6 Ways You Make Bad Meetings Worse (And What To Do About It)

Design meetings. None of us is as dumb as all of us. You know the drill.

I told you so.

Why is this? Why do we all come out of a day’s worth of meetings fatigued instead of energized? Why are meetings so hard?

Does it have to be this way? And if better meetings are possible, can we do it without having to take a week to go see an Anthony Robbins seminar and to digest “How to Win Friends and Influence People”?


I think we can change how you think of meetings in less than 5 minutes. So here’s an idea (because I’m guessing you’re reading this right now while you’re in a meeting trying not to fall asleep), why don’t you send everybody this link and take a few minutes to read it. Then, continue.

It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and come to a few realizations.

6. You’re not speaking the same language
5. You lack empathy
4. You’re treating your meetings like a political battleground
3. You beat your designer
2. You treat your differences as weaknesses
1. You’re having the wrong conversation

Let’s take a deeper look.

6. You’re not speaking the same language

The problem

The number one reason you hate meetings is because the other participants never understand things quite the way you do. And after several hours of banging your head against something that you consider to be an easy and obvious idea, you’re ready to abandon everything to go sell coconuts by the side of the road in Nicaragua. After all, there are very few meetings in that job. And you get a tan.

The reason and solution

The reason the points that you find to be so obvious are hard to communicate in a meeting is because nobody can understand what the fuck you’re talking about. If they did, it wouldn’t feel as though you had just showed a bunch of dogs a card trick. You’d be getting a better reaction.

No, it was the 8 of clubs.

Think about it this way. Have you ever tried to play a movie on your computer and your computer said “Quicktime cannot play this file. Missing plug-in.”? Your computer was telling you that it didn’t have the piece of software that’s required to play the movie. The entire movie was sitting on your hard drive but you couldn’t see it because your computer literally didn’t know how to interpret the data in the movie file.

The video makes no sense to the computer.

In your meeting, you’re the movie and they are the computer.

There’s a really high chance that nobody else in the room has the same set of experiences and knowledge that you have. They don’t know your frame of reference. You are firmly rooted in your universe. They are not. They are trying to understand it. And because you’re getting frustrated, you’re only making it worse.

Instead, work to clarify your language. Be precise. And be patient.

5. You lack empathy

The problem

After 30 minutes in a meeting of patiently explaining a point that you consider to be blatantly obvious, it’s easy to lose your cool. What could be a bigger waste of time than to try to defend the obviously right way to do something?

I’m also convinced that if I knew I only had one day left to live and I wanted to make it feel like eternity, I’d just schedule a day full of meetings where other people had to make long presentations. By the end of the day I’d be begging for The Reaping.

you guys, my ride is here

The reason and solution

The solution in a word: empathy.

Meetings are about communication. We’re all bad at it. And even if one guy in your group is really good at communicating, chances are that you’re still marginal at it. You drift during meetings, you step on toes, you’re too forceful or too weak, you shut down or never shut up. You seek to be right rather than to build consensus. In short, you’re pretty much a perfect asshole. All it took was 30 minutes and a Powerpoint presentation and you’ve been reduced to the emotional stability of a six-year-old with low blood sugar.

But that’s to be expected. You’re crammed in a room (or on a phone call) with a bunch of people you marginally know and don’t really care about and then you’re asked to perform in front of them. On top of that, there are deadlines everybody has to hit and you don’t know how much you can count on any of these other people.

These are the perfect conditions to create a Category 5 hurricane of asshole behavior.

No wonder meetings are hard. It’s like we’re all Michael J. Fox trying to keep the werewolf at bay. Sooner or later, the claws are going to come out.

My grip on reality is a little shaky.

The only way I know to stop this hurricane of werewolf assholes is to change the emotional temperature in the room. We have to actively lower the stress and anxiety. And the only way to do that is to empathize with the others in the meeting.

4. You’re treating your meetings like a political battleground

The problem

There’s a Cat 5 hurricane of werewolf assholes attacking your meeting.

