The best meetings are inclusive meetings. They elicit contributions from everyone attending, promote robust discussion, and get more ideas and perspectives into the mix. Note: “best” does not necessarily mean “fastest.” Nevertheless, “best” generally results in fewer maddening meetings that yield little progress.
To improve participation and the quality of discussions, set the stage for everyone to contribute. Understand what holds some back from more fully engaging and make it everyone’s shared responsibility to draw each other into discussions. Here’s how.
Understand What Prevents Participation
In most groups, there are a few folks who seem to hold back. They are more deliberative, less likely to “spit ball” spontaneously, or cautious when it comes to offering contrary or differing views. Others dominate the meeting, speaking freely and “thinking aloud” to get their ideas and views into the mix.
The prevalent assumption about the reserved folks is that they’re disinterested. Others may amp up their contributions to fill in the gaps left by the reserved folks who take longer to contribute or aren’t ready before the topic shifts. The assumption and its domino effect only serve to make it even more challenging to get to more inclusive meetings.
Rather than making assumptions or accepting that some simply don’t or won’t participate, evaluate your meetings. The objective here is to determine what could be done differently to make meetings more inclusive. An objective, honest evaluation includes these five questions.
Is there ample opportunity and encouragement for everyone to participate?
A long list of agenda items inhibits dialogue. You may be moving through too much too fast and imposing time pressures that inhibit dialogue.
To create more opportunities for participation, send the agenda in advance and note which items are intended for “deep dive” discussion. That way, those who need time to think and prepare can do so in advance. For important discussions, have single-topic focused meetings.
To encourage participation, let people know in advance what you need and expect from them. Do this individually. For example, “I’m eager to hear your thoughts on what’s missing in this analysis because you have such a strong background in complex matters like this.” When people do participate, encourage more of the same by showing appreciation and linking their contributions to successful meeting outcomes. For example, “When you asked that question, the conversation shifted. I appreciate your perspective and how it got us to think in new ways and avoid making a mistake.”
Does everyone know how and when to participate?
Cultural norms in an organization or team may not serve you well. New members of the team may feel intimidated by these norms or uncertain about how to insert their ideas. Left unchecked, the same few will likely over-participate while others go along just because they think that’s what is expected.
Communicating about what’s preferred can help reset these norms. For example, “This is an important decision so we need to hear from everyone before jumping to solution mode.”
Are there any mixed messages that suggest it’s not wise to participate?
Saying you expect meetings to be inclusive is one thing. But actions speak louder than words. Participation may inadvertently be shut down by frequently glancing at your watch, saying things like “we always do it this way,” using body language that conveys impatience or disagreement, having strong negative reactions when people offer differing ideas, and embarrassing people when their input is not perfectly informed or eloquent.
What rewards are there for participating? What penalties are there?
People respond to both positive and negative reactions. When comments and questions are received openly and affirmed, it motivates people to participate more. Conversely, when people feel penalized for asking the “wrong” question or for disagreeing, they will be demotivated and less likely to participate.
To make meetings more inclusive, team members must be genuinely interested in and open to questions and ideas that challenge their own way of thinking.
What examples are offered by others?
People watch what others do. They follow others’ examples, especially those that yield positive results.
Look for opportunities to model speaking up (even when it feels risky). Look for ways to be an example of including others in ways that are productive and beneficial.
If you see examples of team members shutting others down, help them to understand the impact of their actions.
Inclusive Meetings Require Intention and Focus from Everyone
Positive and productive meeting cultures start with shared responsibility. It’s everyone’s job to involve everyone else in team discussions. It’s not the sole responsibility of the team leader or meeting facilitator to engage everyone present.
Similarly, it’s the responsibility of each team member to find comfortable ways to contribute to meetings. To read more about this responsibility and the other essentials of meeting etiquette, click here for another post in this series about how to fix miserable meetings.
To become more intentional about including others, recognize that there are four levels in a continuum ranging from actively excluding others to actively including others. Here again, honest self-appraisal will help you determine where your opportunities for improvement are.
