Why do I Always come away from Meetings Feeling a Fool?

That was the plaintive question I saw recently on Twitter (actually not from anyone I knew). There is of course the possibility the person is a fool, but my guess is that they were simply feeling that they weren’t doing as well as they imagined everyone else was in achieving their aims/contributing/being heard. Here are ten possible scenarios which could give rise to the sad statement, most of which do not amount to the questioner being a fool at all. I will assume the meeting was some sort of committee meeting; adjust my comments to fit other sorts of meetings as appropriate.

  1. It was your first meeting and you had little background information to help you get through the meeting. If everyone else looked like they knew more than you did, you’re probably correct, but that is simply knowledge gained from attendance in the past, knowledge that you can quickly pick up if you work at it. Such knowledge can range from the ability to toss acronyms around to familiarity with the names of key characters not physically present in the room. Give it a while – YOU ARE NOT A FOOL.
  2. Closely allied is another form of inexperience when you are unsure of the rules and customs of a particular group or the arrival of a new chair, whose style you don’t know, changes the dynamics. It is all too easy (e.g. at a grant-giving committee) to talk for too long or not long enough for the format expected. Listen, work out what works and what the consensus style of presentation is and get it right next time. Unless you persistently stay out of line – YOU ARE NOT A FOOL.
  3. You didn’t prepare your arguments well enough to be able to put them across convincingly. This may be because you were lazy and sloppy (in which case foolishness may be a factor) or it may be because you’re inexperienced and/or not had an opportunity to discover what counter-arguments might be used. INEXPERIENCE IS NOT THE SAME AS FOOLISHNESS but it’s worth working to improve your ability to defend a position. Sometimes it helps to try your ideas on a willing outsider; as with giving seminars, practice in saying the words out loud can make a big difference.
  4. You didn’t manage to read the papers in advance of the meeting. This may indeed amount to folly; or it may simply be your life is out of control (we’ve all been there) and time ran away from you. But it is never a good idea to turn up at a meeting without having the slightest idea of what’s going on or, worse, to put forward an argument explicitly debunked in the paperwork which shows, to one and all, you’ve failed to prepare. You can most likely get away with it once. More than once -AND YOU PROBABLY ARE BEING FOOLISH (at the very least for not dropping some of your other workload). You may be able to hide your lack of preparation by never saying a word of course. Many a committee member has chosen such a strategy, but if they do it consistently they will end up looking rather silly.
  5. You can’t get a word in edgeways: this would suggest, either that you need to go to assertiveness classes or you have a very bad chair (I discussed various characteristics of incompetent chairs here). The latter happens all too often, unfortunately. Try to talk to a colleague, ideally someone also present at the meeting who can facilitate your words being heard. YOU ARE NOT A FOOL (but you may need to toughen up).
  6. You are on the losing side in an argument. This could be because you have been misled by others who seem more powerful or whom you respect (not necessarily the same thing). You need to work out why your argument lost. Was it just about power dynamics, or were there good arguments on the other side you hadn’t thought of? Was it because the decision had anyhow been taken outside the room or was it your arguments weren’t sufficiently researched and backed up by evidence? YOU PROBABLY AREN’T A FOOL but you should try to analyse what went wrong.
  7. You prepared everything beautifully, your arguments were sound and well-researched, but you weren’t allowed to speak more than a sentence at a time without being interrupted so that you lose your flow time and time again. Once more this amounts to bad chairing and bad behaviour by the one or more committee members at fault. Practice pushing back on interruptions; find ways of telling people to shut up that you are comfortable with; find allies who will do this for you too; talk to the chair to make sure it doesn’t happen again, although sometimes they may allow it to happen either because of their own insecurities or because they don’t want your arguments to be heard. YOU ARE NOT A FOOL.
  8. Your arguments are listened to but you yourself are directly (if irrelevantly) attacked so that things becomes personal. Call on allies if you can. It’s much easier to do this if you come prepared because some sort of attack was anticipated, perhaps because you are challenging someone’s pet beliefs and projects. Try to maintain dignity. Do not resort to name-calling yourself, but make it very clear that the attack is irrelevant and that what matters are the facts. This can be incredibly hard to do without getting emotional/angry, I won’t pretend I’m always good on this one, but practice does improve one’s ability to think on one’s feet to work out ways to counter irrelevant nastiness. YOU ARE NOT A FOOL.
  9. You come away feeling a fool, but that is just because you are a perfectionist and feel sure you could have done better. It doesn’t matter that the argument was won and that everyone seems convinced, if you suffer from obsessive perfectionism you may still feel you didn’t do as good a job as you liked. THIS IS FOLLY OF A DIFFERENT KIND but needs to be stamped on.
  10. You were drunk or suffering from a lack of sleep. If the former YOU ARE A FOOL, if the latter you have my sympathy.
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3 Responses to Why do I Always come away from Meetings Feeling a Fool?

  1. Colin G. Finlay says:

    On your impressive list at number 10, appropriately enough in this instance, is the “drunk” factor.
    Your college’s first Chairman of Trustees must surely have attended or chaired many meetings, during his Prime Ministerial term throughout World War II, having consumed copious quantities of spirituous liquor. No fool he.

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