How to Survive the Worst Work Meeting of Your Life
February 11, 2021

How to Survive the Worst Work Meeting of Your Life

by Brian de Haaff

"Listening is where love begins." Beloved television host Fred Rogers shared this sentiment several decades ago. It is sage advice for anyone who wants to develop more empathy. Striving to better understand people's perspectives is especially important at work. Because no one achieves in a vacuum. Collaboration and compassion are necessary to make meaningful progress towards shared goals.

Active listening is a hallmark of productive team meetings — where people treat one another with respect, consideration, and kindness.

Collaboration relies on trust and vulnerability. Coworkers need to feel safe to share differing opinions and challenge others' assumptions. But when attendees express their views in a disrespectful or hostile way, meetings quickly devolve from uncomfortable to toxic. If you have experienced a meeting like this, you know how harmful it is for team morale and performance.

This can happen for many reasons, including if the company leaders behave the same way. Maybe your experience is that only the loudest and pushiest people see their ideas promoted. Or meetings are combative and end with clear winners and losers.

Conversations can also get heated when people care deeply about the work — fighting for what they believe is right.

Confusion or miscommunication can quickly derail a meeting too — even if people have good intentions. If teams are vying for limited resources, it is easy to get defensive about the value your work brings to the organization. But I think you often see the tension mount when people are introducing new concepts that could have a real impact across the business.

I recently joined a cross-functional meeting with members of our product, UX, and marketing teams. The purpose was to discuss the Aha! brand. I knew this had the potential to be a high-pressure meeting because everyone was coming in with different opinions and perspectives. But the conversation ended up going smoothly because each team member was prepared, respectful, and willing to hear each other. It was inspiring to witness.

I feel great pride in our team at Aha! — but I know not everyone works at an organization like ours. You may feel like you are merely surviving one contentious meeting after the next. But you can still be part of creating a positive change for yourself and others. Here is my advice for making even the most difficult conversations a productive experience:


Start by clarifying the goals for the meeting. If the host has not put together an agenda, ask for loose bullet points that you can use to organize your thoughts ahead of time. It is also helpful to anticipate your reactions if you are passionate about the topic. Think through any potential triggers and poke at what is beneath your feelings — this will help you stay calm if the meeting gets heated.


Gather supporting materials you can refer to during the conversation. This can be quantitative or qualitative data to back up your argument, such as estimated cost savings for a new effort. Anticipate how other attendees may have different perspectives from your own. This requires empathy for your colleagues' needs and priorities. Consider what your response might be to other views so you are able to articulately explain when the time comes.


Come to the meeting with a willingness to listen and learn. It can be humbling to admit that you are not an expert on the subject being discussed. But the best insights often arise when you consider a new data point or perspective. If your teammates are not speaking as openly and transparently as you would like, just ask. Encourage them to share their assumptions and expectations. Then listen closely to what they say and internalize their perspective.


Active listening leads to engagement. If a colleague says something that bristles you, do not get furious — be curious. Let your inquisitiveness compel you to participate more deeply in the discussion. Asking open-ended, non-combative questions can help you reach mutual understanding. Examples include, "Can you share how you came to that conclusion?" and "Can you tell me why you feel that way?"


Yes. It is okay to argue for what you believe as long as you are discussing the merits of ideas — not people. Now you are prepared to advocate for what you think is most important. But you need to be flexible in order to achieve your broader goals. Be willing to make small concessions when necessary. Sometimes what you want will not win out. When that happens, accept it gracefully. Teamwork is not a zero-sum game and short-term victories should not come at the cost of achieving long-term objectives.

Meetings are valuable opportunities to exchange ideas and achieve more as a collective than you could alone. Embrace the opportunity.

Of course, company leaders greatly influence the timbre of meetings. But if you are an individual contributor, you still have the power to effect positive change. The easiest way is to behave as you think others should. Treat others how you want to be treated and model engaged and respectful behavior.

If a meeting gets heated despite your best efforts, gently nudge your coworkers to remember what is most important — your collective goals. Taking a team approach is the best way forward. Everyone benefits when we see what and why people are taking a specific position and work together for the best outcome for all.

How do you navigate contentious meetings?

Our team is happy, productive, and hiring — join us!

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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