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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Distracted Meetings?

Dear Crucial Skills,

I am getting incredibly frustrated by the various meetings I attend. I feel they are increasingly ineffective. Information that is shared is not understood and later attendees claim they were not aware of matters we discussed. In my opinion, technology is to blame. During the meetings, people are frequently checking their e-mails and texts and responding to them instead of paying attention. Am I just a dinosaur unwilling to get with the times, or are others being rude? What can be done?


Dear Irritated,

You are not a “dinosaur” that has to get with the times; you are one of an increasing number that see the inappropriate use of technology as a real problem. Meetings are less effective when people try to multitask. Many groups are unconsciously changing their norms and culture by not noticing or addressing the increased use of digital diversions during meetings. What was once seen as a rare interruption is now more often the norm.

Unfortunately, you are a victim of Electronic Displays of Insensitivity, or EDIs. We recently conducted an online survey of 2,025 subjects about this very topic. Eighty-nine percent of respondents reported damaged relationships due to friends and family ignoring them as a result of the insensitive use of technology, and 90 percent agree you should not answer text messages or check social media profiles in public; yet 67 percent regularly see EDIs at the dinner table, 52 percent see them frequently during customer service interactions, and 63 percent report regularly seeing this abuse in meetings. Ninety percent of respondents report the situation is worse than a year ago. To make matters worse, two out of three respondents have no idea how to confront an EDI and one in three just ignore it. You can read the study on our blog.

Perhaps there are occasions when someone should have his or her smartphone on and be available during a meeting. A staff meeting where a doctor needs to be reached in case of an emergency is an example; or a key manager that must be available during a team meeting for an important client or customer might also be appropriate. However, in the vast majority of cases we should use the “movie rule”—make your calls, texts, or e-mails before or after the meeting, not during the meeting. If there is an urgent need to be available during the meeting, get the group’s concurrence up front; even then, step out of the meeting to respond.

My advice to you is this: as you begin a meeting, whether it’s your meeting or someone else’s, state the facts. Factually describe what has been happening. You might say, “In our meetings I’ve noticed that many of us check our phones for texts and e-mails during the meeting. Frequently, we are sending messages.”

Next, explore natural consequences. Share some of the consequences and problems you see resulting from people’s use of digital communication. Perhaps you could say something like, “I’ve noticed that while this is happening, those involved seem to check out of the meeting. Information is often missed and I believe ideas are not being shared that could help the team. I’ve come to this conclusion because people are often unaware of information discussed or key points that were made during meetings that they attended. I think, at best, we are undermining our effectiveness; at worst, we are doing damage to our stakeholders.”

Invite others to dialogue. Ask others to share their view. “Do you see this differently? Am I missing something?” Listen carefully to others’ views. In most cases, the reason people feel the need to constantly check messages is so they can stay in touch or not miss something of importance. Help your teammates understand it’s usually a trade-off between accomplishing the team’s purposes and individual convenience. The answer usually comes from being organized and disciplined.

Propose a solution. Ask others if they would be willing to try an experiment. Propose the team use the “movie rule” for two meetings and see if things improve. Create clear expectations so everyone understands what the new guidelines are.

Begin every meeting with a reminder. Review the team’s agreement about not using digital communication and ask if anyone needs an exception to the rule. Discuss any requests and agree together how to proceed.

Review results. At the end of the meeting check to see how the attendees felt the meeting went. Did they notice any difference? Did they see these new guidelines as an improvement? Are they willing to do it again next time? Often, after two “digital-free” meetings, team members see the changes, recognize the improvements, and are willing to continue.

If they have not become full converts, you can agree on compromises that still make things better, like turning the phones off when a critical issue must be discussed that requires everyone’s undivided attention.

The key is not allowing EDIs to become “undiscussable.” Respectfully talk about what is happening and how it can be improved. In this way, you develop an open culture of continually improving your team’s effectiveness and not defaulting to Electronic Displays of Insensitivity.

I wish you the very best,


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

4 thoughts on “Distracted Meetings?”

  1. Wietze de Vries

    Right on! Thanks for the tips on how to make this problem “discussable”.

  2. Dale

    I know one company that inadvertently stopped this. They converted an EM test room to a conference room. The room is shielded from outside signals, so none of the electronics work.

  3. Darcie

    Some important details here – only those who actually have something to contribute or learn should be in the meeting, the agenda should be pre-published, the purpose and owner of each agenda item should be crystal clear (and agreed upon ahead of time), and the meeting should end as soon as the agenda is completed. Then folks will likely be more willing to park their devices. Hopefully all of that would come up in the open & honest discussion, but I’ve found that part of the reason people multi-task is that they aren’t engaged by the meeting and maybe they don’t need to be there. Give them permission to leave when their agenda item is done and part of the problem disappears.

  4. Kevin Crenshaw

    We think it’s inevitable–meetings just have to be endured. But I routinely change meetings from boring to brilliant in under two weeks, and they stay that way. When people love to attend and participate, multitasking plummets naturally. Meetings like that change the company forever. The methods aren’t rocket science, but getting people to *believe* that change is possible is tough. We’ve become conditioned to bad meeting methods.

    Wrong solutions:
    – Pre-publishing an agenda (won’t make the meeting less boring and agile, it makes it worse–would you want to watch a new movie if you already knew the whole plot?)
    – “Checking in” on the latest developments with each other
    – Presentations from management or team members
    – Consensus decisions or unilateral decisions (choose your poison)

    A taste of the right solutions:
    – Everyone brings “burning issues” and throws them on the table to hammer out together
    – Build a just-in-time agenda at the start of the meeting (1 min.) based on what burning issues are most important to everyone
    – Everyone’s opinions matter, anyone can weigh in
    – Decisions are made via buy-in (70% agreement), not consensus
    – Everyone takes the notes together, collaboratively, using a shared platform like Google Docs

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