The 15 Laws of Meeting Power

by Venkat on July 14, 2007

We humans are simpler in collectives than we are as individuals. We like to think there is a “whole greater than the sum of the parts” dynamic to human collectives, but there really isn’t. The larger the meeting, the dumber it is. If you find a large deliberative body that is acting in ways that are smarter than its size should permit, you can be sure its workings are being subverted by, say, Karl Rove. I’ll argue that larger thesis in a future article, but for now, I’ll just use that element of my personal doctrine to explain why I’ve been fascinated by meetings for years — they are simpler to study, understand and influence than individuals (in particular that most stubborn individual, yourself). When introspection gets to be too tiring, I turn to thinking about groups.


I first began collecting notes on meetings when I was working on coordination problems in multiagent systems. All that brooding about the shockingly dumb models of intentional agents (a class that includes “humans”) used by economists, engineers and computer scientists began to bleed into real life, and I began thinking of humans in unforgivably simplistic and reductive ways. My main excuse is that it works (except in one-to one interactions, where humans suddenly start displaying the full complexity attributed to them, and you have to go all Freud to have a successful complex conversation).
At the time, I was living at the University of Michigan Telluride House, which required me to attend weekly meetings run according to Robert’s Rules. Besides that, of course, there were the usual seminars and meetings with advisors that are the graduate student’s lot. Since then, I have attended far too many meetings of various sorts (lately, it’s been an immersion course in corporate meetings), and while not all meetings are as simple as those bound by Robert’s Rules, the same simple heuristics seem to work pretty well in all situations.

Here are the 15 “rules of power” I’ve picked up and validated over the years. All amoral, none absolute. Use with taste and integrity. Keep counterexamples in mind.

1. The Power Of The Obvious

A pervasive myth about meetings is that there is always one garrulous idiot who says all the obvious things and wastes everybody’s time. Yes, every garrulous idiot says a lot of obvious things, but not everybody who says a lot of obvious things is an idiot. When I was younger, I was drawn to the mystique of the ‘silent genius’ ideal – the guy who sits in the back row and makes one penetrating comment that clarifies everything at the end of the meeting, after the garrulous have finished making fools of themselves. But the person who dominates the airwaves with apparently obvious, even trite comments can also have the most influence. Why?

  • They get to decide how to frame the obvious – introduce key metaphors and determine the degree of dichotomization for example, that dictates how the discussion will flow.
  • They gatekeep the ideas that are in the collective space, what philosophers of language call common ground and computer scientists call common knowledge, distinct from mutual belief.
  • The talkers are almost always underestimated – since they say so much, it is easy to discount the cumulative effect of all the things they say (or choose not to). From reinforcement and subliminal messages to under-the-radar introduction of themes piecemeal, you can do a lot if you are aware of this power.

2. The Power Of Polarization

The collective mind is more likely to find itself in a polarized state than an individual mind. A skill to recognize, and occasionally use, is the power of occupying one of the extremes of a polarized situation. In 1956 George Miller, in the seminal paper “The Magic Number 7” demonstrated that an individual holds at most about 7 unrelated concepts in short-term memory. In my experience, a meeting of more than 3 people holds at most 3-4 ideas at once in its collective head during a meeting. Usually the comfort level is 2. This is why polarization is such a common condition in debate, and so hard to break out of. It takes a huge amount of work to keep more than two things alive in collective consciousness. This means that there is a lot of power to be found in the choice of what dichotomies/polarizations to encourage in a debate. The dumb meeting participant whines that things are being oversimplified and strives hopelessly to add nuance and multiple perspectives. The smart meeting participant accepts that polarized discussions are a necessary consequence of group dynamics, and strives to ensure that the dichotomy (or non-dichotomous pair of thoughts) that dominates the discourse is one that will further his goals. This means occasionally being an extremist who presses for black/white frames.

