1) "What are we trying to accomplish with this meeting?"
One thing that can put people off is getting to a meeting, taking up valuable time and not having a clear idea of why they are in the room (or on the conference call). Asking this one question can clarify several issues at once.
- Is it worthwhile holding the meeting at all? Perhaps two people could look up some information, correspond by email and report back to another meeting, rather than taking up ten people's time.
- Am I someone who should be at this meeting? Perhaps I should be in the loop about the outcome, but the details aren't important to my group or me. Just give me a report after it's over.
- Conversely, are there people who should be at this meeting who haven't been invited yet? Can someone else veto what we do? Are there other stakeholders who should be involved in the decision making process?
- Should this item be on the agenda? Can it be handled more efficiently elsewhere? Are we taking on too much for one meeting and in danger of losing our focus?
2) "What is the relationship between this item on the agenda and what we're talking about?" When a meeting gets off track because the discussion wanders from one subject to the next, it's time to refocus. Free association is great if you're brainstorming, or if attendees are expecting something other than a structured discussion. In a standard business meeting, that won't fly. This question is a polite way of asking the group to refocus on what the meeting was called to accomplish, and on the current agenda item up for discussion. If the group wants to change topic, fine. You can get back to the original issue later. If you don't ask this question, you may spend a long time talking about issues not relevant to achieving your meeting goals, or you may realize later that you were actually talking about two or more topics. Now you'll have to sort out which is which and what to do about each. Focusing your discussions with this question will help you reach better decisions in a shorter period of time.
3) "Where are we, what do we do next?"
This is a useful question when a discussion has been going on for some time, but doesn't seem to be reaching a clear conclusion. People may be repeating the same points over and over. Often the discussion begins to shade over into networking or storytelling. This may be a sign that you are near a decision point. You can ask this question and summarize what you see as the main issues, or points of view. If everything is on the table, this question will help your meeting move on to the next step. If not, you can identify any unspoken questions or concerns, again, refocusing the discussion in a more productive direction.
Ineffective meetings waste time and destroy morale. You can help make your meetings stay on focus by asking what is the goal of the meeting, how the current discussion relates to the goal, and what is the next step. Don't suffer through discouraging meetings. Be an active participant and help your group get things done efficiently. Your associates will thank you, and I bet you'll be happier, too.