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Starting meetings effectively

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

You know the situation, you’ve just got your five minute reminder before a meeting. Maybe you’re just wrapping up another meeting or you’re in the middle of solving a problem or you’re rushing back from a quick trip to the shops. Maybe it’s a meeting where you find it difficult to get the courage to speak up or worry that you might say the wrong thing.

Whatever the situation, you need to feel at ease to get your brain working. This will help you think clearly, remember relevant experiences and have questions that spring to mind. In this post, I’ll share something I’ve learned from Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment that helps everyone to start the meeting feeling at ease. I’ll also share some of the successes and challenges I’ve had when using it.

Now, this isn’t rocket science, it’s simple and easy to do, if you have the courage. It’s called an opening round. Instead of starting the meeting by running through the meeting’s purpose and getting straight to the first agenda item, ask everyone to answer a positive question that’s unrelated to the meeting.

An example question is:

“What is going well for you, in your work or home life, at the moment?”

Everyone takes it in turn to answer this question in a few sentences. The golden rule is that no one interrupts anybody else. Having everyone answer this question, uninterrupted, increases the odds that they’ll speak again in the meeting. It helps put everyone on a level playing field.

There are usually smiles and humour with the answers, the mood lifts and tension reduces. People feel engaged and part of the team. It helps transport us away from what we’ve just been doing and makes it easier for us to think about the new topic.

Now, I mentioned earlier that introducing the opening round might take some courage. Like any time you introduce something new, it’ll have its successes and its challenges. Here are a couple of my experiences.

I’ve been in regular, weekly meetings where the opening round has really taken off. We now take it in turns to come up with the questions. We look forward to it as the questions make us think and we find out more about each other. It created a positive atmosphere, a real team spirit and friendship.

I’ve facilitated other meetings where not everyone has been bought in. A couple of people started to roll their eyes when I asked the question. It wasn’t everyone, most people smiled and everyone still answered so it wasn’t a total failure. It turned out that the eye rollers felt that the opening round was a waste of time when we had critical work to focus on. They felt that I wasn’t appreciating the urgency.

Now “urgency” and how it’s handled is something I feel strongly about but I’ll keep it for a future post. However, I always look to be open minded so for a few weeks we stopped having opening rounds. It was interesting that the environment of the meeting did seem to change. There were more arguments, tension was high and only the more dominant people contributed.

So I looked for a compromise. I decided to ask questions with answers that were just a couple of words, for example:

What’s one object or activity that you are looking forward to at Christmas?

On asking this question, I made it clear that answers should be only a few words long. This reduced the time the round took while still getting the smiles, humour and engagement. So in this situation, I’ll keep this approach for now.

Of course, having an opening round is just one step towards helping people feel at ease. There are other things that also need to happen to create an environment where people think well.

We need everyone to be encouraged to think for themselves, everyone to be considered a thinking peer, everyone to be given equal opportunity to contribute as well as many other things. All this will come in future posts. For now, let me know how it goes if you experiment with opening rounds. I’m always happy to swap notes.

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