9,600 hours. When I punch the numbers into my phone’s calculator, that’s how much time I’ve sat in meetings over the course of my life. Okay, so some of that time’s been spent with smart colleagues making plans for meaningful things but, let’s face it, a lot of it hasn’t. I mean, we’re talking about over a year of my life – a number that comes dangerously close to the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell maintains we need to master a new skill. If that’s the case, I should be a “meeting ninja” by now. And I’ll be the first to admit it -- I’m not.
But I took a big step forward in understanding why not while reading Brene Brown’s recent book, Rising Strong. And it came down to six simple words: “The story I made up is . . . “
Shitty First Drafts
We make up stories all the time, especially when we’re trying to understand what just happened. And we have them during meetings – about ourselves, the people in the room, the reasons we’re at work, and so on. They’re the ones our brains were built for, the ones that give us those powerful hits of dopamine. But because they nearly always go unchecked, the stories we tell ourselves can be flat-out wrong, especially in what Brown calls their “shitty first draft” or SFD form.
To combat this tendency, Brown suggests building a work culture that brings these thoughts into the open. And these six simple words can help us do that. Imagine sitting in a meeting where you can feel the energy shift: someone gets quiet, lashes out, gets defensive, or shuts down. What if we had language to talk about what’s happening in those moments? What if we could share the stories we’re telling ourselves, stories that may be far from the truth?
Brown shares an example from one of her own meetings in which a colleague’s moment of despair turned into one of triumph. Partway through a three-hour meeting, Brown asked the group if they could move an agenda item to the end. Several group members nodded, so she moved on. A few minutes later, the owner of that agenda item shared:
"I know we’re running out of time, but when you asked if we could move this item to the end of the agenda, I made up a story that we’re moving it because it’s no longer a priority for us. That really concerns me, because I’m spending 70 percent of my time on that project, and if it’s no longer important, I need to know."
Wow! He put his SFD right out there. He didn’t have to replay it later in his mind or waste energy trying to figure out what Brown was thinking. Instead, because they’d built this strategy into their meetings, he could check it in the moment. And when he did, he discovered that the project was so important it warranted a follow-up meeting of its own. His SFD wasn’t accurate!
It’s About Being Human
Okay. I’ll admit it. I’m a closet meeting lover. I believe meetings can be an incredible opportunity to connect, inspire, support, and force multiply amazing minds. When done well, they can take people and important work to new places. But I think we miss the mark when we concentrate solely on efficiency and productivity. We miss out when we overlook or ignore the human element.
Lampooning meetings has been raised to an art form. Just pick up a Dilbert cartoon if you want to see what I mean. At the same time, articles, tools, and advice on how to up meeting efficiency and productivity increasingly fill the “how-to” landscape. But I think we’re forgetting that human beings have been gathering together in community to make plans and accomplish important things for our entire history.
It’s not the getting together that’s broken. It’s the meeting culture that leaves out the fact that we’re human. While efficiency and productivity are important, they’ll only happen when we create spaces that engender trust, honesty and reflection. Having the language to do that – these six simple words – can help make that possible.
Well, those six words and some cookies . . .