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Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Unstable Meetings and Wandering Minds

episode summary

If you have a purposeful agenda, you’ve booked a meeting space and have the right group of attendees, you’ve probably got a good cornerstone for your meeting.

This podcast discusses the problems that can arise when things happen that are out of your control. Even in a short, one-hour meeting there are many moving parts: time, energy and understanding, to name just a few. Add to that, the unpredictable nature of the human mind and before you know it, the meeting turns out to be nothing like you planned.

This candid and open conversation expands on what to do with instability, how to adjust the reins to apply more control or undo the laces a little to allow focussed flexibility in.


View all our episodes to dive into more insights into how to stop 'going to meetings'.

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Episode transcript

We don't mean never go to another meeting but instead simply choose to have the right conversation with the right people at the right time. Its time to stop the routine. It's time to stop having meetings for the sake of it. It's time to stop wasting time. I’m Helen Chapman and Amy Webb, the rest is over to you, let's get going.


Helen Chapman: Amy, I think that meetings get a really bad rap. I think they get a really bad reputation and I know from experience that people blame the fact that they are in too many meetings to be able to do their work. And we know that meetings clog up the system and you know in the last podcast we talked about people being brought into a meeting room to be treated like an audience and so no wonder that people feel like they can't get their work done.

Amy Web: Yeah

Helen Chapman: And we work with organisations who tell us that they’ve spent so many hours in meetings during the day that they've actually got to do their work at night.

Amy Web: That's bad isn't it?


Helen Chapman: Yeah. I agree. So, a bee in our bonnets about this because I think that meetings get a bad rap when actually its the way that people are engaging with meetings that is the problem.

Amy Web: Yes

Helen Chapman: So, it's a shift in perspective I think.  The meeting itself is an inanimate thing until people are involved and its people that cause all the issues.

Amy Web:  As ever.

Helen Chapman: As ever. Now, the problem with people, us, is that we are never the same twice.

Amy Web: Constantly evolving


Helen Chapman: Constantly evolving, constantly changing.  Whether it's a moment over time or whether it's over the course of the day even, and what we do, because we have so many diverse and varying needs as individuals, we create a mini microcosm around ourselves of instability.  So, have you ever hard a situation where your mind didn't seem as sharp as you wanted it to be in a particular moment?

Amy Web: Yeah, often. (laughing) Because I have a toddler and I'm always sleep deprived and I my husband can function well on very little sleep and I on the other hand before becoming a mum was a, at least 8 hours a night person, preferably more, so I found it particularly hard being tired needing to show up to work you know needing to show up in social situations. All I can think of is I'm too tired I need more sleep.

Helen Chapman: Yes

Amy Web: And that doesn't affect everyone in the same way, but for me that's always a massive thing.

Helen Chapman: Yes, and luckily more and more and more and more these days when we read about good health and wellbeing and good mental health, thankfully sleep is getting a big spotlight. Sleep is a massive player.

Amy Web: Yeah

Helen Chapman: but there are days as we've said where sometimes we've got more clarity of thought than others. Clarity of thought is a constantly shifting thing and because we multitask in our brains and we think about 100 different things in rapid succession. I think, contrary to popular belief, when people say I've got a lot on my mind actually I think there's only space for one thought at any one time, but they just come rapidly and maybe go around a roundabout of revolving thoughts

Amy Web: I've heard it described as having thoughts like a ball of wire and there's connecting points.

Helen Chapman: Yes

Amy Web: And you ping from one to the other.

Helen Chapman: Yes

Amy Web: Which feels apt for me when my brain is really busy, it’s like whrrrrrrrr

Helen Chapman: Like it, yes and so sleep and then thankfully meditation and mindfulness are also becoming part of our common parlance really.

