How to Run Inclusive Meetings
Peer review and feedback season is well upon us, and one of the most frustrating pieces of feedback I’ve received (and regrettably given) is “you should talk more in meetings.”
$PERSON should speak up more. They alway have good, thoughtful input, and I think that $PERSON would be more impactful if they contributed more in meetings.
I got something along these lines when I was starting out as a developer. This feedback insidiously conflates a mix of external factors (how the meetings are run) with internal ones (I am, admittedly on the quieter side) and puts the blame entirely on the individual.
For managers who see this feedback for their direct reports and notice that they’re quiet in meetings, take a moment to step back and reflect on why this individual isn’t participating. There are a lot of reasons why individuals may not effusively express their thoughts or feedback, and telling someone to just “talk more” often isn’t useful feedback.
Some example reasons that run through my head (consciously and subconsciously) that might keep me from saying something are:
- Do I have enough context on this topic? Was I given enough time to prepare?
- Are there strong personalities in the meeting? Is someone doing most of the talking?
- Is there a high cost to being wrong? (Do I want to sound stupid in front of an exec?)
- How is criticism/disagreement handled? Do individuals “Yes, and…” each other or just shut ideas down?
- How are ideas attributed and recognized? Will my ideas be ignored initially then restated by someone else?
It’s the meeting moderator’s job to both create a psychologically safe environment and ensure that participants have an equal opportunity to contribute. Shaping the environment that meetings happen in helps to lower the barrier for people to contribute in meetings by hopefully eliminating entire classes of extrinsic factors that may dissuade individuals.
Meetings are often highly visible, decision-making and ideation forums. By making sure all participants have an equal opportunity to participate, you are helping to create an inclusive culture. Effective meetings generally don’t run themselves, and fostering an inclusive environment is required for getting the most effective interactions out of a diverse set of participants.
Here are a few things that I’ve found work well when running meetings:
Send out an agenda
Let’s start with the fact that I’m not going to open my mouth until I’m 90% sure of the entirety of what I’m about to say.
“So,” Rands in Repose
Not everyone has the same threshold for when they decide to jump in with their thoughts on a subject. Coming up with an agenda with discussion topics and any relevant context and scope levels the playing field so everyone can feel more comfortable that they’ve prepared adequately.
One pattern I’ve seen work well (h/t mudge) is PAL (Purpose, Agenda, Limit), but they don’t need to be super fancy:
Purpose: Retrospective on Project Honey Farm (Context: <link>) Agenda: * Welcome (5 min) * Brainstorming exercise (15 min) * Discussion (20 min) * Summary & determine action items (5 min) Limit: 45 minutes
Starting a meeting by briefly talking through the agenda, goals, and expectations from the meeting gets everyone on the same page.
If there are multiple topics for discussion, set time limits for each to maintain a focused discussion; it’s easier to stay on track with three 15-minute discussions rather than one 45-minute block. For the moderator, this also creates natural breaks to stop runaway bike shedding or a single individual from dominating the conversation.
I find it incredibly challenging to both talk and take notes. I recommend that the moderator take notes since they aren’t as active of a participant and are already responsible for understanding the flow of the discussion and guiding it.
For recurring meetings, it can be useful to have a note-taking rotation to distribute responsibilities across the group so that over time everyone has a chance to participate.
At work, we generally circulate a shared, collaborative notes document in the agenda or at the beginning of the meeting 1. This way, folks can follow along and fill in anything the note taker may miss. Using a collaborative doc is great since (especially in small meetings) someone else can fill in notes to give the note taker a chance to participate in the discussion.
Great moderators make sure that group is asking the right questions. Not only are they useful for guiding a discussion, but asking questions also shows a degree of vulnerability and illustrates to everyone that it’s safe to not have all the answers (assuming the answerer follows through of course). It can also be useful to ask questions to make sure everyone has the same context (in case it wasn’t provided ahead of time).
Give everyone a chance to speak
For each discussion, be proactive about making sure everyone has a chance to speak. This can include handing the mic to individuals who haven’t participated via a simple:
$PERSON, do you have any thoughts?.
If an individual has expertise in a particular topic, it’s great to give them the floor:
$PERSON has the most context on that since they’ve done most of the work, so I’ll defer to them.
In some cases, someone (including the moderator) may do a large portion of the talking. Most meetings aren’t intended to be lectures, and participants are likely to disengage of them don’t feel like they have a chance to speak. Shifting the conversation away from those individuals is critical to keep a meeting engaging, and may require the moderator to be a bit more forceful if it’s hard to get a word in:
So, before you continue on that, I just want to jump in here and make sure that other people have a chance. $PERSON_A? $PERSON_B?
For meetings with a mix of remote and “local” participants, this is especially critical. Video conferencing latency makes it difficult to read some social cues. If there are locals who like to jump in right as someone else finishes, it’s easy to end up with either remotes talking over locals because they can never jump in or remotes not participating at all. Redirecting to remotes that are trying to participate works reasonably well to avoid these cases.
Make it a point to positively acknowledge and reinforce contributions from participants who don’t speak up as much. Building off of their comment or idea is a great way to show their contributions have value:
That’s a great point, $PERSON. If we take that approach, then we can do this other thing…
I’ve found that running inclusive, effective meetings is one of the most important leadership skills. Fostering an environment where everyone feels that their opinion is valued and that they are included in the discussion and decision-making processes is incredibly rewarding, and gives everyone in the room a chance to learn from one another.
You don’t have to be the moderator to use the strategies covered above! Redirecting the flow of conversation if there’s a clear imbalance, or jumping in to take notes are doable as participants.
What are some things you’ve found to work well to improve inclusion in your organization?
- “Run Meetings That Are Fair to Introverts, Women, and Remote Workers,” Harvard Business Review
- “So,” Rands in Repose
This is generally Google Docs, Confluence, or Hackpad. ↩