How To (And Not To) Hold An Office Meeting: A December Story

In outpatient clinical medicine, as in any profession involving an office, there are meetings.  Meetings for all kinds of reasons, but especially for when mistakes happen. Because in medicine, as in any profession, mistakes happen. And we have to have meetings about them, of course.

This Tuesday, I was a participant in an office meeting about a mistake. It may have been a clinical error, an administrative snafu, a clerical oversight, an interpersonal argument… It doesn’t really matter. The entire experience and the lessons learned are universal, and apply to office meetings all over the country, if not the world.

This occurred to me as I sat there in said meeting, with a view of the door leading to the hallway, which has long skinny windows, through which I would occasionally catch the curious (and perhaps even concerned) glances of passersby. Passersby being the rest of our office staff and colleagues, who no doubt were wondering what was being discussed by us, given the tones heard and expressions observed.

But before I get into the meeting, I have to go back to the weekend.

This past Saturday was the only Saturday in a long stretch where Hubby could be home, since he travels with the team, and they’ve been on the road alot. Our daughter’s birthday is right before Christmas, and we wanted him to be there, so we decided to throw our daughter’s sixth birthday party this past Saturday in the afternoon, and then host the neighborhood Christmas party that evening. Crazy, yes, I know, for two working parents, but that’s how we roll.

So I booked one of those indoor bouncy house places and we invited our daughter’s entire kindergarten class, plus a bunch of the kids in our son’s second grade class, the neighbors’ kids, our cousins, and all of everyone’s siblings, of course, as you do. It being December and the middle of the day on a Saturday, I didn’t REALLY expect so many people to RSVP yes. But they did, so, no matter, that’s what parties are for.

The day of the party also happened to be our first snowstorm. But hey, this is New England, and snow doesn’t stop anybody, so to everyone who texted asking if the party was still on, I replied Hey this is New England and snow doesn’t stop anybody, and everyone showed up, and we had well over the recommended limit for the venue. Luckily, the staff was all about seventeen years old and they could have cared less how many kids showed up, thankfully. Plus, this particular place was carefully chosen by me as the only such place where your party is the only party and your guests are the only people in an enclosed space where no child can escape and no weirdo can enter. So over thirty kids running/bouncing/screaming is NO problem.

Except that I have a tendency to confuse people’s names and so was in a nauseated panic every time another parent and child entered, desperately trying to not just remember their name (because I can’t ever remember the name) but also thinking, thinking hard: Is this someone we’ve met enough times that it would be insulting to ask them what their name is, so should I gloss over the name part? Or is it safe to ask? Which is why when someone actually does tell me their name, I still don’t remember it, because I’m so stressed when I hear it. One’s brain can’t function well when stressed (a key point later on).

So distracted, it was about an hour into the party when it dawned on me that we wouldn’t have enough food. It was an hour to go until we were supposed to be serving lunch and cake. I had planned for thirty kids BUT NOT THEIR FAMILIES. Duh.

The seventeen-year-old staff knew everything about all the area pizza places, thankfully, and they managed to locate the one most likely to accept a huge order for a pile of plain pizzas to be delivered in a snowstorm, STAT. The guy who showed up an hour later got a huge cash tip from me, and every single slice was eaten.

Whew! That was kind of stressful. Which is another reason I hadn’t planned well for this meeting. I had known about it for a week, and yet I hadn’t thought it out. Similar to the birthday party lunch.

See, meetings about problems should always follow a standard format, or they won’t be productive. That format is: 1. name the problem; 2. resolve any immediate negative results (damage control); 3. analyze how this particular problem occurred; 4. identify the factors that contributed; 5. plan to prevent future such problems.

I was integral to this meeting, and yet, I hadn’t planned a damned thing. It’s not that I willfully ignored my own usual advice, I just had so damned much going on.

Regardless, the meeting was super-productive through steps one and two. Everyone agreed what the problem was, and all damages were reversed within two minutes, pleasantly and professionally.

It was, I think, step three where “pleasant and professional” became challenged by– though not entirely replaced by– “defensive and blaming.” Phrases such as Excuse me please let me finish my sentence and That was so unprofessional and Don’t try to infer even for one second that this was my fault and I am so beyond disappointed were heard, and some may have even been spoken by me.

It has been a long, long time since I have sat in any meeting where faces turned shades of red and purple and voices went from edgy to perhaps even slightly raised. It’s been a long, long time because I have become proficient– if not expert– at avoiding or diffusing interpersonal conflict. I HATE conflict. Yet there I was sitting in a soup of conflict, stirring it up. That is just NOT ME.

But before I get into how that happened, I have to go back to the weekend.

We had had to collect all the presents and pet supplies (my daughter had requested donations to the local animal shelter in lieu of gifts) plus all the food containers and carry them through the mounting snow to the car, then bribe the kids from their snowman-and-snowball-fight play back into the car so we could make our way home to clean the house and prepare the food for our next function. Hosting a neighborhood Christmas party has become a bit of a tradition. Even in inclement weather, it’s a fun time, because it’s a family party where no one needs a babysitter, and most folks can simply walk over.