Amy Web: Yes


Helen Chapman: But what I want to get to here is we can't blame meetings, and the human condition is such that it's complicated to be unravelled you know and when I say unravelled I don't mean unhinged, I mean sort of that ball of wire is much nicer and not as chaotic. So I want to offer us the opportunity to explore the idea that it at any moment in time and so therefore during a meeting whether it's in-person or online, that the environment we live in is constantly changing and it's our recognition of that changing environment that can help us be present in a meeting. So let me let me give you an example of what I'm what I'm ranting on about, in any given hour…. if a meeting lasts an hour you've got the clock ticking and with the clock ticking comes pressure to get through topics. You've got differing understanding as a meeting is being worked through so information is being shared, some people might think they understand and have growing clarity where actually they might be missing a point, other people might feel that they are lagging behind and so as the hour progress is you've got shifting levels of understanding, so that is always on the move. Then, you've got shifting relationships. Imagine I go into a meeting and I believe that I'm going to get support from Fred for a particular point I want to raise and then Fred doesn't quite bring me the support I thought I was getting, in an unspoken way I might be a bit miffed with Fred and so my relationship with Fred shifts in an unspoken way coz I'm thinking, “What! where are you coming from?!”

Amy Web: And your brain goes elsewhere.


Helen Chapman: And my brain goes elsewhere. At different times in meetings agreements appear to happen and then quite quickly are broken again because somebody brings another piece of information, so agreements are reached and then moved. Stamina, maybe because of slack asleep or I'm tired it's at the end of the day and notoriously, decision-making in meetings is much less effective in the afternoon or just after lunch than it is when people are maybe a bit sharper first thing in the morning, so stamina really plays a part in this shifting environment. Hunger…..

Amy Web: Yeah, I was gonna say, if it's nearly lunchtime….

Helen Chapman: ….people are peckish and it's distracting and that has an impact on blood sugar and it makes me laugh, in the in-person meeting environments in these wonderful meeting spaces that we find in these you know great meeting venues and hotels and so on what do they want to put all around the meeting room? Croissants and pastries and sweets and sugary drinks and then we wonder why you know it contributes to people's energy level and you know I've seen people nodding off in a meeting

Amy Web: Because they’re having a blood sugar dip

Helen Chapman: Well it might be, and sometimes it appears they’re just being rude but the poor people might be responding to the fact that they’re….So what I'm offering here is an idea that in any moment of any day and particularly in meetings, the environment is unstable. I'd like us to kick that about if that's okay.


Amy Web: So, do you have any examples off the top of your head where you were in a meeting and you could really see that the meeting was being affected by any of these human factors?

Helen Chapman: Yeah….. I mean every time actually. I think the biggest one is time and what happens is that somebody will say: “we need a meeting to discuss this” they’ll then either book a Teams all online or book a meeting room, they’ll get people around then they’ll write a list of things to talk about and called it an agenda, put timings to it….

Amy Web: Yeah

Helen Chapman: …..and then it's like a gallop against the ever reducing time on the clock

Amy Web: Because they've inevitably shoved too many things on that list

Helen Chapman: Because there are too many things on the list and it makes me think about…. a painter and decorator. Amy, we use a lot of analogies in our conversations don’t we!”

Amy Web: It helps us understand


Helen Chapman: It's true yeah! Imagine a painter and decorator and painter and decorator who is skilled it their craft will know how much paint they need to paint a wall

Amy Web: Yes

Helen Chapman: But somebody like me will get a can of paint realise I'm running out of paint and so what that causes me to do is to paint quicker laughing

Amy Web: laughing Spread it thinner across the wall

Helen Chapman: thinner yeah and do it quicker with the paint that's left in the tin - I'll paint quicker. It's crazy, of course it's crazy, but I do it because I'm not experienced. Now it's the same really with people in meetings. The conversation quality gets thinner and the chances are that people will go at it quicker thinking that they're being more efficient but really and truly they're not and so the pressure of time affects people in that way and that I see a lot

Amy Web: yeah a lot….

Helen Chapman: And when I think about that it, quite often the need under time pressure to bring a topic to its conclusion, so to converge on a decision is what people think is the holy gail of that topic agenda. “We need to get we an agreement and then move on.” But it is equally as legitimate to purposefully leave a subject unfinished, undecided; consciously, purposefully. To say, “well, we did run out of time, it's all right but this is where we've got to, give ourselves the opportunity to think on it to reflect on it and next time we will pick it up from this point. We’ll hear overnight reflections or reflections of a week or something, we’ll pick it up from here.” And quite often to leave a topic unfinished is better than trying to paint quicker and spread out the conversation thinner.


