The meeting is in progress. You’re addressing a few dozen people, many of them strangers, some of them elsewhere in the office, some of them a state over, some of them halfway across the country. They’ve dialed in or clicked a Skype link. They were invited and are supposed to be here. And once everyone has run out of things to say about whatever this meeting was about, you chuckle nervously, and say a version of what too many people like to say when winding a meeting down: Thanks everyone, we’re finished now, and so I give you ten minutes back.
But were those 10 minutes ever really yours to return, presumptuous meeting facilitator? Were the prior 20 or 50 minutes truly yours to command?
Look into your heart. Did you even want our time and attention? I’ll wager you didn’t. You didn’t want to schedule or lead this meeting. You stayed up late the night before, dreading this meeting or meeting series that your job description demands you host. You prayed to your higher power, you begged, “Please, please let these people—strangers, many of them—have nothing to say or ask or criticize or claim, and please let us glide frictionlessly through the thornier points of contention towards an oasis of resolution, so I can seize five spare minutes for a hurried lunch.”
You knew that everyone on the line was only half-listening, because there are dozens of meetings today and no one really had time for this one. The mute function spares attendees the droning of soap operas, workmen or pets but it also allows the attendees to get away with catching up on email, doing some work they’re behind on, or talking shit about the meeting with co-workers who are also pretending to listen.
You knew this because when you actually needed someone to chime in or answer a question, it was necessary to address them by name two or three times before, following a soul-crushing pause, the person in question responded as if summoned from a dream-state to sleepwalk through a technical response. You knew this because inevitably two or three attendees asked you or someone else to restate something that everyone else heard clearly and understood.
You knew this because that’s who you often are in the meetings you don’t have to oversee, when meetings double as opportunities to catch your breath and savor a brief respite from the avalanche of calls, IMs, and emails that comprise the average office workday, the slow and maddening hour-glass seep of the unknown number of hours that still remain in the life you promise yourself you’re not waisting.