We had three hours to prepare. Hubby had bought alot of very fancy craft beer and not as fancy but still very good wine. I had bought all the fixings for a nice appetizer spread, with the aim of people coming in and seeing it and remarking “Nice appetizer spread!” I had also prepped “decorate your own gingerbread man” for the kids and had to set that all out, plus Christmas Ornament arts n’ crafts sets donated by a friend. And the place needed to be vacuumed and the furniture moved around.

But we had the two kids and they were hyper and hungry and then they were fighting and Legos were still all over the floor and the cat puke had to be cleaned up et cetera et cetera, so we found ourselves frantic, right up to party time. (Many thanks to my mom who showed up early, and was immediately assigned several tasks!)

Somehow we and our place and the spread and the activity became presentable and functional with seconds to spare as ding-dong the first guests arrived for what would end up to be sort of an open-house, in-and-out-until-late-night kind of a thing.

Wow was I relieved. Time to relax and have some wine. Except I hadn’t really eaten all day. Which means that the wine went a bit to my head. But I nibbled on appetizers in between greeting folks (stressing about names) and chatting and attending to guests’ various needs and all was well, until the effing cat got out.

It was after dark, and our kids were outside in the snow with neighbors’ kids playing, smashing each other in the face with snowballs and such. Parents, including myself, would occasionally stick our heads out the back door and say “You kids alright?” and they were. But then our former stray who is always always getting out took one of those lame parental check-ins as an opportunity and shot out the door and down the back steps. It was a dark and snowy night, and God knows I didn’t want to be up late trolling the streets shaking the treat bag and calling for the goddamned kitty.

“Hold my wine,” I handed my, um, maybe third glass of Sauv Blanc to our neighbor and ran outside sans coat in pursuit of the effing cat.

Then I don’t know what happened. The world flipped and I was sliding bumpity-bump face-first down the wooden staircase, two flights. Yes, and landed at the very bottom, upside-down, snow even down my turtleneck.

“Holy s–t! Holy s–t are you okay?” I could hear my neighbor freaking out as she struggled with hers and my glasses of wine and the screen door wondering what to do.

“F—ing cat!” I howled, then bounced up and bolted after the obnoxious little fluffball who had paused at the end of the driveway, looking back at me. It won’t look as bad if I can.. just.. catch.. her… I thought. The cat stood frozen, terrified, I’m sure, by the look on my face, but just as I lunged for her she skittered off into the bushes along the side of the house like a dirty little rabbit.

Too embarrassed to return via the back steps, and also legitimately concerned for my safety given that those steps are (really!) treacherous when snowy, I continued around the side of the house in dogged pursuit of the effing cat, again, in the storm and sans coat, as my poor neighbor called out to me from the top of the back stairs “Hey- Monique- are you okay? Hey, are you okay?” with increasing concern. I followed the effing cat around the front and then gave up, entered our own house through the front door, shook off the snow, and tried to ease into the conversation as if nothing had happened.

Sunday morning found me with a hangover the likes of which I haven’t experienced since a certain colleague mixed me a Chicago-sized martini (or two) about eight years ago. Not naming names here. I’m also not drinking like that again for at least another eight years. I’ve been fielding texts like TY 4 the wonderful party had so much fun!! How R U feeling??? for days.

The hangover was followed by the sniffles, which became a cold, which became an asthma exacerbation, and here I am back on my inhalers. Monday evening when I left the clinic, one of our nurses, the one with decades of experience, took one look at me and declared “You’re coming down with something! You look awful, just exhausted! I mean that in a caring way. You need to rest.” But Hubby had an evening event, and I was on my own with the kids, and then Babyboy got the cough, and I was up in the night giving him his inhaler.

Which is why I wasn’t at my best on Tuesday for this office meeting. My head was congested, cotton-ball-feeling, full of mucousy nastiness. I didn’t just look exhausted, I was exhausted. My guard was way down. I hadn’t prepared what I wanted to say nor how I wanted to react to what others might say, and I was feeling like crap to boot, so, not regulating myself very well. What should have been an objective, impassive, systematic review of the problem with the goal of developing a consensus for the prevention of future such problems devolved a bit into… what I would at the very least call less productive than it could have been.

When defensiveness and blaming enter the office meeting equation, the answer is always null. If emotions are running high, no one can learn anything. It’s why the child having a tantrum can’t remember what they’ve been told, understand logic, nor learn a lesson. You have to wait until they’ve calmed and then engage them. (And why once I start stressing about names, I can’t remember nor learn any goddamned names.) Unfortunately we sat in that room for over forty precious workday minutes, mostly being unproductive. Or less productive than we could have been, if you will.

And I feel badly about the whole thing.

Just after the meeting, I lamented to some colleagues, expressing that I felt badly about the whole thing. Take tomorrow off, since you don’t have patients, suggested our NP. I usually have med student teaching stuff, but they had some professional development thing. Even when I don’t have teaching, I often go in anyways, to get work done.

But I took her advice, and took not so much a personal day as a work-from-home day. And today as well. (No patients on Thursdays either.) And it was good. I’ve been able to hold my own productive office meeting right here, with steps one through five, examining the problem (office meeting didn’t go so well), damage control (basically staying away from work for two days), examining the whole mess and identifying the factors that led up to it (stress, snow, “hold my wine”), and how to prevent in the future (don’t take on so much all at once; don’t overdrink; plan your meetings; maintain composure).

And this has been a very productive meeting. Thanks for coming.

Merry Christmas!




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