painfully familiar. At one time or another we have all worked at a place where the management wants to give their workers the illusion that a) they care, b) the employees have a say in anything, and c) decisions are made taking employees’ needs, thoughts, ideas and desires into consideration. With rare exceptions, that is seldom the case. So you know when that person invites you to a meeting, or you attend one of those massive quarterly all-department town halls, you’re going to get talked at, not with…you’re going to get told, not asked…and you’re going to either be bored or so tired of hearing the same things over and over again that you want to just run out and never look back.

Paradoxically, this is where your power truly lies. When you are feeling the least in control is when you can own each and every moment and find your true power. Because rather than giving in to the Blame Game (“He is such an idiot; why do they even bother; who do they think they’re kidding; I’ll never get a word in edgewise; they’re not really listening to me; she only cares about herself”), you can listen, learn and own how you are going to be, act and respond to the situation. This is the POWER of YOU.

Harry Potter: Professor SnapeLet’s go back to a meeting you are invited to that you do not own, and in the world of Project Management you could be there for any number of reasons including, as the previously mentioned webinar participant brought up, as a SME. If you are a SME, then theoretically you will be asked one or more questions during the meeting, about a subject in which you are considered to have some level of expertise. What do you do? Own your content. When you are asked something, answer confidently. Show the room that you came to the meeting as prepared as you could be with facts (if you were told beforehand precisely what the meeting was about). Be open and honest, but dispassionate. For example, if the project team wants to take shortcuts that you know could open your organization up to breaches of private customer information, then it’s your responsibility to tell them the potential consequences of said shortcut, but without pointing fingers or implying that they have diminished mental capacity for even suggesting such a thing.

This is now the middle of my answer: stay in the middle of the road. Veer neither to the left nor to the right of that center line. The Old Testament even refers this in Proverbs 4:27, if you’re so inclined to check it out, and though the context may be different the principle is the same. You see, the Road of Life stretches far into the distance, and that road can have potholes and missing sections and flooded sections and weird signs and lost souls and confusing directions and many side roads as well as the traffic of everyone else traveling in same vicinity. If you go too far toward the right shoulder (avoiding responsibility, avoiding others), you’re liable to head straight into the ditch. If you veer too far left (overenthusiastically thinking you have the right to own the entire road), you’ll probably smack head-on into oncoming traffic and that could be disastrous for one or both parties.

Work example of veering to the right: Going along with anything and everything that is done or said, just so you can keep your job, and never taking any kind of action (even if it’s just you getting a different job). Blaming others when you make a mistake, rather than owning it and learning from it. Thinking you’re the only person who can do anything right rather than searching for the unique gifts, talents and lessons to be learned that we bring to all situations for ourselves and each other.

Work example of veering to the left: Getting into a heated argument with someone who has more power at the table, in the department or at the company, than you have. No matter how morally or ethically right you may be, unless you own the company or have a very solid power base from which to wield your Sword of Righteousness, you will collide with those who don’t care whether or not you’re right, because it clashes with what they want. Even when you are 100% correct and the other person is 100% incorrect (from a logical or moral or ethical standpoint), if you’re not in charge then you’re bound to crash and burn (e.g. get fired, for example, and lose your job altogether), and that can be devastating for you and your family.

Staying in the middle of the road doesn’t mean allowing bullies to have their way, and it’s not me telling you to be complicit in unethical behavior. It means that you are answering and acting with pure logic and facts, and if things go in a way that does not align with your moral compass or what you think is the best path, you assess whether you truly have the ability to change anything and if you are truly willing to face the consequences of doing so. You see, it’s up to you to tell the truth, contribute and do whatever you can to make the outcomes the best they can be. It is not, however, up to you to decide what other people do with what you’ve given them.

Side Note: I have often heard people say they won’t give a beggar money because “He’ll probably just use it to buy booze” or “she’ll probably just get drugs.” Guess what? It’s not your place to tell the beggar what to do with the dollar. It’s your place to give if you feel compelled to, yes, but not to tell the recipient what to do with that gift. What the beggar does with that dollar you gave them is on them, and judging them when you know literally zero about them is, well, egotistical. You are not omniscient. You do not know all. Proceed with that thought in mind and it’ll help in all of this stuff I’m talking about right now.

