The struggle to process all information and sensory details while being engaged in large meetings
Everyday, many of us spend a lot of time in meetings to tackle various work challenges, exchange information and make decisions. Meetings can be good or bad and the point of this article is not to assess if meetings should be banned or if we spend too much time in meetings. The point of this article is to present the challenge that meetings can be for people like me, who struggle in group settings where many people converse together.
Yes, I’ve said it. I struggle in group settings when there are many people and regardless of that struggle, I have managed to be successful in my career. This doesn’t mean I am anti-social or an introvert who wants to stay home alone all day. On the contrary, I love socializing. What I mean when I say that I struggle in meetings is that for me, it takes a considerable amount of effort to focus and concentrate in group settings such as meetings with more than 3-4 people because such meetings are filled with an overload of information and sensory details for me to process. And yes, sensory overload can also happen in an office context.
Unlike some people who attend meetings and strictly focus on the content of the conversation, my brain is incapable of focusing in such a way. Instead, I observe and analyze all body language, tone of voice, micro expressions, the pace of the argumentation, the tempo of the exchange while also trying to discern the content, key messages, decisions to be made etc. I don’t voluntarily choose to process both content and delivery simultaneously, but my brain does. In a one on one conversation, I find it easy to concentrate on what is being said as well as all that is unsaid. But in a group setting, this balancing act becomes exponentially challenging as the number of participants grows. At times, it feels like watching and playing tennis with multiple players and multiple balls flying on one court and it becomes hard to choose which ball to focus on. In other words, the more participants there are in a meeting, the more I struggle to stay focused as my brain tries to understand what everyone is saying, how they are saying it and how others are reacting to it. Imagine a meeting with 6 participants all engaged in a conversation and imagine your brain absorbing and processing all that is being said and simultaneously, all that is unsaid: the person to me right started fidgeting, the person in front of me wants to interject and struggles to get in the conversation, the person to my left just crossed their arms and their body language is showing that they reject the argument, another one leans forward on the table as they accelerate the pace at which they speak to make their point, the person to my right sighs while the person to my left checks their phone, while another participant is staring at the table thinking. This goes on and on and my brain tries to keep up with both what is being said and all that is unsaid. And while doing so, as I am rarely just an observer in meetings, I need to participate in the conversation and take part in the exchange. This means that while my brain processes all that I hear, see and feel, my brain also needs to decide on what to say, how to say it and when to say it.
I have tried for a very long time to get my brain to stop observing and analyzing everything, but although I have managed to improve my focus, I continue to be a person who automatically needs to process all that I observe. And therefore, meetings with many participants continue to require a lot of my energy.
Over the years, I have also received feedback from peers and managers telling me that I should engage more in meetings and that it was a shame that at times, I stayed quiet. They also commented on the fact that often, after meetings, I would share great input and insights, which they had wished I had shared in the meetings. And this is true as, often after meetings, my brain has the bandwidth to finish analyzing all that was said and unsaid and I end up having some comments and input to share.
As I don’t want this struggle to impact my career negatively, a couple of years ago, I spoke about this challenge with my coach and she gave me an advice, which I continue to use to this day and offer humbly to anyone who needs it. Here is the advice:
If like me, you struggle focusing in large group settings, choose who to focus on. Ask yourself who is the participant you need to align with the most or convince or... Ask yourself where you should set your primary focus, just as you would in a one on one conversation and force yourself to use most of your focus on that one person. It’s not easy, but with practice, it becomes easier and over time it might allow you, as it allows me, to be more focused in meetings and gain the ability to switch your focus from one person to another more swiftly instead of trying to focus on everyone all at once. In turn, this can allow you to engage and provide input in the meeting and not just once the meeting is over.