Tell Them What You're Doing

There's an evergreen bit of advice that circulates in the tech world. Maybe it circulates elsewhere, too. It goes like this:

Guard your schedule fiercely. If you feel a meeting is a waste of your time, stop going to it.

This is great advice. I believe there is a corollary to it that I don't hear expressed often, though:

If you stop going to a meeting, tell the person running the meeting why you aren't going anymore.

Now, I actually don't... enjoy this advice. I find it hard to take, because I don't like conflict. I like to say smart things and to be praised for being smart. I would love for my smartness to be a sort of universal guidepost, a rallying cry that everyone can get behind, a Joan of Arc of smartness. (I fall short of this ideal.)

So I don't like going to a person and telling them that, in spite of the fact that they want me there, in spite of the fact that they might even be senior to me or wield some influence, I have decided not to attend the meeting they want me in because it is not a good use of my time.

But I believe in this advice anyway, because I believe I must follow it to be honest.

How I Decide What Honesty Means

Now, on the one hand, honesty cannot possibly mean that I'm obligated to tell everyone everything that pops up in my head. Some conflicts are not useful; some facts aren't helpful.

But on the other hand, I need to be on my guard against rationalizing away truths I should be telling. The human mind is a rationalization machine. Without a stronger framework than "Be honest! But not ALL the time" it will hide anything I want to hide.

So here's my framework:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it relevant?
  3. Is it kind?

I'll work through this in the scenario of telling someone that I'm bailing from their meeting because it's not useful.

Is It True?

For sure!

Is It Necessary?

If we assume good faith, and that the person running the meeting wants to run a good and useful meeting, then yes, it absolutely is necessary. Without that knowledge, they will not know why their meeting attendance is dwindling.

There is a flip side of this: the meeting is not my meeting. So unless I'm responsible in some way, or I'm mentoring them, it's not my job to tell them how to run it. Those might be true facts, but it's not necessary for me to say them.

Is It Kind?

This is the criteria that I worry about the most. In the moment, I feel like I will be an asshole if I tell them their meeting is useless. And if that's what I tell them, then I will indeed have not been kind.

But I might rethink what I want to say if I find that it's unkind. That I personally find the meeting to be a poor use of my time is just as true and just as relevant as saying that the meeting is useless. It's a lot more kind, though, because it does not directly attack their work.

That makes sense if the meeting is someone else's work. What if it's partly my work? What if I share ownership of the meeting? That's another thing entirely.


The other guiding idea this relates to is this: I should be open about what I'm doing.

Why? Well, if I don't, then I tend to engage in unproductive passive conflict, rather than useful engaged conflict.

In fact, the "kindness" part of the discussion is almost beside the point. If I am bailing on this meeting, how does telling them or not telling them bear on how kind I am being? There is a truth in my actions that will speak regardless of what I say. By not saying something, I may simply be hiding from the consequences of my actions.

A personal anecdote re: hiding

When I was in college, I had a problem with skipping class. I was starting to lose the plot on what what happening in the course, so I decided that I had to fix it.

I couldn't do it, though. Here's what would happen: I would procrastinate. By the time I was ready to go, I would see that I was going to be late. Then I would think, "Oh, I don't want to be late and offend the instructor. That would be pretty disrespectful."

I finally got through this block with a tough recognition: this was a faulty line of logic. What is more disrespectful to the instructor? Arriving late, or skipping their class entirely? I was leveraging the small disrespect of a late arrival into a much larger disrespect of skipping the class!

So I started going to class late. And that was the first step I needed to take to get to class on time. I had to give up my control over my own pride.

Sharing Control

So my takeaway is: share control. Avoiding uncomfortable truths and hiding my actions are ways I block off others from influencing my work life. But work is social, which means there will be conflict. And while there is much else to be said about conflict apart from this, avoiding conflict can be a control tactic. And I love control tactics, so I have to stay on guard in these matters.