The path to more powerful meetings is a clear and straightforward one: choose one aspect to focus on and then put it into practice for two weeks until it becomes habit, and a part of your day-to-day routine. Then pick another idea and be intentional about that for the next two weeks. Then another…and so on.
Three months later, you’ll be leading and participating in meetings with the full confidence that you’re making an actual difference in their progress and outcome.
Here are six ideas that are worthy of your attention over the next three months:
1. Notice who is not yet in the conversation and invite them to participate. Broad participation is important when building high-performing teams. Being self-expressed gives people a sense of purpose. Contributing to the conversation creates fulfillment. Being inclusive means inviting people who are not yet in the conversation to join it. It doesn’t matter why people are not yet engaged—it’s all about the invitation to join in.
“Armand, you’ve had experience in this area. Could you offer your views?”
“We haven’t heard from Ellen yet, and it’s important that we consider the impact on her department. Ellen, what are your thoughts on this project?”
2. Notice when a conversation goes offtrack and bring it back. Sticking with your agenda and completing the work that was planned for the meeting is essential to leading meetings that people want to attend. Conversations go off track easily for a variety of reasons—lack of clarity about how the conversation will proceed, getting distracted by trying to solve a problem that’s not the point of the discussion, or a general unwillingness to point out that the conversation has strayed from the topic at hand. You can intervene with comments like these:
“I’d love to stay with the conversation, but I think we should get back to the agenda.”
“It seems we’ve veered into a different conversation than was intended; do we want to stay with this topic or get back on track?”
“This sounds like an idea we should note and revisit at another time. Is that OK with everyone?”
If you’re leading the meeting, begin each topic by mapping out the path you want to take with the conversation, and invite people to bring it back on track if they notice it straying. If it’s a complex topic ask someone to keep track of the conversation visually with notes or a mind-map on a white board.
3. Pay attention to the impact of interrupting when it happens in meetings. What is the impact on the person who was interrupted or on the conversation itself? The question is how the interruption changes the conversation that was occurring or whether it diminishes the input from the person who was speaking before the interruption. When you notice an impact that’s negative, you can begin to repair it by returning to the person who was interrupted with an invitation to complete his or her thoughts.
“Javier, I’m not sure you had a chance to finish your comments. Would you please make your points again?”
“Todd, I’d like to hold you back for a moment while Sarah finishes her thoughts. Thank you.”
4. Observe each conversation for these three things: clarity, candor, and completion.
Clarity requires precise language—making sure everyone has the same understanding. The surest way to achieve clarity is to give people permission to ask questions if they’re unclear. Candor means being authentic—saying what you mean and meaning what you say. This is a cornerstone of groups that work well together. Master two questions that are designed to elicit ideas, concerns, opinions, and questions: What do you think? and Where are you on this? Completion means not leaving a conversation until all parties are ready to end the discussion. While this is simple courtesy, it also ensures that no critical point or question is left unexpressed.
“I think we’re ready to move on to the next topic. Is everyone OK with that?”
“Are there any lingering questions or concerns before we move on?”
5. Don’t leave a conversation without nailing down commitments. If you do not nail down specific commitments in time (doing X by Y),you should not expect anything to happen as a result of the conversation. It’s not enough to simply trust people to do what’s needed because people need clarity. And it’s not micromanaging.This is just good project management—making specific commitments with specific timelines for completion. (For the next step—follow up—see the HBR article, Two Things to Do After Every Meeting.)
“Before we move on, let’s confirm the commitments we’ve made for next steps.”
6. Listen and speak in a focused way. When you listen: Be attentive—that means being committed to the conversation: no multitasking and no technology. Be patient—allow space for people to finish their thoughts before jumping into the conversation. Be nonjudgmental—remind yourself that the other person’s views are as legitimate as yours and give the person speaking the benefit of the doubt.
When you speak: Be clear. Be concise—organise your thoughts before you speak and provide only enough explanation for clarity. Be relevant—if what you want to say doesn’t add value, don’t say it. Be respectful—leave room for others to see things differently. If everyone made their comments in this way, conversations would be quicker, meetings would be shorter, and your sense of accomplishment and connection and would be stronger.
Another powerful tool in development is asking someone to watch you lead and give you honest feedback. I believe we are better when we’re watched, and being open to feedback gives you an edge on your development process. Give your observer some specific elements to pay attention to: Do I make the path for the conversation clear? Do I miss anyone’s attempt to get into the conversation? Do I close each conversation completely before moving on to the next topic? Do I let someone interrupt without going back to take care of the person interrupted?
Your ability to lead and participate effectively in meetings is a key organisational skill. Mastering the ideas above will allow you to have more influence and impact on the organisation.