Amy Web: Have you ever been involved in meetings where because of all these unstable entities that were discussing you know tiredness or illness or family emergencies where someone is just completely changed what the plan was because of the people in the room? Does that make sense?

Helen Chapman: I think so…

Amy Web: and do you think that's appropriate?

Helen Chapman: You mean, to be flexible?

Amy Web: Yeah, so I'm thinking the example I've got in my head is me and you jumping on a Zoom call for a meeting; you asking how I am and I've said I actually I'm really tired coz my son was up four times in the night and there's been multiple occasions where you said “Amy do you need this meeting to happen another time?” and I've always really appreciated that but that's not I don't think common for people to feel like they can do that.


Helen Chapman: Yes, interesting, I think you might be right. I think it makes absolute common sense to do that but it's not common practise. Funny I had an example shared with me this week about a guy who had been so tired in a meeting that at the next meeting when people were reminding him of what he'd said he just put his hand up and said she know why I can't even remember saying that I think I can't comment on my comments in that meeting I think I was so tired I don't even think I was making sense.

Amy Web: Helen, are you a Friends fan? Do you watch Friends?

Helen Chapman: I used to, but I watched it the first time round. But yes, I know friends yes.

Amy Web: There’s a bit where Chandler’s at work and he is so tired I think it's because he and Monica have been trying for a baby or something, he’s got all this stuff going on and he’s so tired in a meeting that he wakes up and agrees to move from New York to Oklahoma and then it happens and he's agreed to it whilst half asleep in a meeting - it made me think of that.

Helen Chapman: Yeah and people sleep and tiredness affect people in so many different ways doesn't it? So in that sense it's a kind of like zombie like decision-making. For me I know that I get I get short fuse and I get irritable because I'm tired and by the way I'll be packing in sugar and carbs, I’ll be storm-meeting and just not even thinking about what's going in my mouth and that all happens when I'm tired.

Amy Web: Yeah


Helen Chapman: So, the human condition means this. If what I said at the beginning of this we can't blame the meeting for poor performance the meeting is nothing without the people in it

Amy Web: yeah, it's just a bit on the calendar

Helen Chapman:  Yes exactly, it's nothing all on its own. If we don't take into consideration all of the moving parts then we are not doing ourselves and the people that we’re in that meeting with a good service. We're not going to get a good outcome.

Amy Web: Yeah

Helen Chapman:  Another one to bring up is, and we touched on this earlier is, people’s minds wander. You described the wire ball of thought and I was saying people say “I've got a lot on my mind” when the truth is that they can you can only ever have one thing going through but it can come really quickly.

Amy Web: Yeah?

Helen Chapman: And peoples minds we are unruly, we've talked about this before. I'm a creative sort of person, so are you, and to force either you or me into a tight time-bound list called an agenda and force us to work in a sequential way down at timed list is probably the worst thing that you and I could ever imagine.

Amy Web: Yes!


Helen Chapman: For others, like people on our team and people that we work with, to have structure and that timed list is the most important thing and so to recognise that a timed agenda isn't going to do it for all, and the rebel in you and I and people that we work with will always look for ways to break free to bring other examples to explore something in a bit more detail

Amy Web: To offer a challenge

Helen Chapman: To offer a challenge… do this all the time with me, to offer provocation or check with me, “how do you know that? can you give me an example of that”. The ‘rub’ comes, I guess, between people in meetings where you've got the people who feel safe within that timed  agenda and the people who feel constrained about it. But for both types we still have unruly minds

Amy Web:  Yeah…..


Helen Chapman: There is a poem that I love and ahhhhh, for the life of me I can't think of the full name of the lady I think somebody Mitchell we will put it in the show notes. The poem is called People Etcetera. There's a line in the poem or one of the stanzas that talks about “People are fun to notice, their eyes take off like birds away from their words” and I see this in meetings all the time. People will say something and even they who are saying it their eyes or take off because they're thinking of something else and then the people around the table, you know, to get people to concentrate and stay concentrated on a subject matter without their eyes and minds taking off like birds away from that is a really hard thing to do.


