HOW TO TAKE PART IN A MEETING Know the different stages that groups go through. And watch out for the guy sprawling in his chair.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Most managers take it as a point of honor to dislike meetings, at least meetings called by somebody else. ''If we didn't have so damn many,'' the standard complaint runs, ''we might actually get a little work done.'' This is an unenlightened attitude. Handled properly, meetings represent probably the single most efficient mechanism for passing word down and, equally important, up the ranks. For the savvy underling, they also provide an uncommon chance to demonstrate one's talents to higher-ups. But how to do it right? While there are plenty of tracts on how to conduct a meeting, most of them all too obviously unread, comparatively little seems to have been written on how to be an effective participant. Asked about the subject, real live managers tend to offer less-than-breakthrough insights like ''Be on time.'' Fortunately, academic types, mostly professors of psychology or communications, have for years been studying human behavior in groups. They base their counsel on their research and on what they have seen consulting for business. Cynthia Stohl, a professor of organizational communication at Purdue, says classical behavioral science taught that on meeting for the first time, groups typically go through a four-stage process. In the first stage participants feel each other out and orient themselves. In the second, conflicts erupt between members, often over what the group is supposed to be doing. In the third the group agrees on certain rules of behavior, or norms, to govern their deliberations. Finally, the assembly settles down to its assigned work. Academics summed up the model as forming, storming, norming, and performing. Nowadays, Stohl says, she and her colleagues think there probably is no single typical or even desirable sequence, but rather that groups jump back and forth among the various stages. An effective group may, for example, experience some heavy conflict and then go back to orientation. What's important to understand is that groups do go through stages in a meeting, however unpredictable the order in which they occur. You should gauge your contribution accordingly, helping the group form when it is forming, not storming when the rest of the crew is trying to perform. In other words, don't yell ''Stop -- we gotta change the rules'' when the group is on the verge of a decision. The experts have developed the taxonomy of meetings to a fare-thee-well. They break down the roles people play at various stages of a meeting into such categories as information giver, information seeker, coordinator, encourager, follower, and compromiser. In some roles participants try to help accomplish the group's assigned task. In other roles they just try to keep the group working smoothly together. While you need not learn the taxonomy by heart, do pay attention to the different parts participants take on. Also bear in mind that in a meeting, as elsewhere, people strive to satisfy their psychological needs, conscious or unconscious. A member may act as an aggressor, say, or as a recognition seeker. While the same person may adopt different roles in different groups, when one group meets a number of times, he tends to stick with the roles he staked out in the first few encounters. One should not have to say it to a manager scheduled to attend a meeting, but the experts insist: do your homework. ''It is amazing how many people think they are too busy to prepare for a meeting,'' laments Leonard Greenhalgh, who teaches an immensely popular course called Executive Power and ! Negotiation at Dartmouth's Amos Tuck School of Business Administration. Find out what is to be discussed, even if it means calling up the convening authority who thoughtlessly left that little detail out of his announcement of the gathering. Think of the points you want to make and gather evidence to support them. If you suspect that your assertions on a particular subject may gore another participant's ox, or even nick it, tell him in advance that you are going to raise the issue. ''This makes you an ally rather than an immediate enemy,'' says Greenhalgh. Get there a few minutes before the appointed hour and, as others file in, start acting like what social scientists term a participant-observer. This stance, much favored by anthropologists, entails joining the natives in their ritual dance around the fire while making detailed mental notes on all that goes on. Pay attention not only to what is said, but also to so-called nonverbal behavior. Seating arrangements, for example. If you are joining a group that has met several times before, you will probably find that most members have tacitly assigned themselves places around the table and expect to reclaim them each time. You do well to ask before occupying the accustomed seat of some high-ranking late arriver. Certain spots carry more clout than others. John Dovidio, a psychology professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, who specializes in nonverbal communication, notes that in a meeting held around a rectangular table, the leader almost always sits at the head and another dominant figure at the foot. All the better for everyone else to see their lordly selves. So strong is the aura of those spots, Dovidio says, that if people are randomly assigned places, those who draw the end seats will end up acting more forcefully than they usually do. YOU WILL ALSO be able to tell who is feeling dominant from their body language. Heavy hitters tend to sit in a relaxed, even sprawling position. Not for them the chair pulled up to the table, the torso leaning expectantly forward. They shift position frequently, swivel a little if possible, and gesture with large movements away from the body. Anything to call attention to themselves. When speaking, they also look at people more than other participants do, and they avert their gaze more when listening. The proceedings begin. At the outset your best contribution may be to help clear up ambiguities that remain about agenda or procedures. This may require only a question or two directed at the leader, or a brief statement along the lines of ''I'm not exactly sure about what we're supposed to be doing with this.'' Don't be in a sweat to nail down every detail. If the group is still in the orientation stage, rushing in with a forceful statement that it must do thus and so may prompt it to freeze you out for the rest of the meeting. The process of settling down to the group task won't take long if the group is one that meets regularly. When it does get down to cases, prepare to volunteer your substantial point. Listen carefully, then pick your moment. Andrew S. Grove, president of Intel Corp. and author of a book entitled High Output Management, compares the challenge to jumping aboard a moving train. Jump too soon and the train may run over you; jump too late and you'll miss it. If you are confident about the point you want to make and have the evidence to back it up, raise it the first time it becomes relevant. If you are less confident about it, you may want to hang back a bit, waiting for a moment when it can be introduced as a helpful response to someone else's remark. When you do bring up your dynamite idea, try not to present it as your 100% original drop-dead answer to the group's prayers, but rather as an outgrowth of the discussion, something the others helped you see and may now help refine. Make your point crisply, preferably with declarative sentences that quickly summarize your evidence. Listen carefully to the remarks that follow, answer questions, defend the idea without getting defensive, and be careful not to press prematurely for a conclusion. If the decision goes against you, shut up and let the matter drop without sulking or whining. For an underling, probably the diciest moment in a meeting comes when he feels he must disagree with somebody else's point, especially if the somebody else is a higher-up, worst of all the person presiding. In expressing disagreement, be exquisitely conscious of the need for everyone to save face. Milton Hakel, a professor of industrial psychology at the University of Houston, suggests a couple of tacks. You might try going back to the purpose of the meeting, perhaps by asking questions: ''Gee, how does that fit with what we set out to do?'' Or you might suggest looking at the issue in a broader context: ''I know we're only supposed to be studying this from a technical point of view, but I wonder how that solution might look if news of it got to the press?'' OTHER EXPERTS propose that you adopt the role of devil's advocate, announcing clearly what you are doing and raising your killer objections in that guise. If you are in a risk-taking mood, you might also consider a strategy suggested by Joseph Alutto, professor of organizational behavior and dean of management at the State University of New York at Buffalo: Co-opt what the person you disagree with has said by embracing part of his view enthusiastically and restating the rest, slightly altered to fit your own view. It will then be up to him to challenge your restatement if your emendation is not to become the agreed-on version. Even ''I'm sorry, Barbara, but you misinterpreted me'' as a rejoinder can sound slightly nasty and put the person who says it at a disadvantage. As the meeting winds toward a close, look for opportunities to sum up. As at the beginning, avoid forcing a resolution of issues the group clearly wants to keep ambiguous. You may want to volunteer to do the follow-up work on a particular matter. As the Tuck School's Greenhalgh notes, ''That way you can report back to the people at the meeting with your information and also give yourself a good claim to the outcome,'' shaping it and getting some of the credit. On leaving, do not mutter, ''Maybe now I can get some work done.'' You just did.