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Meetings are necessary. But not all meetings are good. To be more precise, not all meetings are run well. But how can you rescue a bad meeting if you’re not the one leading it?

While our facilitation training focuses on creating better leaders, the truth is, most of us spend the majority of our time as participants. And while we’re not suggesting that you, as a participant, instantly take over a bad meeting, there are some actions you can take to improve a bad meeting without stepping on the toes of your meeting leader.

How to Rescue a Bad Meeting

The worst deliverable from any meeting–is another meeting.

The Dos and Don’ts—Starting with the DON’TS

We start with what NOT to do, as it is essential that you have four rules clearly in mind before you take any action:

  • NEVER embarrass the leader
  • NEVER challenge the leader’s capabilities
  • It is NOT your meeting, you are only trying to help
  • If the leader resists your efforts, stop

To put it simply: NEVER embarrass the person leading the meeting.

What can you, as a participant, DO to rescue a bad meeting?

Everyone is Sitting

If all participants, including the leader, are sitting down, take a marker and stand up. Suggest to the leader that you can assist by recording what is happening. Try to summarize what seems to be the purpose and direction (for lack of an agenda) of the meeting. Before rising, you may even draft and then suggest an agenda to help guide the meeting.

Unless you are told to sit down and shut up, you have become the facilitator. By standing up, recording on flip charts, whiteboards, or projector screen, and using facilitation skills to keep the discussion focused, you have effectively changed the course of a bad meeting by using a facilitative leadership style.

The Leader is Standing

If the meeting leader is standing up, start by using facilitator skills, such as asking sharp questions and using reflective active listening, to get the group focused. If the leader is not effective in knowing where to go, your effort to clarify will not be a problem. Once you gain a role as a “focuser”, you may then suggest that your agenda would help everyone make better contributions. Playing “dumb” is very effective in getting people to set direction without feeling threatened by you.

You may suggest to the leader that he or she has so much to contribute, that you would be willing to stand up and do the flip chart recording. Again, once you are standing with a marker in your hand, you subtly become the facilitator. In both cases, talk to the meeting leader after the meeting. In a non-threatening way, explain how the next meeting can be made more effective. You will begin to change the meeting culture in your organization.

Seven Ingredients to Ensure Success

You want to avoid meeting killers that cause bad meetings. A “killer” would suggest the absence or void of much of the following. There is no set formula for subtly controlling bad meetings, but there are seven ingredients that suggest a strong likelihood of positive impact. Listed in order of importance, the seven ingredients include:

Meeting tips

Seven Meeting Ingredients to Ensure Succes


  1. Know What Done Looks Like:

    Any leader needs to know where they are going before they take off. Make the purpose and deliverable of the meeting clear immediately. People can follow a leader who knows where they are going. However, people are reticent to follow someone who does not know where they are going. And meeting participants ALWAYS know the difference.

  2. Recommend an Agenda to Guide the Group:

    Structure yields flexibility. If you draft a map for their journey, it is easy to take a detour or scenic route because you know where to go when the temporary path is no longer valuable. Plan your work and work your plan.

  3. Suggest Ground Rules to Ensure On-time Performance:

    The terms “concussion”, “percussion”, and “discussion” are all related. Avoid meeting headaches and get more done faster. While not required, ground rules help everyone get more done, sooner.

  4. Control or Define Terms to Prevent Scope Creep:

    Unless your deliverable calls for a definition or scoping boundaries, do not allow arguments about the meaning of terms.  Bring your definition tool to the forefront and get participants level set on what key terms mean to everyone. You need consensus around the meaning of the terms being used, so prevent arguments about definitions by building them immediately, with the group. Scope creep kills projects, and it kills meetings as well.

  5. Enjoin and Facilitate Argumentation:

    The best return on investment of face-to-face meeting time (and costs) derives from resolving conflict. When two or more people (or teams) disagree, they need a meeting referee — a facilitator. Arguments do not get resolved with text messages, emails, decks of slides, and PDFs. See How to Manage Conflict for refreshing tips.

  6. Focus on the Analytics or Tools that Galvanize Consensus:

    There is more than one right answer or tool for nearly all circumstances. Given your participants, constraints, and personal experience suggest a tool that may be optimum for the situation. If required, recommend a back-up approach, if something immediately goes awry.

  7. Increase the Velocity of Participation:

    Groups are smarter than the smartest person in the group because groups generate more options than individuals alone. Solicit and encourage a multiplicity of input. The human mind is empowered tremendously when it can compare and contrast options to influence decision-making.

Benefits for You

The worst deliverable from any meeting—is another meeting. Therefore, by helping to transform a bad meeting into a productive one…

  • Your time in meetings will not be wasted or unproductive—you will feel like you are accomplishing something.
  • People will look to you as a model of meeting management—and management in general. Senior executives find future executives in meetings—those who contribute and manage the best meetings.

For Your Company

Even if you don’t change your entire company, changing one organization within the company benefits a great deal. In organizations where productive meetings are a way of life, they are able to do things others have not been able to do, such as:

Revolution or Evolution?

Look at your meeting culture and obstacles. Have poorly conducted meetings become an epidemic and people are openly complaining? As a result, revolution may be the answer. Change the next meeting and let everyone know about it. Publish the fact that you are running the meeting in a totally new way. Publish the results of the meeting. Ask the participants to answer—how was it better, how was it more productive? Publish results and suggesting that if more conducting more meetings properly creates such results consistently.

If your organization is not having major problems follow an evolutionary approach. Change the next meeting you run—even a short staff meeting. Talk to your peers and subordinates about the meeting approach. Suggest changes for the ways to conduct meetings. See if there is an interest in getting more people trained to run better meetings. Additionally, publish the benefits of better meeting leadership.

Example is Best

People see you succeed at leading meetings and they want to try what you have been doing. The more people that do better, the more others will want to follow suit and follow. Set the example, start a culture change, and expect others to follow.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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