27 September 2023

Keeping teams happy: Stop using these phrases in meetings

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Rae Ringel* discusses the power of language and offers some alternatives to commonly used phrases that grate on people’s nerves.

It’s 50 minutes into an hour-long meeting. The final agenda item has been resolved, and it’s clear that we’ll be wrapping up early.

Others may be pleased by this turn of events, but I cringe, bracing for the line that I know is coming: “I’m going to give you 10 minutes of your life back!”

Some version of this cheerful declaration seems to cap every meeting that ends with a few minutes to spare.

It’s couched as welcome news, this unexpected gift of time.

But language is generative, and the way we talk about our meetings comes to define what happens in those meetings.

By framing a few extra minutes as an opportunity to give people their time “back,” as though that time had been wrongfully pilfered, we undermine our collaboration.

We unwittingly send a powerful message that our organisation’s gatherings take from team members, rather than contributing to our team’s collective accomplishments.

Even at a time when so much is beyond our control, we remain in control of our own speech patterns.

And so, as leaders and employees continue to rethink what the modern workplace should look like, including how we gather, perhaps it’s an opportune moment to banish certain phrases from the “meeting-speak” lexicon.

To learn what refrains others would be happy to never hear again in a meeting, I did a bit of crowdsourcing on social media and among colleagues.

Here are some of the responses that resonated the most.

We’re going to wait five minutes for everyone to join.

Often among the first words uttered by an online meeting host, this practice dishonours the time of those who joined on time and does nothing to establish a culture of punctuality for meetings.

At the same time, there are legitimate reasons why an individual may be late to a Zoom meeting (or an in-person one).

To make the most of those inevitable few minutes when you’re waiting for stragglers, one idea is to start with brief tone-setting exercises.

I often start by asking everyone to remove one distraction.

That may mean moving something off their desk, opening a window in their room, or closing a window on their computer.

Another exercise I like is asking everyone to write down their intention or objective for the meeting.

This isn’t something that will be shared publicly, but the practice of thinking about one’s objectives before a meeting begins can be grounding.

You’re on mute.

To be sure, these words quickly signal that a speaker needs to click the unmute button.

But the phrase — often uttered by multiple people at once — has become notoriously grating.

It also makes the person on the receiving end of the comment feel silly, as though (two years into widespread remote work) they still don’t know how to locate the button with the microphone icon.

A colleague of mine suggests the gentler, more affirming, “If you’re speaking, I can’t hear you.”

Instead of making the silent speaker feel silly, this reframing shows them that you truly want to hear what it is they have to say.

We’re building the plane while flying it.

A friend who works in humanitarian disaster response (and therefore has a keen sense of what might happen if you actually did this) offered up this pet peeve.

“If that’s the case, your plane will crash!” he notes.

Many of us have heard this metaphor in many a meeting.

But what is the speaker actually saying about the initiative being described?

Is it flying at so quick a speed that we can’t be expected to understand or question its flaws?

Is this turn of phrase an excuse for haphazard execution?

If not, perhaps we can be more specific by identifying the pieces of the project that we’ve figured out, what we’re still working on, what we don’t know yet, and how we plan to make adjustments based on what we learn.

Let’s take this offline.

Without a clear, quick mention of how and when this “offline” conversation will take place, this is a jargony way to dismiss someone’s idea and put them off indefinitely.

And since any meaningful follow-up will likely take place online, it also no longer makes sense.

Why not go with something like this: “That’s an important topic that’s beyond the scope of this meeting.

“I’ll email you when we wrap up.”

I’m going to give you 10 minutes of your life back.

I’ll close by coming back to this line, because it remains the one I’d be happiest never to hear again.

This is not to say that I’m opposed to meetings that end early.

But if they’re well-structured, well-run, and surprisingly concise, we should celebrate the fruits of our collaboration and look forward to our next gathering.

The next time you find yourself tempted to offer your teammates a few precious “minutes of their life back,” consider saying, “Wow. Because everyone was so productive, we’re done 10 minutes early. Thank you so much for your presence and participation. Have a great day.”

This simple rephrasing has the power to reframe your work.

*Rae Ringel is the president of The Ringel Group, a leadership development consultancy specialising in facilitation, coaching, and training.

This article first appeared at hbr.org.

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