Do you go to meeting after meeting without saying anything? Do you feel awkward as you notice people around you contributing to the discussion whilst you sit in silence? Do you want to contribute more?

If you do, then you are not alone. From my experience, lack of contribution in meetings is one of the biggest complaints Western managers have about Chinese employees. And from my experience, contributing to the discussion, especially when there are native speakers around, is one of the biggest challenges facing Chinese employees in meetings.

But don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a simple solution. And it starts by asking yourself one simple question; What do I want to get from this meeting?

The benefit of this simple question is that it gives you a focus for the meeting. And focus is what helps you contribute more. When you have a focus, you know what to pay attention to, and what not to pay attention to. You know what areas to dig deeper into, and which ones to stay away from. You know what to ask, and what not to ask.

For example, you’ve just been asked to attend one of those weekly update meetings. You somewhat reluctantly accept the calendar invitation thinking that you have to go anyway, and drag yourself along to the meeting. As you sit down, your mind starts to wander. People are talking around you, but you’re not quite sure what they are talking about. You try to keep up with the conversation, but it’s very hard to keep up with it. You feel you should contribute something, but you don’t know what to contribute, nor do you know when is a good time. You start to feel uncomfortable, and then all of a sudden the meeting is over and you said nothing.

Let’s change the situation a bit. You receive the calendar invitation. This time, before you click ‘Accept’, you take some time to think what you would like to get from this meeting. As you think about it, you realise that one of your colleagues who will attend has recently completed a big project with a customer that you will also be working with in a few weeks time. You realise this meeting is a good opportunity to learn from that colleague how best to work with this customer. Once you realise this, you click accept.

This time you go to the meeting. The first few minutes some other people are talking about their weekly work updates. It’s not relevant to your goal, so you filter it out. Then comes that colleague who worked with that customer. Suddenly you sit up and pay attention. You want to learn how to better work with this customer. They start talk about some details of the project, and that’s not relevant so you keep on listening until something relevant comes up. Then they talk about how it was difficult to clarify this customer’s expectations early in the project and how that has caused problems. Now your mind starts buzzing with things to contribute.

You ask them about why it was difficult, what worked and didn’t work, and what they would recommend for when you start working with the customer. Without even realising it, you are now 100% focussed on the discussion, and contributing actively.

This is a very simple change in mindset with huge benefits for your contribution to meetings. So many people accept meeting invitations without considering why. And many also just accept, thinking to themselves “Well I have to go because my boss asked me to”. Stop attending for other people and start attending for yourself.

Another thing you may consider is to refuse the meeting invitation. If you really have no good reason to be there, then in all honesty the meeting is a waste of your time. Most companies would benefit greatly if more employees refused more meeting invitations. The simple way to do this is to write back to the person who invited you and ask them why you need to attend the meeting. If they can’t give you a good reason, then explain to them that there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for you to attend and your time is better spent on more important things.

Of course, refusing meeting invitations is difficult in some situations, even when there is no clear purpose. So refuse with caution, and only do so if it is acceptable within your company’s culture.

So the next time you receive a meeting invitation, don’t click “Accept” straight away. Take a few seconds to think “What do I want to get from this meeting?”. You’ll be surprised by how much easier it will be to contribute.