At first sight, this might seem to be a less useful position than the position of the saint who “sees both sides” and plays peacemaker. The extremist is committed to a constrained position, cannot move too much and, to naïve listeners, is being an unreasonable spoilsport. But remember again, through your aggression, you have more control over the situation (so long as your intransigence is a tactical choice rather than a mental block) than the peaceniks, synthesizers and wannabe umpires, who must react to your actions. If you bring enough energy to your championing of your polarized viewpoint, and are lucky enough to have an equally energetic opponent, you can cut the referees out entirely and force the issue to be decided in a two-way war. To be successful, a would-be referee will have to shout as loudly as both of you (or be in a position to fire both of you).

3. The Power of the Dancing Referee

That is not to say all referee positions are bad or that all who play that role are high-anxiety types who value peaceable process over genuine, if acrimonious progress. Some people do skillfully play the referee role and dance an elegant dance of control with the dogs of war. Unfortunately, way more people play referee because they like thinking of themselves as “fair-minded” and “above it all” than because they see a situational need. For people with some experience, this “inexpert referee” stance is instantly identifiable. I personally have no problems being viewed as an extremist, and loathe being perceived as one of the goody-two-shoes “referees.” But I always appreciate the intervention of a genuine and skillful referee: they usually have an awareness and appreciation of the true power of the apparently powerless extremists.They are able to contribute towards a resolution by applying a calibrated amount of control, rather than attempting to control down to a level that assuages their conflict-avoidance anxieties. Such a referee will even occasionally allow a fight to spiral dangerously out of control in order to exhaust the participants before stepping in. A ham-handed referee on a power trip gets in the way of resolution and forces the participants to waste some effort in cutting him/her out of the loop (101 on how to do this: undercut their credibility, draw in a different referee, collude with your opponent to escalate the tension beyond the amateur referee’s control).

But if you spot a good referee, do all you can to legitimize his/her efforts to occupy the referee role. I am tolerably good at playing referee, but I have to admit I enjoy being one of the polarizers more!

4. The Power of Positioning

Positioning matters both literally and rhetorically. I won’t bother about the latter, since everybody appreciates, at least in a rudimentary way, the power and importance of rhetorical positioning.

The literal kind of positional leverage lies in where you sit. Your position in what Chris Loving, a leadership coach, calls “the architecture of gathering.” In a formal context, a LOT is determined by how well the chairperson and the room can see you and how well you can see the rest of the room. At Telluride, because of the way chairs were arranged (in semicircular rings rather than rows) I chose to sit near the back, but in a very visible portion of the back. Not because I am a typical back row “silent observer with one wise remark” kind, but because I can see and be seen. The benefit of being seen is obvious: your raised hand can rarely be overlooked, and it is easy to dominate the floor when it is your turn, when people don’t have to twist too much to see your facial and body language. The power of seeing is less obvious. One benefit of being able to survey the room is that you can read group body language: is the left side of the room unhappy? Face ‘em as you make your next conciliatory remark.

As a counterpoint, I have to say that other positions are not bad: they simply offer less individual influence to a selfish guy like me, but play different crucial roles. The intimacy of a cluster of seating allows for subtle and subconscious elements of bloc voting and reinforcement of opinion to come into play. Whether they realize it or not, people in an intimate cluster reflect and react to each other’s body language, which in turn links their thoughts in imperceptible ways. Isolated way in the back (can see but not easily seen) provides good leverage for those who want the “silent interventionist” role. Situations with a central fishbowl area (such as a small central conference table in a larger annular ring, or informal meetings where some choose to sit on the floor in the middle) had me puzzled for a long time. I couldn’t see what role was being played by what I called the ‘central huddle’. Then it struck me: they provide a very highly visible thermometer/barometer of current sentiment. When people say things like “I think we should vote because I think everyone has made up their minds” I believe they are basing their opinion partly on the collective body language and contributions of the “central huddle.” There is probably significant power and leverage to be found in that role, but I personally can’t figure out how that might be exercised.

5. The Power Of Listening and Citation

I do NOT mean listening in the therapeutic “active listening” sense of Rogerian therapy or the “respectful-dialogue” listening that diversity training coaches like to talk about. A meeting is not a group confessional, feel-good tool, collective catharsis event or an intellectual orgy. Those models of discourse have their place – a meeting isn’t it.

