We help our customers develop breakthrough products and services within their market.

Most of us have been in a meeting that has not gone as planned. Topics came up that weren't on the agenda, the meeting was hijacked by a strong personality, or a variety of other unexpected situations may happen. After a recent experience in a meeting that did not go according to plan, I got thinking about how human factor could help in these situations.

What does Human Factors have to do with meetings?

You may be thinking that human factors is about safety and user experience, and while definitely one aspect it is not all human factors has to offer. One facet of human factors is about considering the user, the system, and the environment as one unit and to design for the optimal integration of the three. 


Now while this is generally used for products, ecosystems, or workflows, the same principles can apply to meetings. The users are the attendees, the system is the meeting process, and the environment consists of the meeting location and associated factors.

Often in HF, the environment or the system is the challenging part of the triangle. Designing for space stations or nuclear submarines are complex environments with a lot of technical considerations. Alternatively, surgical robots and fighter jets are extremely intricate systems, with hundreds, if not thousands, of separate components all working seamlessly together. However, in the case of meetings, the users are the complicated component.

Usually with users, though there may be multiple groups, there is a single end goal in mind. For example, with a surgical robot the users can include surgeon, nurses, surgical technicians, and even those who clean and maintain the robot. While they all interact with the robot in different ways, and may even have different intermediate goals, the end goal is the same—to have the robot perform as intended to give the greatest chance of improving patient outcomes.

However, meeting attendees may not have the same end goal. While the organizer may want to stick with the planned agenda, some participants may want to discuss something entirely different, while others may be apathetic and will contribute to any conversation is taking place.

To help optimize meetings, I have come up with three tools that can potentially help. The first is a tactic to encourage meetings to run according to the agenda and with participants listening to the meeting coordinator. The second is a response to help diffuse the situation if the meeting is starting to go off topic. Finally, the third can be used if the first two do not work, and you require a last ditch effort to save an unproductive meeting.

Subconsciously encourage correct behavior

Priming is a psychological theory where the subconscious exposure of one stimulus affects our response towards another stimulus. What this means is that presenting a cue (e.g. an image or word) can influence someone's actions without them realizing.

Research has shown that priming people with the subconscious ideas of conformity, such as through reading multiple sentences relating to conformity, can increase their conformity to a group.

There are multiple ways to work this into the meeting naturally. I will present two options below. The first could be through a spoken overview of the meeting agenda:

“Hi everyone. Thanks for coming to the meeting today. As is customary for my meetings, I want to follow some simple rules to help the meeting run more efficiently.   We are going to adhere to the agreed upon agenda set for the meeting. To make sure we cover everything, we are going to uphold and maintain a 10 minute limit for each topic. I ask that we are supportive in respecting that time limit, but if we agree for some extra time, I would be obliged to comply, though let's do the best we can to respect the time.”

While slightly formal sounding, I do not think anyone hearing this would think they are being primed for conformity. However, in reality, there are eleven words strategically placed to prime for conformity, including:

  • Customary
  • Follow
  • Adhere
  • Agreed
  • Uphold
  • Maintain
  • Supportive
  • Respecting
  • Obliged
  • Comply
  • Respect

The second option would work in more casual settings, though would require a slide deck/presentation. You can have a series of quotes that are placed throughout the presentation. Like the previous suggestion, the intention is to prime the feeling of conformity.  The following are some quotes that might be suitable for priming conformity (emphasis is my own):

"I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o'clock." ~ Oscar Wilde

“If you want to govern the people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead people, you must learn how to follow them.” ~ Lao Tzu

“Forget, forgive; conclude, and be agreed.” ~ William Shakespeare

“Make improvements, not excuses. Seek respect, not attention.” ~ Roy T. Bennett

Similar to the first example, someone reading these quotes should not be able to figure out that there is a theme of words relating to compliance. One thing to ensure, regardless of what behavior you are priming for, is that you keep the priming subconscious. If people feel like you are trying to influence them towards a specific behavior, it may cause the opposite effect. For more information on why this might happen, see the section below about reactance.

People do not want to lose autonomy

While the first tip was preventative, this next tip— about reactance —is for certain circumstances when the meeting is starting to go off topic. Classically, reactance is the idea of people strengthening their ideas and become more resistant against persuasion because they feel like someone is taking away their freedom by limiting their choices.

In a meeting, if someone brings up a topic that gets pushed aside or an idea that is unpopular, they may experience reactance, causing them to strengthen their feelings about that idea, potentially attempting to ensure everyone hears, and or discusses, their idea.

How do you keep your meeting on track without causing reactance?

I suggest a 4-step process whenever encountering a situation that might cause someone to feel reactance:

  1. Pivot
  2. Summarize
  3. Offer choices
  4. Give the person power
  1. Pivot by changing the focus on the conversation back on the person who is bringing up the topic/situation and removing everyone's opinion from the situation.
  2. Summarize what they said. This is to show you heard them and understand their point of view.

For example, to accomplish the first two steps you could say something along these lines:

“John, I hear what you are saying. It sounds like you want to discuss X and Y because you think the way we are implementing them now is wrong. I can see you have thought about this”

  1. Offer choices to reduce the amount of reactance they can feel. If they have options, it will be harder to feel like anyone is taking away their freedom.
  1. Give the person a direction to proceed. This gives a clear direction for future steps to ensure the person doesn't feel like they are being ignored.

To accomplish the last two steps, you could say the following:

“I want to discuss this with you further. Do you think it would be better to set up a meeting to discuss this next week, or do you suggest compiling your thoughts into a document for review? [regardless of what they say] Great! Sounds like we have a plan to move forward and I will expect a meeting invite from you/ I will review the document once you send it”

Modify this to fit your own needs based on how you want to proceed. You may not avoid discussing the off-topic items all together, but act using these four steps and you will diffuse the situation allowing for your meeting to continue seamlessly.

When in doubt, take the pen out

If all else fails and the meeting is quickly turning into an unproductive complaining session, the best move is empathy.

Now, I am not suggesting empathy in the same vein as a therapist, where they listen, internalize, discuss, reflect, validate, and discuss some more. Instead, I am suggesting a more proactive method of empathy, or at least pseudo empathy.

  1. Take out a pen and pad of paper or a laptop
  2. Actively listen and record what people are saying
  3. After writing each statement say “Alright, what is next”
  4. Continue until no one has anything left to say

What this should do, hopefully, is deflate the tension, complaining, or otherwise off-topic conversations. People will have their chance to unload their thoughts, and you will show you are paying attention by recording their comments. The trick in this method is that it does not leave room for elaboration or discussion around what is being said, which is why step 3 is crucial. While far from an elegant solution, it will allow you to control the pace as people voice their opinions, letting you quickly move on and regain control of the meeting.

Am I prepared?

Using these three tools will not guarantee your meetings will stay on track. Sometimes, no matter how many tips and tricks you deploy, there is nothing that can be done.  However, these three tips and tricks take into account the complex user aspect to meetings, and should help you run your meetings more efficiently.

Ben Zwillinger

Ben is a Human Factors Engineer. He has a background in psychology and neuroscience.