How to lead a meeting without pulling teeth

Recently I’ve been working with managers to run better meetings.

Meanwhile, in my private life, I’ve been trapped at several bad meetings—the kind where you squirm in your seat—with the dentist. (Luckily, the dentist wasn’t actually in the seat.)

Is there a connection between good meetings and bad dentistry? Yes! It’s about control.

Mistake #1: Too much control. You talk, but no one’s engaged.

One day, I asked my dentist why he didn’t have a spittoon. I like spittoons. They let you, the patient, sit up once in a while, spit, and take a break.


“I hate ’em,” he muttered, almost to himself, “every single one of them.” Was he talking about spittoons or patients? I couldn’t tell.

Before I could offer any more advice, he put a suction hose in my mouth. Clearly, this man had a schedule, and there was no time for spitting.

Fine. But you certainly don’t want dead silence at your meetings. If you’re doing all the talking, that’s less like a meeting, more like a bad dental experience.

Why are you talking so much, anyway?

Probably because you’ve got too much info, too little time. Well, why not send some of that info in advance?

Avoid using your meeting to dump data. Instead, use the meeting to discuss and debate so that you (and/or the group) can decide and act. .

Mistake #2: Too little control. Everyone talks, but nothing gets done.

I once had a dentist—or else it was someone pretending to be a dentist—ask me, “What are your goals for your teeth?”

I didn’t really have any, other than to keep them. And I expected the dentist—or this person impersonating one—to provide a modicum of direction.

Same for the meeting leader. Without you steering, everyone may participate, but your meeting goes nowhere.


To maintain control, you don’t need to dominate, but you do need to drive the structure. Begin with your purpose. What is it? And what decisions need to get made, and by whom? Be explicit.

Deputize a timekeeper—better if it’s not you—to alert the group if the conversation goes off the rails.

And set some ground rules early to prevent trouble later. For example: no cell phones, no side conversations. And no spitting.

Tip: A good meeting is both efficient (uses time well) and engaging (uses people well).

To achieve both, flex control.

© Copyright 2013 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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