A meeting is a partly adversarial setting, and pure “active listening” is not enough. By the power of listening, I mean the power that lies in consciously keeping track of what was said and using it to make the points you want to make. The average short-term memory of a group stretches just to the very last thing that was said. Most people react only to this last thing, and don’t consciously attempt to remember anything before that. The canny listener tries his best to remember the highlights of everything he has heard and seen, for later use.

I learned this when I served on an interview panel interviewing high school students for a summer scholarship. A more experienced interviewer remarked that one of the signs of sophistication she looked for in a candidate was an instance of referring back to something that was said more than 10 minutes ago.

A corollary to the power of listening is the power of citation. Using what was said before gives you a lot of control. It is even more powerful if you remember who said it and what the exact words were, and can quote. Why? Because you automatically demonstrate that you were paying attention, making you more credible than others. Plus, you can temporarily borrow the “usual” supporters of the people you quote, because you did them the honor of remembering what their side said.

Extra Credit: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Quoting your opponents more accurately than they can quote themselves is one of the most fascinating moves you can employ. The original speaker is put on the defensive, forced to fumble and clarify, and in the process loses control. If you want to experience true schadenfreude listen closely to what your opponents say. Do not admit to enjoying this experience.

6. The Power Of Non-Trite Compromise

Among the more useless things that can be said during a debate are statements of the form “well, there’s merit to both sides” or “there is a trade off here between X and Y.” Make an extremely subtle change and you suddenly have a great deal of leverage. The subtle change is this: quantify the trade off and list the options! If you can take an obvious “two sides” observation and change it to “Well, we have the following options, the weight of evidence is such and such, and the ideal compromise is at X” you will instantly take control of the discussion. Why is this? The reason is that you get to choose the incumbent, default compromise that others must then try to move. If you suggest a mix that is 75% X and 25% Y, those who want a different trade off point will be forced to come up with the arguments to move the point. By being the first to suggest a concrete trade off point, you lend your position power, regardless of its actual merits. Why is this so hard, and so rarely used? Because it takes some creativity to list points in a spectrum of options and commit to one on the fly. But if you cultivate this skill, you will be able to take over any time a discussion stalls at an identified “two sides” plateau.

7. The Power Of Vocabulary Expansion and Contraction

Sometimes discussion gets bogged down simply because words with the exact right connotations haven’t been introduced into the conversation (more about this and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in a later post). Alternately, words may be overused and reduced to meaninglessness Looking out for this and intervening (by introducing new terms or red flagging over-used ones) can save the day and move the discussion to a whole new plane. You may even introduce a new favorite word. At Telluride for instance, “substantive” was a much adored word for a while. Everybody went around looking for the “substantive” content of statements and it did us a world of good for a while, until “substantive” itself lost all substance. During a long meeting to discuss scholarship candidates, one smart participant red-flagged the adjective “engaging” as in “engaging personality,” which had been so overused for several hours, it wasn’t helping differentiate candidates at all.

8. The Power Of Controlled Aggression

Though I never use this (mainly because I can’t fake it well enough), there is power to be had in losing your temper. The dramatic effect of a local explosion in one armchair has the effect of temporarily making people forget the many things they are trying to keep in mind and focus on the one thing the hothead wants to direct attention to. Lost tempers can also create a dichotomy where a confusing and uncomputable trichotomy or quadrochtomy (excuse the neologisms) existed before. With anger, you get to cut away deadwood, simplify things. Use with care. It can get you fired if used in the wrong place and time.
9. The Power Of Brinkmanship

Aced anger deployment? Welcome to aggression 201: brinkmanship – the threat of anger. Thomas Schelling invented the term brinkmanship to describe the strategy (cannily used by Kennedy during the Cuban crisis) of threatening to lose self-control. The problem with tempers – the meeting equivalent of nuclear bombs – is that they are too powerful and messy to use easily. What if instead of drawing attention to your issue, you provoke another explosion? Or reduction of discourse to the dichotomy you didn’t want? Brinkmanship is a powerful way to manipulate the collective fear of lost tempers in a more graduated way than actual temper can. Unlike the black and white power of nukes, it gives you a wide range of power, ranging from subtle leverage to all-out war. You will see this phenomenon silently at work around people with a reputation for acerbic tongues: there will be a perceptible air of caution around such a person, so that by his/her mere presence s/he can force people to be less sloppy in their assertions.

