How to use cognitive science to communicate better in meetings

You probably didn't realise you bring three brains to work. Psychology professor Art Markman explains how to make the most of them.

by Art Markman
Last Updated: 06 Aug 2019

No element of work life is more common or more maligned than meetings. We get together in groups for many reasons, among them to develop new ideas, share plans, solve problems, coordinate projects, and reach consensus. Meetings can be a productive way to get work done, but many times they are not. One big problem is that often a few people tend to dominate what’s said.

The Pareto principle states that 80 percent of any outcome typically comes from only 20 percent of the potential causes. This rule may be particularly apt with regard to meetings. It always seems that 80 percent of the comments are made by 20 percent of the attendees.

To understand why, first you need to understand your own brain. There are three important mental systems that are crucial for success at work: the motivational brain, the social brain, and the cognitive brain.

Your motivational brain is the set of mechanisms that get you to do something (or sometimes avoid doing something). Your social brain is the collection of systems that help you deal with other people. Your cognitive brain is the elaborate set of structures that permit you to communicate, make excellent snap judgments on the basis of your experience, and engage in complex reasoning.

Let’s consider those brain systems in a meeting scenario. Not everyone in the meeting has the expertise—the cognitive brain—needed to participate fully on every topic. So some people must necessarily listen to the proceedings rather than contribute.

Two personality characteristics — the motivational brain — drive people to engage in meetings. First, extraversion reflects how much people like to be the centre of attention in social situations. Extraverts in a meeting enjoy the social give-and-take and are more likely than introverts to speak. Second, narcissism makes some people believe that they’re superior to those around them, who ought to pay attention to what they say. Narcissists will speak early and often at meetings but usually don’t listen to others — particularly those who disagree with them.

Your social brain can help you learn good meeting behaviour. If you pay attention to what other people do in meetings, you’ll get a sense of how to contribute. Watching the reactions of others as you speak is helpful. If they look attentive, you’re probably contributing something of value without going on too long. If they look away or whisper to one another, you’re probably saying too much.

Helpful techniques

It’s important to speak up when you have something to say, but you want to be sure not to speak more often than everyone else. If you think you might be dominating, try recording a meeting you attend (with permission from the other participants, of course) and listen to your contributions later. Was what you were saying on topic? Did you move the conversation forward? Did you remain concise?

It’s hard to speak in sound bites, but it’s a valuable skill to learn, because people are likely to remember sound bites and use them throughout the rest of the conversation. A sound bite need not oversimplify the topic, but it should briefly state your main point. Spend some time looking over the meeting agenda in advance and think about some of the key topics. Write down your thoughts ahead of time and see if you can find some clear phrases to use in discussing them.

A key reason people drone on in meetings is that they have something to say but haven’t quite figured out how to articulate it. So they take the floor and speak until they figure out a way to phrase their intended point. The more you practice crafting pithy ways to phrase what you’re thinking, the better able you’ll be to do that in the moment.

Pay attention to how much time you take when you speak in a meeting. If you spend more than a minute on a given turn, you’re probably going on too long. If you speak for several minutes, you’re probably making several points—so if you want people to respond to the things you’re saying, focus on one or perhaps two issues at a time. Otherwise, most of what you say will get lost.

Finally, a cardinal sin in meetings is "me-too-ing," whereby one person makes an important point, and then several other people take the floor to say essentially the same thing (perhaps in other words). Before you raise your hand in a meeting, ask yourself whether you have something new to contribute.

Bonus: The Jazz Brain

Another remarkable facet of humans is our capacity to improvise. People are very good at dealing with new situations and at revising a plan on the fly. I call this the the Jazz Brain.

Jazz musicians relish their turn to take a solo. Early on, it’s tempting to fill that moment with as many licks and flourishes as possible. But as the great trumpet player Miles Davis said, "It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play."

Similarly, when you’re speaking in public or in a meeting, you may tend to fall back on verbal tics to help you hold the floor: "umm" to fill a pause, or "you know" to end a sentence. Such sounds or words may pop out of your mouth automatically, but they quickly become annoying to those listening to you.

If you notice that you’re using verbal tics (or if someone points them out to you), you need to practise replacing them with silence. An easy way to do that is to slow down when you’re speaking in conversations and meetings. It’s hard to control your speech when you talk fast, but if you take your time, you may start to hear the noises you make to fill the silence. And when you speak more slowly, you also tend to enunciate better, making it easier for others to understand everything you say.

The more you learn about how you think, the easier it will be to work in a way that fits naturally with how your brain wants to function. And if you understand the functioning of your brain (and the brains of your colleagues), you can make better decisions about how to communicate.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career. Copyright 2019 Art Markman. All rights reserved.

Art Markman is Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin

Image credit: Jekaterina Nikitina via Getty Images

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