How To Turn Around an Overwhelming Meeting

A black meeting notes pad with a black pencil and pen on a white table

Meetings can be some of the most frustrating parts of work life.

In one study of more than 180 senior managers across a variety of industries, 65% said meetings prevent them from completing their own work, 71% said most meetings are unproductive and inefficient, and 64% said they believed the meetings put off deep thinking. 

It’s no wonder meetings can feel overwhelming, especially when they’re a frequent part of your schedule. Another survey estimated that executives spend around 23 hours per week in meetings.

Even if you’re not a CEO or manager, you’ve probably been in plenty of bad meetings. And when meetings go bad, they can go really bad.

What do you do when you're in a meeting that goes off the rails? How can you regroup when you feel totally overwhelmed?

It can feel especially impossible to turn it around when you’re not in charge or in a big group, but there are ways you can make sure you get the most out of a meeting. 

Before you even step foot in a meeting — whether it’s a 1:1 or with your team — you should make sure that you come prepared: 

  • Gather necessary notes. This will help you be part of moving the meeting along smoothly and you’ll be able to reference all the information you need. 
  • Bring a notebook. Choose something that will help keep you organized throughout the entirety of the meeting. 
  • Review any information you need. A quick refresher before walking in can go a long way. Also write out or prepare any questions that you may want to ask a boss or colleague during the course of the meeting; that way, if things get sidetracked, you can still get back to the information you need.
  • Know the goal. There’s nothing worse than leaving a meeting and feeling like it should have been an email. If you're invited to a meeting without a clear goal - ask! You might just avert disaster for everyone involved by reminding the meeting leaders to clarify and define the goal, which will lead to the time being spent much more productively.

Even if you’ve done all of the right preparation, there’s no guarantee a meeting will go perfectly, and sometimes there’s no way to know when or how a meeting will become overwhelming. When you're working with other people, things can be unpredictable.

But if and when things do go off the rails, have these tips in your back pocket so you can still come out on top and ready to move forward. 

How to handle overwhelming 1:1 meetings

Meetings with your manager can be really stressful because you feel more vulnerable than you do in a group setting. All eyes and ears are on you, and if you’re discussing a topic like a performance review or checking in during or after a difficult project, it can all become really overwhelming really quickly. 

To turn around an overwhelming meeting, first take a few breaths. If you’re feeling the stress and not sure what to do or say because your mind is racing, you are not going to be able to be effective until you get your physical responses under control. A pause and some deep breaths can quietly help you calm down so that you can think more clearly. 

Good 1:1 meetings are just as much about listening as they are talking, so it’s important to approach it with an open mind. Criticism is difficult! But you’ll never get better at what you do if you don’t hear it, so think of it as a way to learn more about yourself and your work.

If you feel defensive, remember that your feelings don't necessarily need to be spoken aloud, especially in the moment. Give yourself some time to think afterwards and decide if you really need to say anything more. In the meeting, just listen, accept the feedback, and acknowledge that you will improve.

If you’re being met with criticism that doesn’t make sense, be sure to ask specific questions about how to improve. However, be sure that your questions don't sound argumentative. You can even explain, "I just want to make sure I am understanding so that I can avoid making the same mistake again."

Not only will it help you to understand where your manager is coming from, it will also show them that you’re taking the feedback seriously and want to improve. It’s easy to get defensive, but listening and showing dedication will go much further.

How to handle overwhelming team meetings

Overwhelming meetings come in all shapes and sizes, but there are almost always bound to be more problems there are more people involved. 

“It’s just much more challenging with large meetings. You have communication issues and something called social loafing, which is the idea that people start to just hide in the crowd. Our goal is to get these meetings to be as lean as possible…” says Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance.

Large meetings can easily become overwhelming for a few different reasons. Either there’s a lot going on, multiple people talking and lots of back and forth, or everybody is quiet and nothing is being accomplished.

Both can be stressful for their own reasons, but there are a few ways to turn large gatherings into more productive meetings. 

  1. Clarify the goal. Whether it’s madness or crickets, try to speak up and get a handle on what the group wants to accomplish. This tip might not work for every group meeting, especially if you’re not leading it, but even asking a well-phrased question can help stop the meeting from devolving.
  2. Write down questions for later. Large, overwhelming meetings usually have a lot going on. There may be new information, terms you’ve never heard before, or protocols that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re not able to ask questions throughout the meeting, keep a running list for later when you can get more clarification. 
  3. Look for key points. Large meetings can contain lots of information and, if they aren’t managed well, feel like they’re jumping all over the place. In these scenarios, look for overarching themes. Even if you aren’t able to help an off-course meeting, you can at least try to keep up for yourself. 

Emotional intelligence is key for getting back on track

Diffusing the tension for an entire group may not be possible, but learning how to best manage your emotions is one of your best tools to use in a stressful situation. 

“Being able to manage your emotions does not mean you’ll have no emotion or no reaction. However, as a leader, it’s your responsibility to stop, assess the situation, be mindful of your influence and impact on those around you, and think before you react,” says marketing and growth expert Danielle Paige. “Leaders who can’t manage their frustration and irritation build cultures of fear and confusion.”

Even if you’re not a leader in the meeting, showing up with compassion and positivity can help. People notice when you’re a good listener, care about others in the meeting, and want to work collaboratively. 

Resist the urge to shrink into the background away from the chaos. If you want to become a leader in your organization, being seen as someone who can reign in an out-of-control meeting will be incredibly important for your reputation.

In an overwhelming meeting, check in with your own emotions and ask yourself what’s fueling your response and if it’s a productive feeling. The change can start with you!

Written by Kara Mason.

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