Amy Web: Yeah, so how do you do it?

Helen Chapman:  Well, so it caused me to think about it a bit and realised that that particular poem is organised around the senses. It works through the senses: “People are fun to see”,  “People fun to hear”, “People are fun to taste” I mean, it's a quirky poem, but it's about the senses. It reminds me that not always do people have full access to all of their senses, so often times we will assume that people in virtual or online meetings, you know, have the benefit of sight and sound that they were able to engage. I mean that would be a whole other podcast for us to explore, how accessible online meetings as well as in person meetings are for people who don't have access to all of their senses so that's a that's a thing. But, assuming that accessibility is something that we've solved or have attended to, the sure fire way to get people to really concentrate and to be engaged is if each person really knows why they are needed in that meeting. Just to be on the addressee list as ‘rent a crowd’ is a way to make people turn up be at you know actors and audience potentially and not fully be participative. Whereas if you know that I really need you in this meeting Amy because I really want you to provoke me, I really want you to be calling out “Helen, how do you know you're right?” “Helen, what might you be missing?” or I want Phoebe in the meeting because she might be saying “Helen, there’s another way to do this” or Ben might be in the meeting because he will hold us to process and he will say, “OK, alright all you creative people let's just stay grounded” So if each individual knows what it is that they're there for and what it what role it is that they're playing or what their contribution is they’re less likely to wander.


Amy Web: Yeah, so practically within a meeting how do you? Obviously we’re talking about unstable entities you can never fully stop someone's mind wondering, but what can we all do to try and help with that natural inclination?

Helen Chapman: Well, I think, when we talked previously, and you’ve suggested for example putting in pauses is to summarise or to give people time to think - that's a good one. Another good one is to give everybody a focal point. This is where working visually works.

Amy Web: Yes!


Helen Chapman: And, just on that point of accessibility, I've worked a number of times with people in meetings who haven't had the gift of sight, for example, and so working visually, how does that work for them? What I do in that instance is ask them before the meeting, how best to do this? This will be a session where we're mapping mind mapping some thinking or doing some process mapping on a wall, how best for you to engage with this? And then each person will give you a different answer

Amy Web: A different, personal answer

Helen Chapman: A personal answer to give them visibility in the way that they need to.  Give people visibility as a point of reference. So working into a visual space like Miro or Mural in the virtual online world or on the wall, putting up record or getting people to work visually together does a number of things. It's active participation, active engagement and people are busy and engaged in the act of collaborating which gives us more options for people to stay fully engaged because they're taking part physically. The other thing that working visually does is gives the group a point of reference. Let's imagine that we've tracked a conversation during the first hour of the meeting and now we are actually here, if you visually tracked the first hour you can go back to a point we made earlier visibly and we can also keep the focal point on where we are at this point now (which might be a point of exploration, it might be appointed decision-making) but it focuses the eye and the mind. And then the final thing is, let's imagine you are bringing me a complex thought, which you do quite often, you throw something in that gives us all cause to say “Okay, let's have a think about this one”, in order for you to feel heard if your complex thought is shared in words on a posted or on a chart somewhere there's a better chance that you as the offeror of the thought feels heard because your idea has gone up and it gives the group listening to you chance to actually see what Amy meant. Because if I as the facilitator I write up what I think you meant and I've got it wrong I know you're going to tell me. You will clarify, “actually Helen that isn't quite what I meant; I meant that…..” Which means the group then really get a second chance of “Ahhh this is what Amy was really meaning.” So, all of that is a very practical way of helping people stay focused and concentrated to help add value to the conversation.


Amy Web: It sounds to me listening to that practical advice that it's like it's about acknowledging that you can never stop humans being humans, so therefore it's something we just have to accept that people’s minds will wonder they will drift off they will be tired you know they might not be 100%. So what can we do in those situations to still get good results anyway so with the visualisation for example it means that if someone was daydreaming when somebody said that comment half an hour ago if it wasn't visually recorded its last for that person because their mind was elsewhere, whereas having the record means they can go back and go “Oh I missed that comment because my mind was wondering” and it's not, as you say, it's not useful to blame people for their natural inclination so instead do what can we do to help us as a group of humans achieve this goal which sometimes the meetings that we're in are long and complicated and you're bound to lose concentration, expecting people not to is irrational.

