T. S. Eliot observed that we measure out our lives in coffee spoons. Actually, we are more likely to do it on an electronic scale. I put 12 grams of loose leaf tea in a beaker each morning. They use a scale at the coffee shop too.
But my life is not measured that way. The lives of middle managers, corporate leaders, faculty members, and pastors is often measured in meetings. Scott Adams practically made a career out of skewering them with his Dilbert cartoons.
Yesterday, for example, I had four. A task force at 9, a meeting with a consultant at 11:15, a meeting with a couple of faculty members about a new course at 12:30 and our elders meeting at church at 3.
Perhaps because I’m confident enough (think old enough) to speak into the issues, I don’t mind them as much anymore. But I’ve long since abandoned the idea that “all we do is talk.” This is a dangerous oversimplification, suggesting that nothing ever happens in these meetings. But John Searle, who coined the term “speech act,” believed that talk is action. And I concur.
Think of all the things that happen when we talk: promising, coordinating, ordering, greeting, warning, inviting, thanking, congratulating. These would have value, even if we never planned anything. And much that is important would never happen because we actually do plan things.
This is not true of all meetings, of course. The kind that Adams so easily makes fun of are meetings that involve listening, not talking, and usually listening to people who don’t listen to us, like the Pointy-Haired Boss he stereotypes so effectively. These are the meetings that could have been and should have been, replaced with a memo. I actually do hate such meetings.
But meetings when everyone contributes, when listening is foundational, when respect is mutual—all kinds of good things happen at these meetings. There is synergy, even excitement, at meetings like this. The group creates better ideas than any individual could.
This creative potential of words is important. If God spoke the world into existence, as His image-bearers we too are creating the worlds we work in, and with sufficient grace and respect, we do it better together.
At the best meetings, you go away with things to think about and probably things to do. The world shifts slightly, tilting toward hope. Our task force will improve the experience of part-time teachers at our university. We may be able to offer a new and helpful program building on the insights of our consultant. We will offer a better class in digital influence. A better process for managing facilities at church will emerge. This was a good day, and it took meetings to make things happen and move teams, and me, in new directions.
I know that work was accomplished, not just because I was tired by the end of the day but because today my work is better informed and more focused. The whiteboard is covered with notes. Summaries are attached to emails. Change is coming.
I’ve even scheduled more meetings.
4 thoughts on “in defense of meetings”
I’m sharing this with all my Toastmaster friends, who commit themselves to a meeting every week. It’s true: ‘the world shifts slightly, tilting toward hope’
Almost makes me want to go to a meeting. Let me go lie down until the feeling passes 🙂 Seriously, though, I know what you say is true; the right kind of meetings produce results. Unfortunately too many of us have sat through the interminable, nothing gets accomplished meetings that have left us reluctant attendees.
A lot of it is about perspective, and perhaps age, as youve stated, has something to do with that. However, I’ve always liked meetings. If nothing else, I get to know people better. And that is an accomplishment worth meeting.
Excellent essay Wally! Thanks for your insights on meetings and for sharing them on thedaysman blog.