The reason and solution

The claws are out because there’s no sense of safety. Everybody feels like they’re some kind of high wire act. There’s no room for error. And this simply will not do for effective design meetings. Effective meetings offer the chance to Voltron your abilities. It’s a chance for the whole to be more than the sum of its parts.

pictured: one kick ass meeting

Crap meetings feel like they break people down, not build them up. And it’s been well documented that professional creativity flourishes when people feel secure in what they are doing.

This cannot be done if your performance is being judged in real time by the other members in the group. The group members have to understand that the meeting is a chance to push the project down the road, not to figure out how somebody isn’t pulling their weight or is somehow compromising your work day.

The best meetings are those where the egos fade away and the content of the meeting takes center stage. Work to limit the “I did this… I did that” barrage in a meeting and instead seek creative brainstorming from the group. Or build consensus around the best ideas (and not just your own). Make it a point to offer trust to your other team members. Be the example if you have to. They will come around.

3. You beat your designer

The problem

Your designer acts like he’s got PTSD.

The reason and solution

There’s always a runt of the litter. In the design process, most often, this person is the designer. It’s easy to see why: they are the ones who have to show their work first.

Settle down.

Very few people have severe opinions about technical documents. I can write tech specs and marketing plans until the cows come home and nobody will ever really pick my documents apart. There’s too much reading and understanding to be done in order to rage at my work.

Designers, however, are playing a different game entirely. They are the ones who take all of the different perspectives that are present at the meeting and distill them into a single design. All that’s required to have an opinion about it is to look at it.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean they have an informed opinion, but rarely does that matter to the person doing the talking.

As a result, designers get immediate feedback. They almost never get to explain their design decisions before the first reviews of their work leap out of a team member’s mouth.

As a result, they feel misunderstood.


Additionally, they have good taste. That’s why they became a designer in the first place. But their skill level may not match their good taste. When you see a designer that’s down on their design, you have to realize that they’re not necessarily producing sub-par work. They’re fighting their own technical limits. And that makes them look a lot like Eeyore the Designer.

In a meeting full of werewolves, this lack of confidence can be interpreted as weakness. And as a result, he becomes the office piñata – even if he’s the only one that feels it.  Soon, he learns how to moderate his behavior so that he doesn’t get beaten up so much. And essentially, he checks out mentally. The moment that happens, that’s when your project is doomed. You’ve lost the passion of a team member – the one responsible for telling the visual story – and you MUST help them get it back.

On a positive note, your designer is also the canary in the coal mine. If he looks anxious and fatigued, your team is doing it wrong. If he’s happy and energized, things are probably going pretty well.

2. You interpret your differences as weaknesses

The problem

Building consensus is hard. Also, my team members are stupid and don’t listen.

The reason and solution

The reason there’s a team in the first place is specifically because they don’t do what you do. If you could do it all and were a Chuck Norris-esqe figure at your job, then there’d be no problems. It’s just, you’re not and there are.

If your designer has a different idea than you about the design, let them run with it. If your programmer is being a stick in the mud about something that is clearly in his job description embrace his bearded wizardry and take his advice.

How else are you ever going to gain the advantages of a graphic designer, programmer, copywriter, marketer, etc. other than to let them be the King of Their Domain?

Don’t fear the ideas that sound foreign to you. You’re mistaking you not having the plug-in for them being a bunch of dumb asses. The only way you’re ever going to get the plug-in is if you shut down your fear of failure and trust your team members to carry their weight.

In this way, I would submit that the majority of the time, trust is more important than understanding. There’s a magic to allowing enough breathing room for another person to impress you. You should try it.

1. You’re having the wrong conversation

The problem

Everyone else is a werewolf asshole. This meeting sucks. We don’t get anything done and we’re destined to have this same meeting again in a week. FML.

The reason and solution

To be blunt: ur doin’ it wrong.

