I’m kind of quirky about how I start meetings.
I’ve done a lot of them over the past fifteen years. When I worked in the non-profit world, I felt like I went from one meeting to the next. Most of these were intimate, one-on-ones over coffee or a meal. Now that I work for a small tech company, I find myself in a lot of team meetings with two, or three, or five people. Some of my routine meetings have been structured, like the board meetings for the charter school we helped build. Others have been more open, like informal brainstorming sessions I get the privilege to occasionally have with friends.
It doesn’t matter what shape the meeting takes or who it is with, there are a few things I always do before the meeting starts.
I always bring a book to read. I’m anxious about time. It’s a fault of mine. I worry a lot about being late for things. For meetings (doesn’t matter with who), I try to arrive ten to fifteen minutes early. It’s my secret way of communicating to the person I’m meeting with that I’m excited to be there.
Unfortunately, I get nervous waiting. As I sit there for ten minutes (because I came crazy early) I start to wonder, “Did I tell them the right place? Do I have the right time? Maybe they canceled and I missed it?” Before I started bringing a book with me, I would sit and worry for the entire fifteen minutes before the meeting began, so by the time everyone arrived, I was a nervous wreck.
Having a book to read saves me from myself. It protects me from my own insanity. Now, as I wait for people to arrive, I just read.
I also always bring my journal and a pen. As before, doesn’t matter who the meeting is with, I believe the person I’m talking to is going to say something so profound that I will need to write it down so I never forget it. The practice of bringing my journal and pen helps me set my expectations for the conversation. I’m coming to learn.
And because I’m listening for it, nine times out of ten I hear something said that is worth writing down. Sometimes it even becomes a game. I find myself asking probing questions, hoping to dig deeper into the conversation, until I find a nugget to record.
There is an exception. If the conversation is of a personal nature (like marriage counseling session for example), I don’t open my notepad. Taking notes when someone is pouring their heart out is poor form.
Person I’m With: “And then he said…” (crying) “He said I wasn’t intelligent enough for him…” (more crying)
Me: “Does intelligent have an ‘a’ in it? I can never spell that one.”
But even if the conversation is of a personal nature, I still put my journal on the table. Just having it there is a reminder to me that the person I’m with has something to teach me.
Next to my notepad and pen, before the conversation begins, you will see me empty my pockets onto the table. This habit gets me a lot of strange looks, but it’s something I have to do.
My pockets aren’t Mary Poppins purse. The amount of stuff I take out isn’t much — my keys, my wallet, my cell phone, my headphones, maybe an old, crumpled receipt I don’t recognize. I take it all out and make a little pile on the table to the right of where I’m going to sit.
I tell myself that I do this because the stuff in my pockets might distract me — that if I feel my keys against my leg, I will think about where I need to go after this meeting. This justification of my weirdness is a lie.
The truth is, I’m not really that distracted. I could keep things in my pockets and be fine. Cleaning out my pockets before a conversation begins is a reminder to me. I want my whole attention focused on the person (or people) I’m with. The act of putting everything on the table is my way of reminding myself to be fully present and engaged in the conversation.
And finally, when I take everything out of my pockets, I let the people I’m with see me turn off my cell phone and stick it in my computer bag. I’m a cell phone addict. Between the blogs I manage, my email inbox, Facebook, and Clash of Clans, there is a never ending stream of notifications calling to me, urging me to come and get a fix. But none of these things are as important as the person I’m with, and I want them to see that before we start talking.
So if we ever sit down in a meeting together, please don’t find it strange that I’m carrying a novel and a journal, that I put my keys, wallet, and a crumpled receipt or two on the table, and that I turn off my cell phone and then stick it in my bag. All of these are small reminders to me that you are important and that I need to focus on you.