10. The Power Of Emotional Control/Lack Thereof

Temper is not the only kind of emotional display that can affect control. Any sort of emotion works: hurt, disgust, disdain, expressions of moral outrage. Sounds callous? It probably is, if you ever use crocodile tears to manipulate a conversation. On the other hand, if you stay sensitive to the emotional content of the decision-making, and are able to produce genuine displays of emotional reactions, you can provide a real service. Just as the talkers can convert factual mutual beliefs (MB) into common knowledge (CK), the emoters can convert unarticulated emotional content into openly acknowledged collective sentiment: from mutual emotion (ME) to common emotion (CE). From “everybody is sad” to “everybody knows that everybody is sad.” I personally suck at this, and am grateful to people who do this well. More than once, sanity has been restored to situations (made horrible by jerks like me) by the emoters. On the other hand, nothing annoys me more than those who use this particular form of manipulation consciously and covertly. Though I am fine thinking of myself as (and being thought of as) Machiavellian to a degree, emotional modes of manipulation seem particularly heinous to me. Maybe it’s a guy thing to think of rhetorical feints as fine, and loathe emotional feints. Probably hypocritical of me.

11. The Power Of the Me-Too

Ever tire of those “I agree with X, and I’d like to add…” kind of statements which add no real content to the discussion? Wake UP. Something subtle is happening that you are missing. Coalitions are being built on the fly with public declarations of support and commitment. Not only is this the basis of the emergence of voting patterns for the particular debate, it lays the groundwork for more lasting patterns of association and influence. Used with care, the power of “me too” statements in directing the course of long and short-term coalition formation is pretty big. Try building on thoughts rather than echoing them though, to avoid buying coalitions at the cost of being being perceived as individually stupid.

I personally am not too fond of this particular lever, since all too often, a long-term coalition building agenda derails a pressing immediate concern. Fine if you are trying to mentor a young person by lining up a couple of easy rhetorical victory for him/her, but potentially a source of deadly inertia if everything that is being said is about coalition building.

12. The Power Of Non-Egalitarian Engagement: Dare To Be Rude

Consider all the admonitions you have heard to “let other people have their turn” or “everybody should have a chance to have their opinion heard” and so on. At its extreme, an entire political, ideological and moral edifice is constructed on the holy grail of egalitarian discourse. Such a strictly egalitarian model of discourse has its place and uses. Trust-building in the initial phases of Arab-Israeli negotiation could probably use it. Icebreakers and introductions could, too. But to demonize genuine debate as evil and anti-people and to deify “respectful dialogue” and “active listening” as inviolable elements of an absolute collective morality is plain stupid. Far too many self-styled leadership coaches and meeting coordinators do this.

The effect of this conditioning – that equal airtime equals justice and World Peace — is devastating. Smart people shut up out of guilt. Rambling idiots are not cut off.

There are several good reasons why meetings should not be held to silly egalitarian standards. A matter of special knowledge is being discussed. Would you give the two opposed experts 90% of the airtime and leave 10% to the lay folk, or give each individual his/her 10%? Someone is prattling on idiotically, would you rather cut him/her off or let them waste an additional 20 minutes of everybody’s time? Yes, labeling a contribution as idiotic and useless is a judgment call. But the point of meetings is neither “respectful dialogue” nor formal competitive debate. A meeting is about talking for the sake of discovering collective wisdom, making decisions and solving problems. This calls for fundamentally different approaches to evaluating and controlling the value of what is being said. Adversarial weeding out of collectively-designated bullshit is the only know way to achieve this evaluation and control. Leave egalitarianism for the voting booth.
13. The Power Of Zero-Sum Brawling

I have fired a shot across the bows of “respectful dialogue” (which, I again emphasize, has its place in our rhetorical toolkit). To be fair, I should probably fire one across the bows of formal competitive debate as well, where the ultimate objective is to win the competition in the eyes of a jury. I win you lose. But I can’t bring myself to be fair here. Perhaps because the status quo already demonizes this essential skill. Perhaps because I enjoy an occasional descent into bloody-minded, take-no-prisoners brawling.