Actively excluding others
This happens for a variety of reasons. When you feel strongly about an issue and don’t want others to be swayed by someone who feels differently, you might take measures to actively exclude that individual. Or you may feel protective of someone and jump in to speak for them. It could happen because you dislike another person, don’t understand or trust that person, or simply haven’t developed respect for what they might offer. Active exclusion looks like:
- Interrupting or showing signs of impatience
- Jumping in too quickly with agreement, disagreement, or shift to action planning/solutions
- Failing to show interest and affirmation
- Summarizing, restating, or repeating in ways that minimize what others have already said
- Moving too quickly for those attending remotely and/or those who need processing time
- Assuming everyone is “on the same page” and leaving some behind
- Allowing positional power (real or perceived) to signal that input from some is more important
- Making decisions before full discussion (creating the illusion of input without the reality of it)
- Feeling that you have to amplify what’s already been said without considering other ideas
- Attacking individuals rather than debating ideas
Inadvertently excluding others or limiting their input
Not all exclusion is intentional. Sometimes we mean well but don’t recognize our unconscious biases or behaviors. When we make choices to expedite discussions, for example, one of the unintended consequences is that some were excluded. Check yourself for:
- Favoring those who speak the loudest or the most often
- Moving swiftly through the agenda without time to process ideas before speaking
- Developing habits and/or making assumptions about who will and who won’t participate
- Talking down to some based on their job level, history, or style
- Shutting down input with a negative reaction
- Prioritizing the time frame on the agenda over getting everyone’s input
- Assuming that silence is agreement (more often it’s what people need to think!)
- Ignoring body language or facial expressions that indicate people are unclear or still thinking.
Attempting, with good intentions, to include others (but missing the mark)
An “A” for effort still leaves room for improvement! Those who are extroverted may believe that someone who’s not participating just needs to be given the floor. But those who are more introverted don’t feel comfortable being thrust into the spotlight before they’ve fully formed their thoughts. Tactics like these, even when well-intended, can backfire:
- Demanding input without allowing time for others to fully form their ideas
- Conducting side conversations before, during or after meetings
- Putting people on the spot
- Calling out those who don’t contribute as often or as quickly as some others do
- Assuming that a lower level of participation indicates disinterest or poor engagement
Actively and effectively including others
To become more effective in conducting inclusive meetings, make these choices more often:
- Showing genuine interest in what others are thinking/feeling
- Listening actively and empathetically to others’ input
- Asking questions to more fully understand differing perspectives
- Mining for diverse points of view and to avoid decisions based on groupthink
- Checking to see if people are still thinking before closing a discussion
- Allowing more time between discussions and decisions
- Encouraging (not demanding) responses from all
- Remaining truly open to input that challenges the majority opinion
- Stimulating dialogue with questions that “poke holes” in majority opinion
- Telling people in advance what you need from them in the meeting
Teach Team Members How to Engage Each Other
Everyone can engage others in a meeting. From meeting set-up to meeting follow-up, there are simple tactics that can make meetings more inclusive. Use these simple tips for starters:
Schedule meetings thoughtfully
- Consider holidays from all cultures, when schools are closed, and when seasonal demand is at its peak.
- Note the time zone differences for remote participants
- Choose the time of day when engagement is likely to be highest (hint: it’s not 5:00 pm!)
- Book in advance so people have time to prepare and so their schedules can easily accommodate the meeting
Allow ample time for preparation
- Give advance notice on key topics, especially when others who aren’t attending the meeting ought to be consulted
- Identify and share desired meeting outcomes
- Tell people what’s expected ahead of time rather than catching them off-guard in meetings
Understand personality styles and unconscious biases
Use assessments, discussions, and team-building workshops to boost awareness about and understanding of:
- Differences in communication styles
- Differences in learning styles
- Differences in ways information is processed
- Differences in who we respond to and how
- Differences in what’s motivating to others and what’s valued by others
Establish common standards and practices
- Team charters help establish conduct in meetings
- Ground rules provide order and set expectations for interactions
- Meeting roles and responsibilities clarify how each member is to contribute
- Setting expectations for participation enables others to feel “safe” and prevents people from creating their own interpretations of meeting norms
Build trust and collaboration
- Assuming good intent should be part of every team’s ground rules. People may disagree but should not make those conflicts personal, mean-spirited, or unproductive.
- Finding common ground helps others to work together instead of working at cross purposes
- Holding peers accountable and giving each other feedback strengthens teams and helps everyone grow professionally
- Team building workshops and assessment tools (see above) can help with building trust
- A “we first” vs. a “me first” approach to team discussions and outcomes ought to be established early on and consistently modeled.
Inclusive meetings provide better outcomes. They also engage team members, create a sense of belonging in the workplace, and enrich each individual’s experience and knowledge.
If your meetings are consistently conflict-free with quick agreement, beware. Those meetings are usually the least inclusive, and the hidden consequences and missed opportunities can be costly.