Am I the Only One Who’s Clueless? Discovering the Unwritten Rules of Meetings

Caught Off Guard

The year is 1980. I’m in my early twenties. I have been given the enormous responsibility of creating a brand new agency in Holyoke. This agency will serve four young women with severe disabilities residing in a state institution in Belchertown.

It’s early days in the community living movement. The stakes are high. We’re working to prove that all people with disabilities—no matter how severe—can have quality lives in the community. On a personal level, this is my first really big professional challenge. In fact, if I think too hard about what I’ve taken on, I’ll probably panic.

There’s an evening meeting with people from DDS and other providers. I show up wearing a tank top and mini skirt, not expecting to do more than listen and learn. I sit in the corner of the room, feeling out of my element and uncomfortable, surrounded by people older and more senior.

My DDS program manager, who is also one of my mentors, sits near me.  The meeting facilitator asks for an update on the formation of the agency. I expect my mentor to handle the update but instead she turns to me and and says, “Why don’t you?” I remember standing up but the rest is a blur. I have no idea what I said. I only remember being completely unprepared.

Meetings Matter to Your Reputation

No matter where you are in your career, you will probably attend meetings where you feel out of your element.

Maybe it’s a meeting with people who are famous or more senior than you, people you admire and look up to.

Or it’s with people who have influence over your future, such as a hiring committee, or your board.

It can even be a regular meeting with people you deal with all the time but for some reason, today there are some weird dynamics that you can’t make sense of.

Even if you’re not leading the meeting, how you behave in those situations has an effect on your reputation. Do you blurt out the first thing that comes to mind to break an awkward silence? Or play it safe and keep quiet the whole meeting, trying to cause as little damage as possible?

How you show up affects whether you’re seen as a valuable participant, someone sought out for their contribution. It has an impact on your reputation as a leader.

80% of Success is Just Showing Up? Really?

Spending time in advance to establish context and content can go a long way toward preparing you to participate confidently and productively. Woody Allen famously said 80% of success is just showing up. Actually, I don’t believe that’s true. Why just show up--why tolerate anxiety, uncertainty, self doubt and judgment--when you can feel more confident by spending less than an hour preparing?

I’ve come a long way from that 1979 meeting where I thought I could just show up. I’ve attended hundreds, maybe thousands, of meetings over the years. I’ve found that the best way to be able to contribute effectively is to prepare:

  • Gather as much information as you can about the Context: What is the purpose and agenda of the meeting? Who will be there? What are they interested in? What are the unwritten rules? What's the format, room set up?
  • Clearly define what Content you want to offer: What’s my personal purpose for participating in this meeting? What three points do I want to make? How do I link those points to the interests of the other participants?

Think about the next meeting you will be attending. It doesn’t matter if it’s a public hearing, a regular staff meeting or a phone call with colleagues. How can you familiarize yourself in advance with the unwritten rules, learn what you need to do to make the best possible contribution?

If you take just a little bit of time to prepare before the meeting, I promise you’ll enhance your reputation and be sought out as a valuable contributor. 


Want some help preparing for an upcoming meeting or presentation? Consider scheduling a coaching session or two to get your thoughts in order. Contact me if you'd like more information.