Creating and manipulating debating stances in the group, creating polarizations and wars between entrenched positions, intentionally hurting feelings, framing issues in an “I win only if you lose” manner – each of these behaviors is morally suspect, particularly in the American imagination (other cultures tend to be a lot less nanny-like). Debate is rightly seen as a destructive force. Destruction is wrongly seen as a purely negative force. The element of genuine zero-sum debate is why meetings are creative-destruction processes and not candlelight vigils. Without clearing the deadwood of the collective mind with the controlled burns of aggressive and adversarial debating, collective decision-making and action is next to impossible. The forest fires of collective stupidity would take over. Don’t shy away from a fight when one is necessary. If you need to prevent a disastrous vote in one minute by carefully employing an ad hominem, do so. The ends sometimes justify the means.

14. The Power Of Non-Zero Sum Engagement

Alright though I’ve been talking mostly about slightly manipulative techniques (because it is more fun), in the interests of full disclosure, I must point to a strong law: research shows that collective decision-making and negotiation is most successful when both sides come in with the expectation that new knowledge will be discovered and employed towards a mutually beneficial outcome. A non-zero sum stance in short. To me, the best way to achieve this is to sincerely make a best-faith effort to have good intentions overall, and not take things too personally. The ends justify the means only if they are first justifiable by themselves. Spice it up with a little brawling and you are all set for some alert collective thinking.

15. The Power of Humor

The last one. No, I don’t mean the power of humor in a meeting. That’s actually not such a great power — humor usually drains momentum from a successful line of thought, or distracts from hard thinking. It is only occasionally useful in de-escalating tensions or creating resonances in the very rare sorts of meetings aimed at building up the chemistry of a high-performance team.

I mean the power of private humor in helping you engage larger discourses. If you never say much in meetings, you will never make a fool of yourself. If you talk to any significant degree, you will always run the risk of making a fool of yourself. If you have a ponderous self-image as a “sophisticated” meeting warrior, your falls will seem (to you and others) even more dramatic. The only way to engage and survive is to have a good-humored attitude towards your own failures. If you are not able to ruefully acknowledge and admit it when you’ve done something stupid, the other 14 laws won’t do you much good in exercising influence.

Endote: If you liked this piece, you will definitely relish the fabulous and wickedly funny The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. It is the only book that I have gifted more than once (usually to friends who’ve sunken into some sort of self-pitying gloom of victimhood and need some short, sharp shocks to snap them out of it). The style of this article is modeled on that of the book. Buy below from Amazon!

Robert Rules July 17, 2007 at 11:34 am

What about modifications to to Robert’s Rules? You talk about the maneuvering and tatics of the participants but think of the poor devil that has to chair a meeting with sociopaths like yourself in it!

I think at least the following three rules of order are good extensions to conventional parliamentary procedure, especially in low-hierarchy situations (i.e., interdepartmental meetings where multiple peer groups collide):
1. A speaker’s list that is displayed on a flip chart or whiteboard and is followed.
2. No back-and-forth between two speakers (or maybe one back-and-forth, in the form of question-and-answer). You may think debating societies can be a good meeting strategy for obtaining an outcome, but most participants put their fingers in their ears and think happy thoughts when two lions start marking their turf.
3. In a large meeting situation (8 or more), those who haven’t spoken before get precedence on the list over those who have spoken twice. This is a sort of hybrid egalitarianism: everybody has something to contribute, but the value of your contribution declines in proportion to its frequency.
4. (I know I only said 3 rules) A recommended time-limit of 3 minutes per speaker, flexibly enforced by the chair. Reasons should be obvious.

In the adaptive fashion of ever-evolving meeting strategies, I’d be curious to hear how you thin your 15 rules hold up with these sorts of rules of order.

Overall I think your analysis is spot on and wonder if you’re at work on a self-help book!