The difference between good meetings and bad meetings boils down to the conversation you have.

In bad meetings, the conversation is all about the ego. It’s about appealing to people’s sense of right-ness. It’s about kowtowing to others in the group based on rank. It’s about survival.

Good meetings are about strategy. Instead of crushing your designer with a well timed “I THINK IT’S SHIT!”, you should seek to understand why they did what they did and then talk about those decisions. Decision-based conversations are so much better than ego-driven conversations.

It turns the Werewolf Design Meeting into the Strategically Driven Design Meeting. It’s true it doesn’t sound as cool when you’re talking about it in the hallway, but trust me, the results are so much better.

It’s easy: design meetings are about producing the best product possible. This is the exact reason that people get so passionate inside of these meetings. It’s fine to be passionate, but the passion needs to be focused on specific resolvable points.

“I hate the color but I don’t know what I want.”, isn’t a sufficient answer. It’s fine to hate the color but there needs to be some discussion as to why that color was chosen, not just the fact that you hate it. Because that way there’s a way to push the conversation towards a solution.

Conversation 1 – Wrong

Guy 1: What do you think of the image?
Guy 2: [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]I think it sucks.[/highlight] Guy 1: Why?
Guy 2: I just don’t like it.
Guy 1: Anything in particular or…
Guy 2: Yeah. It’s too dark. I didn’t think it’d be that dark.
Guy 1: So… lighten the background?
Guy 2: Something like that. And maybe add a ninja? I don’t know exactly but [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]I’ll know it when I see it.[/highlight] Guy 1: Hmm… okay. I’ll see what I can come up with.
Guy 2: (privately) [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]What an idiot.[/highlight] We pay this guy for this?
Guy 1: (privately) What an idiot. He doesn’t even know what he wants but he wants me to pick it out of the aether and put it on a goddamn silver platter for him. Lead me to the building. Fuck you.

Result: [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]NO CONSENSUS[/highlight] and everybody is privately pissed.

Conversation 2 – Right

Guy 1: What do you think of the image?
Guy 2: The background color seems a little off to me. [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]Why’d we do that?[/highlight] Guy 1: We talked about making something that looked steely and tough.
Guy 2: I’m not sure that dark slate works. [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]What other ideas do we have?[/highlight] Guy 1: I could work up something that seems like high-grade building concrete, kinda make it look like a Ford F-150 commercial.
Guy 2: It could work. Maybe with some chain link fence?
Guy 1: Mmmmhmm… *scribbles notes* let me see what I can do…
Guy 2: I think I’m happy with that. What else…?
Guy 1: (privately) [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]That went better than I thought[/highlight] and I know how to move forward here.
Guy 2: (privately) That’s taken care of. *check*

Result: [highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]CONSENSUS[/highlight] and everybody is totally cool.

[highlight color=”eg. yellow, black”]A good creative meeting is like a good improv session: never say no.[/highlight] You have to take the idea and work it. If you don’t like what you see – that’s fine, but you’re still responsible for finding a better solution. That’s the goal of everybody in the room. And the best way to do that is to remember this little mantra: keep strategy first.


Meetings. They bring out the worst in us. They bring out our inner werewolf. They turn us into a-holes. It’s like that Snickers commercial with Betty White.

The best way to fight it is with some golden rule stuff mixed in with a little business savvy. So here, now, are 8 totally common sense points for contributing to better meetings:

  • Seek clarity and use precise language
  • Be patient and seek to understand others fully before replying
  • Learn the codec (the plug in) of the other group members so you can understand more fully what others are saying (aka, hang out with them and get a feel for who they are personally, if possible)
  • Focus on results not ego
  • Offer trust
  • Do what you can to make your meeting a safe place to disagree
  • When the going gets tough, everybody take a step back and show a little empathy. Then take 5. Then refocus on strategy. Whoever got the last jab in buys the first round later. Also, be sure there’s a first round later.
  • Relax a little. It’s just life.

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