How to Stay in Control of Your Business Meetings

Meeting Strategies For Dealing With Employee Questions

Female business executive leading meeting
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Business meetings can run on endlessly, especially if you open the floor to take employee questions and didn't establish parameters from the beginning to maintain control of the floor. The saying "there's one in every crowd" applies well in the context of business meetings as disgruntled employees often are more willing to speak up in group settings.

All it takes is one negative comment or question to get others to start chiming in with agreement. But the reverse can also be true: start a positive conversation and invite others to join in and the outcome can be a productive meeting with everyone walking away feeling it was worth their time.

Are Meetings a Time-Waster?

One of the biggest complaints about business meetings is that they are often unnecessary and waste valuable work time. Meetings always seem to use up just as much time is allotted to them.

When there's no precise agenda or defined goals for the meeting, it can certainly run even longer than planned. However, with a few changes, you can make all of your future meetings focused, efficient, and valuable for each attendee.

Defining the Meeting's Purpose

Be sure you clearly state the purpose of your meeting and send out an agenda ahead of time listing specific discussion points and the amount of time you will devote to the meeting (as well as to any open discussions). Then, stick to the meeting topics and planned duration. You might also want to make meetings more interesting with a time-limited meeting icebreaker or warm-up activity.

Sometimes meetings get off track because of unplanned questions and discussions. As a meeting leader, don't be afraid to cut off and redirect speakers in a nice, respectful way, even though the speaker likely has good intentions.

Make the Outcome Mutual

Many employees ask "What's in it for me?" when they're notified of a meeting. When you create the meeting agenda and choose discussion topics and desired outcomes for your meeting, keep them limited to items that apply to everyone attending. You can increase the success of your meetings and ensure the achievement of your mutual goals by choosing your meeting topics and attendees wisely.

Following are additional strategies for dealing with employees who pose questions during meetings that you do not want to answer right away, or that you do not want to address at any point during a meeting because they're outside of the meeting's scope.

Taking Questions and Staying on Track

If a question is timely, on-task, and you feel it should be addressed, answer it immediately—but briefly—and then follow up by stating you will take more questions at the end of the meeting if you have time.

Support your statement that you are moving on with body language. Look at your notes or turn to face a whiteboard, etc. By breaking eye contact momentarily you show that you are moving on. If you look out into the audience (especially with raised eyebrows) you may be sending a signal you are leaving an opening for more questions.

If the audience is negative or hostile, do acknowledge their concerns but only indirectly. Take a moment to explain that you understand and share their concerns but if you get too far off topic nothing will be accomplished. Suggest that people write down their questions for later, or arrange to meet with you privately where you can discuss their concerns in more detail.

Answering a single question comes in handy because it:

  • Allows a meeting holder to address something they may not have thought about
  • Sends a message that you are listening to your audience
  • Communicates that you are still in control of the meeting but care about what attendees are thinking

When and How to Tactfully Defer Questions

If the question being asked will be addressed later in the meeting, state, "That's a good question and one we will be addressing shortly." If the question being asked is off-topic and will not be addressed in the meeting, give a set of specific instructions for resolution. If you simply refuse to answer a question or pass judgment, "that's not the purpose of this meeting," you may end up sending the wrong message to your employees: management does not care.

Another way to defer questions that will not be talked about in the meeting is to ask the person to meet with you (or another appropriate member of management) privately to discuss their concerns in more detail. You might even suggest (if appropriate) that the question is important enough to warrant consideration of being addressed in a separate meeting at a future time.

Deferring a question is helpful because:

  • In a casual work environment, employees may feel too free to speak their minds and can take control of a meeting;
  • Most angry or disgruntled employees want to be heard more than anything else. Giving them a sounding board in the right time and setting can help avoid small problems from becoming bigger problems; and
  • Employees need and respond to good leadership. If management maintains control in a fair and balanced way, it sends the message to employees that management is listening, but must set appropriate boundaries.