My colleague Lori Messinger asked a great question on Twitter: How do you end meetings? She went on to clarify that she was particularly focused on spontaneous, standing-in-the-doorway meetings when you don’t have an immediate conflict. I tend to think of those as conversations rather than meetings, but the point stands.
For scheduled meetings of a half dozen people or more, I’m a big believer in honoring (or beating) the publicized end time. Part of that is because people make plans and start peeling away as meetings run long; those who remain often become antsy and distracted. But the larger part of that is the focusing effect of a deadline. Academics are usually good at analyzing things. Without external constraints, those analyses—I’m being kind—tend to expand. Deadlines make decisions more likely.
That said, I also like to front-load the uncontroversial or informational items in the meeting. Lead with those to establish momentum and to leave time for the issues that actually require more open-ended discussion. Leading with the open-ended stuff tends to squeeze out other items entirely. That’s especially frustrating when the open-ended items are relatively unimportant.
When the meeting is with a consistent group and we’ve built a rapport over time, the endings can be somewhat lighthearted. “Anything else for the good of the cause? Going once, going twice …” signals that the end is nigh, but still allows for those last-minute “I shoulda saids.” (The French term for those, l’esprit de l’escalier, translates roughly to “the wit of the staircase.” It’s what you realize you should have said as you walk out of the room. It’s a lovely phrase.) For larger groups or groups with less rapport, something more formal is more appropriate.
Doorway conversations are harder, but I’ve had good luck with a few approaches. I’m counting on my wise and worldly readers to chime in with more.
Over time—and it takes a while to establish this—people notice how you treat time, and they tend to respond in kind. If you’re reasonably respectful of their time when you bump into them, they’ll usually be the same way with you. Admittedly, some folks tend to go long anyway.
The usual escape routes—feigned bathroom emergency, a sudden text message that requires you to leave right away—are available to most people. They aren’t elegant, and I recommend them only as last resorts. Administrators who have administrative assistants sometimes come up with code words for the assistant to use to interrupt a conversation or meeting that’s running long. (“Your wife called—she needs you to call right away.”) Again, it’s clunky and inelegant, but sometimes it’s the best available option.
If the conversation is substantive but you just don’t have the bandwidth at the moment, there’s no shame in asking the interlocutor to schedule a formal meeting. Set it a few days out, if possible, so you have time to prepare with background information and a chance to figure out the key points. What makes this approach great is that it allows you both to tell the truth and get to a better outcome. “You are important, and your point is important. I’m not able to give you, or your point, the focus you deserve right now. Let’s schedule a formal meeting in a couple of days so you can have my undivided attention.” As long as you actually follow up, this can work wonders.
With closer coworkers with whom you have a rapport, of course, it’s possible to use a much lighter touch. “Well, I guess we should go do our jobs now …” often works. The first person, as opposed to the third person, keeps it from being accusatory.
Wise and worldly readers, how do you end meetings?