Helen Chapman: Exactly, and to remember that the senses we have available to us are valuable and that we should do the best that we can to engage those senses and to stimulate them. We often play music don't we?

Amy Web: I was just going to say about playing music it sets a tone, brings a mood..


Helen Chapman: It brings a vibe and it can help. In these in these lockdown times, I know teams who've had pizzas sent, you see can stimulate the sense of taste and you know that there are creative things that you can do. If you think about the idea of the unstable condition of being human, one of the things that we do on top of all of that to really, really bring home misunderstanding (which is what instability can bring), we do a spot of mind reading. So I will look at you or look at whoever it is in a meeting and think “oh, Amy’s switched off” or, I'm looking at her face and thinking, “Oh she doesn't like what I'm saying here, or Amy's looking out of the window I wonder whether she's bored or not. So, what I do is I mind-read everybody on the call or in the room if I'm not careful and, make assessments and judgement based on years of experience and I'm right, of course I'm right, that Amy must be bored because she's looking away. But this element of mind reading is risky, it's dangerous and nine times out of 10 we’re wrong. I remember the guy who used to sit back in his chair, he was my boss, big boss, he used to sit back in his chair used to turn his head to one side, his chin would be pointed up in an upright direction, his hands were fingers were interlaced and sitting in his lap.  And I would be speaking thinking, “I am boring this guy, I really am boring him and I never feel like I'm bringing him anything good enough”, so my mind reading is he doesn't like me he, he has little time for what I'm saying. It wasn't until years later that I was able to ask him, “when you used to sit and listen to me that way it used to really put me off” “Aaaaah Helen, haven't I ever told you I'm quite hard of hearing in my left ear and so if I turn my right ear to you I can hear you better. I love what you’re saying!” So the mind reading element of it created yet more instability in my relationship with him which if had inquired about it earlier or if he had the idea to tell me, it would have helped.


Amy Web: I get that a lot coz my natural face is not particularly smiley, especially if I'm concentrating and I'm thinking about something, and I often get people saying “are you alright? You look really cross”….. and I'm like, “No! I’m fine!” But because their perception of my is…… it’s something we are wired to do, our human nature, it’s how we survive, is making, inferring things from body language and facial expressions. But it is important to check.

Helen Chapman: Yes, I agree, and so if you see somebody's eyes flying away from their words, the mind reader in us might say “they’re bored, their minds are wondering” where actually they might do their thinking up in that space, so I think the watch-out here is don't assume. If you catch yourself mind reading realise that although we've got a lot of inbuilt intuition, which often can help serve us, sometimes it can bring us red herrings as well.

Amy Web: Yeah. And what would your advice be to counter that? Is there a way that you could maybe have a bit of a check-in or a question you could ask if you find yourself leading a meeting or facilitating a meeting and you find yourself assuming things, how would you stop that train?

Helen Chapman: I would ask a question, something like….. “What do you think about that?”

Amy Web: Something open.

Helen Chapman: Something open: I might say something like, “I realise I've got a strong opinion about this and you might see it differently, “What do you see?” “What are your thoughts?” “What are your reflections?” “Where do you think I might be getting this wrong?” Ask that question….

Amy Web:  And try not put your own filter on it too much.


Helen Chapman: So, this idea of instability, I just think that if it's true, which I think it is that everything is energy, which I know you have thoughts about…

Amy Web: Yes

Helen Chapman: Energy, I think, is best when it is able to flow, when it's able to move, and when things like strict agendas, really nailed down agendas or even agenda said a way too loose to know what to do with them, too much restriction or too much freedom I think does things to the flow of energy between people that isn't helpful, so for me the watch out is recognise that everything is energy, energy shifts between human beings all the time, whether it's time, understanding, relationships, blood sugar, attention span…… use of the senses, is make allowances for human beings and think about how to create the conditions for people to truly engage, rather than just say it's a meeting it's a problem yes. Switch it up and do something better.

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