Venkat July 17, 2007 at 7:05 pm

Alright, I am not quite the disruptive sociopath I come across as here, mostly I behave, and also run my own meetings in a fair way :) But here is my basic problem with all your suggestions from the POV of the chair person: any addition to basic (or lite) RRO that increases the robustness of the process against disruption also lowers its ability to be creative. For example, the RRO meetings I experienced typically were sloppy about a speaker’s list, and you could easily break into a back-and-forth for a bit before the chair could catch up and shut you down. I have observed much more disciplined implementations of RRO, and they are definitely less creative, valuing bureaucratic rigor of process over problem-solving and collective thinking.

For less disciplined meetings (non RRO), things are even more dynamic and capable of extraordinary creativity and chemistry as well as extreme uproar and toxicity. Buy one, the other comes free.

Your points 3 and 4, without the “flexible” caveat, scare me to death. That’s the sort of rule that is used by dictators-in-liberal-skin, like that scary woman in ‘The Beach’ (the diCaprio movie about a hippie enclave in Thailand).

Point 3 might be acceptable practice when it is a subject where there are clearly no expert. I expect in an Einsten-vs. Godel debate, it would take days of their non-stop talking before the marginal value of what they had to say on their subjects would be lower than anything I could add.

Point 4 isn’t for real meetings. It is for stage managed presidential debates!

Pre-Sell October 20, 2009 at 5:39 am

All of the really skilled organizational politicians I know would come in as the moderator/compromise voice in public, to make sure nobody powerful loses face, and they would let the brash young things spew a bit. These people would have pre-sold anyone with power over the decision on a set of options and framing terms already, before the debate. Either that or they would have built up a history of one-on-one discussions with each powerful person where it would become understood that the real decision would be announced after the meeting, and the organizational politician would be there for that post-meeting informal discussion, helping frame the terms of the decision. They’d allow the brash ones to get fiesty at meetings in order to gain leverage over them in these offline conversations. They let you rock the boat at meetings so that when powerful people question them about how disruptive you are, they get to brad your dissent as either creative and stimulating or disruptive and divisive. They do all of this in a way that makes no enemies – because the ones I know, at any rate, really do have the best interests of the organization in mind.

So in my experience, another law of meeting power is that meetings are not where the power is. It’s the relationships around the meeting that hold the power. A lot of the meeting behaviours you describe are – I think – really targeted at the larger conversational decision-making process in which the meeting is just one small part. Stating the obvious, letting others get polarized, refereeing, careful listening (for citation *after* meetings, not during them), me-too-ing and win-win engagement – those are all part of what you descibed as coalition-building – but the coalitions as they form in the meeting can be fleeting.

So that would add another class of meeting laws – like “never surprise powerful stakeholders with anything duing a meeting – pre-sell them or at least fully apprise them of your framing of the issues beforehand in informal conversation”. To do that means building certain kinds of relationships outside of meetings. If you do some of the more assertive stuff in meetings, you kind of put yourself outside those networks.

That said, I tend to be outspoken in meetings, because I’m opinionated and it’s much more fun!

tones October 27, 2009 at 3:49 pm

when i was a teen, i found a book on my dad’s bookshelf about the laws of power in a corporate context. i kept it and looked at it again after reading your post. the link was emotional, as with most of my memories. this emotion was disgust. i loathe these tactics and the people that use them and the cynical undertone of your implied consent will ensure i never visit your site again. (i was brought here via a link from stephen downes). the best advice given to me about handling meetings filled with types of your ilk is to take dram classes. art always wins over serious drones and telephone sanitizers. pathetic and sad.

Adam Neira November 15, 2009 at 5:21 am

Truth is powerful. Tactics and political machinations can only get certain people so far. All behaviour is a result of mindset and setting, so a meeting’s format, intent and design can have a significant effect on the resulting thought, feeling and action patterns. As history attests G-d makes sure that wisdom flows through the zeitgeist to the most righteous of an age. Maimonides in “Guide for the Perplexed” explains this point quite clearly. In relation to the concept of power, a great saying goes…”It doesn’t matter what you think we will all know the truth and what is correct in the end !”

Watch what happens with the world power dynamics in the coming weeks and months…

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