Full participation makes for better meetings – and we all want better meetings. As leaders we gain full participation by adhering to basic meeting best practices and through inclusive communication techniques; as participants we contribute more with preparation.
To make meetings better as leaders we need to apply discipline in the basics of good meeting management: getting the right people there and prepared, setting and following agendas, and managing time. These basics form the structure of effective meetings, but full participation is the key ingredient that makes for high-productivity meetings. There are several communication techniques that increase participation, including explicit expectations, warmups, round-robin sharing, write-first, and polls or surveys. Each of these participation-increasing communication strategies serves a different purpose and they can be mixed and matched to meet objectives.
- Warmups: Warmups are a tool to set the tone of the gathering and get everyone comfortable speaking up. Warmups can be as simple as asking everyone the same easy question or playing a simple game. Favorite-Questions and Would-You-Rather game are examples of warmups. What is your favorite movie/book/podcast? Would you rather swim/wade in a lake, a river, or the ocean?
- Expectations: Setting explicit expectations at the beginning increases participation by letting everyone know the rules. For example, “Everyone here will have the opportunity to share their opinions. We are setting the ground rules of waiting until each person finishes and says they are complete before the next person speaks.”
- Round Robin: Round robin is simply the technique of speaking in turns one right after the other without interruption until everyone has had a chance to contribute. This tool is really helpful to gather different ideas for a brainstorm or capture varying opinions about an issue. Round robin is particularly effective in a meeting of people that span the power structure of an organization.
- Write First: Having all participants write their thoughts on a topic first before discussion is a means of increasing participation. Writing first allows people to better formulate and subsequently articulate their thoughts. This technique is excellent for complex problem solving and deeper analysis. Though it can be used for any topic to increase participation.
- Polls: People find responding to surveys and voting on things to be a fun way to participate. With technology, this can be done anonymously and give immediate gratification of results. In person it can be done with hands/thumbs up or down and direct verbal responses. Polls engage people, get the pulse of the group, and are helpful in making final decisions after discussions.
As participants, often we are asked to ‘just speak up’ but are not given an obvious way to do so. The first line of action is to ask meeting leaders to step up and use inclusive strategies, but there are also many things we can do on our own. Identifying where we add value is key. Preparing in advance – comments, questions, places in the agenda we can contribute – makes it easier to speak up. And once we have established a presence, we can lend that social capital to somebody else in the room who needs space for their voice.
- Value Add: Everyone is invited to a meeting for a reason and knowing why we are there is extremely helpful in determining how we can add value in participating. If we really don’t know, we should find out with a simple email to the organizer, “I see that I am on the invite for the xx meeting and I am wondering what how you would like me to participate.” This may also get us out of unnecessary meetings if we were invited just as a courtesy.
- Preparing: Just a few minutes of preparation time can substantially increase our confidence in being an active contributor. Reviewing the agenda, we can formulate our thoughts on topics and come up with questions we can ask. Question can be for the purpose of gathering more information, but they can also be means of instigating deeper conversation or including others. For example, we could ask “What was the thought process behind the current conclusion?” to instigate more evaluation. We could also ask “What does engineering/marketing/Jane/Joe think of this topic?” to give voice to somebody else and expand inclusion. More than anything else, preparing makes us sure of ourselves and, therefore, makes it easier to participate.
With just a bit of forethought and effort, we can gain full participation and improve our meetings both as leaders and as participants.