Back to that example of a project team wanting to do something that would compromise private customer information: my advice is that you explain what could happen – give percentages or examples of it having happened before at your company or elsewhere, if you have them. Tell them what you would advise instead, and why. Follow it up with an email where you can provide more details, facts and figures, if needed. Then THEY decide what to do.

Peanuts: Charlie Brown

Don’t get into a fight with them. Disagree if you must, but don’t engage in arguments because not much good comes of those. Don’t call them blockheads (poor Charlie Brown) or loudly proclaim the inadequacy of their ancestors’ breeding choices. You state “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Sgt. Joe Friday from Dragnet used to say, and then act in accordance with your gut and instincts the rest of the way.

Which brings us to the end of my answer. How do you own the meeting you don’t lead? By owning yourself. By owning your behavior. Your thoughts. Your words. Your facial expressions. By being cool, calm and collected. Actor Bruce Lee said, “You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing everything with logic. If words control you that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass.”

You own the meeting by being the person in the room everyone else can always count on as rock solid no matter the whirlwind surrounding you. By being the dispassionate observer and the logical contributor. The person who cares, listens, respects others and owns whatever small role they’re being asked to play. By being in the moment, meeting or situation, but not being of it, you are doing what you must do to survive in that moment with personal dignity and quiet strength, understanding that how other people act is not your responsibility, and that you do not have any more right to control them than they do, you.

Psychology Today gives us five reasons we play the Blame Game, with the very first one being because it’s a great defense mechanism. Recognize that when your knee-jerk reaction is that someone else is at fault, you’re avoiding being truly within that moment because you are uncomfortable, you want to feel like you’re the smartest person in the room, or you are tending toward destructiveness rather than constructiveness. After all, how has it ever helped any situation to call someone out who is, in your opinion, being foolish? Is that having any impact in the political arena today other than fanning the already out-of-control wildfire that’s raging in the United States? No. Calling others names only puts you on the same low-level playing field. Rise above that. Be above that.

There’s a reason humans have had to modify the word “criticism” with the word “constructive” in front of it…because “criticism” (which when you Google it means “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes”) has become synonymous with conveying a brutal assessment of something regardless of whose feelings you hurt or whether your opinion warrants the venom you deliver it with. We now have to say that we invite “constructive criticism” because we’re trying to tell each other, “Look, if you hate my idea for how to solve this project problem, fine, but tell me the logic gaps and loopholes, don’t just say my idea is crap and I’m a dunderhead.”

By the way, note that the definition of criticism clearly states “perceived faults or mistakes.” Never forget that our reality is shaped by our perception of it. Your boss, your coworker, your spouse, your child, your parent, your fellow parishioner at church, your best friend…they all have different perceptions of things than you do. That is part of your power…realizing that no matter how firmly you believe that something is right or wrong, other people perceive the same thing differently to your view, which means they may have different beliefs as a result. And guess what? They’re allowed to. You don’t own them. They do.

After more time to think and dwell upon the philosophical and practical concerns which weigh down the question I was asked that day, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s a very loaded question with a very great number of variables and that as with anything that involves people, the answer is completely dependent upon the personalities involved, the culture of the organization, and a variety of other factors that come into play when individuals sit down at a conference room table together. There is truly no right or wrong answer, for each scenario will be different depending on these things and much, more more.

Own Your PowerBut there is always going to be one answer that will never fail, no matter what situation you’re in, what meeting you’re invited to or what anyone at the table is saying, doing or deciding: Be responsible for yourself at any meeting, conducting your thoughts, words and deeds according to your inner compass, values and ethics. You may theoretically never own the meeting you’re not leading, but you will always be in control of you. In the end, you’re the only person you really have any right to control. Own that power, which comes not from the illusion that you’re better than other people, but from feeling it in the quiet surety that naturally comes when you sit back, breathe and let whatever might once have grated on your nerves, pass.

Back in 2015, Dan Scotti wrote a fantastic article I think makes a great stopping point, in which one of the very insightful things he said was, “From what you’ve learned, the loudest mouth in the room usually ends up with a foot in it sooner or later.” Don’t be that person who winds up with your foot in it. Be that person who assesses, evaluates and then acts accordingly. Own yourself, and you own every moment in which you participate…including meetings you’re not leading.

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