You have a throbbing head ache. You might be a little blind, perhaps white spots are appearing in front of your eyes. Maybe you even feel nauseous. Your overriding desire is to get as far away as possible. Yes, that’s right: you have just got out of a meeting.
I wish I could say that this was a distinctive response to a particular meeting, but this is usually how I feel after almost every meeting I attend. I become hugely aggressive or pathologically sullen or full of self loathing. Incensed that I am not in charge; fearful lest I be called on to speak; guilt ridden for my extreme feelings of bile towards relatively innocent individuals. It just brings it all out of me. Unsurprisingly, amidst this torrent of emotion I rarely feel like much is practically achieved in the meetings I attend. After the last shower-of-pain-round-table I began to wonder why this was the case. Laying aside for a minute the simple explanation that my presence is the vital factor railroading meeting success, I have done some scrutiny of the form.
A huge part of our society is built up around meetings: board meetings, summits, parliament, neighbourhood watch, school council. It is The Way things get done. Yet, even with my particularly bad track record, I do think it is rare to go to a really kickass meeting. I have definitely never been to one. A show-boater always dominates the floor; the sacred agenda is always wildly disregarded and they always, always over run. ‘Sophie,’ you might say, ‘what you have there is Bad Facilitation.’ To you I would say that I have never, ever known a good one.
But there must be good facilitators out there—right? The majority of the world’s countries are run by systems that rely upon facilitators that can keep the most important meetings, parliaments, in check.
However, if you turn on Prime Minister’s Questions – or pretty much any BBC coverage of parliament – it would appear that those great facilitators are on a very extended tea break. Watching the coverage makes you wonder how anything gets done at all. Grumpy suited MP’s standing up, shouting over each other, making inaudible gurgles which supposedly are signs of agreement or disapproval. It is all so stagey. Whoever can come up with the wittiest put down in the loudest voice wins out. I’m all for work being fun, but dudes, you have a country to run and your hemming and haaa-ing seems to do little to advance anyone’s understanding of the issues. So by this cursory judgement it seems that we are not that good at big discussions here. But who am I to condemn human mass interaction by the eccentric standards of British democracy? I have embarked on a survey of a random sample of the world’s parliaments, to see if it is a human condition or a peculiarly English problem:
The Diet, Japan: Seems pretty quiet and respectful. It is testament perhaps to just how rigorously meeting manners are maintained that in a parliamentary session when the leader of the opposition tries to argue that 9/11 was a conspiracy, no one starts spitting venom. I assume the argument was calmly deconstructed. Here’s hoping.
The Folketing, Denmark: WOW you are all really attractive. And quiet. Everyone seems to be waiting their turn. I obviously have no idea what they are talking about but judging from Denmark’s level of equality they must get stuff done.
National Assembly, South Africa: Relatively rowdy, but no showing off. And everyone is referred to as ‘honourable’ with a level of sincerity that wins me round.
National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria: People look pretty bored. WOAH someone has just thrown water in the face of the speaker, not much reaction to that though. I’m not sure whether people are quiet out of a higher level of meeting etiquette or if they are just asleep. Let’s assume it’s the former. Yes Bulgaria!
The Duma, Russia: Well the seats look very comfortable. A lot of walking around. I don’t know why you’d leave your seats if they were that good. Essentially quiet, though I think there is a level of restriction on filming in the Duma that means I can only tell so much…
From this brief and, I admit, eccentric survey it would seem that Westminster is distinctive in its lax approach to meeting conduct. I should say that the internet tends only to contain footage from parliaments if it is in some way comic, so I have done my best to glean the atmosphere while trying to ignore the chubby politician tripping over or starting a fight.
I suppose one of the reasons that I have such a problem with bad meetings is the silencing impact they have on people who might have good input to make. What about the shy MPs? Surely for their sake the grumblers and gurglers ought to pipe down?
The shy have found a new spokesperson in Susan Cain, an American lawyer whose book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown Publishing Group, 2012) makes the claim that introverts have been hugely disregarded by society. She points towards the layout of offices and classrooms that stop workers and children from working alone and enforce group work. However, it is surely our penchant for meetings that has most disadvantaged the introverted. Based on the parliamentary model of Westminster you have to be bold, brash, arrogant and noisy in order to succeed in a meeting. Cain suggests that this might be a fundamental problem. She claims that there have been studies demonstrating that the human tendency in group situations is to agree with the most charismatic individual, usually regardless of what they are saying—which does not sound like the clearest way to arrive at good judgements. Would it not be better for us all to receive a series of relevant and informative lectures and then send out emails with our opinions and thoughts?
Yes I recognise that it would be rampantly isolating and you would miss out on all the distinctive, spur of the moment discussion that is prompted in a meeting. And there is something particular about the heart-racing fear that speaking in a meeting can inspire. But I am yet to be convinced that it is really the best way of making decisions.
I suppose one of the redeeming features of meetings is that that the shy, silent and introverted have the capacity of showing at least one opinion clearly. Just walk out! In one fell stroke you have expressed disagreement and freed yourself from the chains of the meeting too! However, as it has been pointed out to me when I have fiendishly suggested this before—this is hardly the most mature way of dealing with disagreement.
A relevant, if somewhat tangential anecdote for you:
I was recently having a blood test. I am not squeamish and didn’t think I had a problem with basic medicine. But suddenly, halfway through, all I wanted in the world was to cry and burst out of the door. In my head I thought with horror that this was what being a grown up was, doing things that are sometimes scary and not what you EVER want to be doing, but you have to because you know it is the right, necessary thing.
Sat in another meeting recently, feeling this time overwhelming rage that I was not in charge—considering sinking my teeth into the table or at least overturning a few chairs, my blood test came to mind, and I began to wonder if meetings aren’t a little bit the same. The thing that you have to do because you are a grown up and also because they are exercises in keeping your extreme impulses in check. I should be able to tolerant enough to listen to other people speak; to not be in control; to not be scared to speak.
Cain celebrates introversion—which is perhaps rather overdue any sort of recognition or discussion, but I fear she strays a little into an apology for avoiding human contact. I bloody love being alone and having autonomy, but in order to live with other humans I have to learn how to successfully interact, and to be able to work in the teams and groups that Cain critiques requires important maturity. Meetings might not necessarily be good for decision-making but they are probably good for humanity. So you just have to suck it up and deal with it. You need these people in the room as much as you need the kindly nurse to stick a needle in your arm.
I think great meetings must exist somewhere, it just takes lots of very grown up people – introverted, extroverted or otherwise – to create them. The fact that there is such variety in the world’s parliaments is perhaps just an indication of the level of the maturity of politicians. So perhaps when David Cameron grows up he will become Scandinavian. And maybe when I grow up, I will too.
 When I say ‘You,’ I am totally referring to me, attempting to be inclusive in the hope that there is anyone out there as psychotically unable to deal with meetings as I am. It is highly probably that it is mainly just me though. In which case just go back to the beginning of the article and only read the first two paragraphs.