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February 5, 2019

You need one key to make meetings successful

A meeting is a valuable use of time when all participants contribute. Otherwise, an email would have done the job. Participants contribute when they are mentally present, focused on the topic and feel safe enough to speak up. Experience shows that a quick check-in routine leads to an immediate mental presence. It is the one key you need to makes meetings matter!

“The better you begin, the better the quality of the meeting, usually with better results in a shorter time frame.”

Kathy Jourdain

If your meetings are like most, they start late because of participants drop in late, rushed from a previous meeting, deadline, call or email. While the meeting begins, their minds are still processing whatever happened before. In the worst case, the session ends before attendees have mentally arrived and they leave without having engaged.
Think of the overall value of meetings when the attendee’s mental absence is the rule, not the exception. A quick check-in routine makes the participants feel that their presence counts so that you can go through the meeting agenda more effectively.

What is a check-in?

In the business context, the “check-in” is a routine with which a team starts a meeting or workshop. It precedes the first “regular” agenda topic. Each person, without exception, shares in a short statement of one sentence what’s on his or her mind at that moment. No comments, no interruptions, no discussion.

“The purpose of enabling participants to share whatever is on their minds is to connect to the now and here.”

Emily M. Axelrod

There are different methods of conducting the check-in. Usually, the host asks one question that everyone answers briefly one at a time, going around a circle. You can also invite attendees to check-in in random order, whenever someone feels ready. Just make sure that you do not skip anybody.
Generally, a check-in question addresses the participants’ current state of mind, for instance, “What’s on your mind right now?”, “What is your internal weather report at the moment?” or “What would it take for you to be fully present in this room now?”

The value of check-ins

Instead of searching for reasons why your meetings are different and cannot accommodate check-ins, check these 4 benefits that will convince you of their immediate value:
  • The routine helps everyone to share potential distractions so that they can focus on the present moment and purpose of the session.
  • Inviting everyone to speak signals that all participants have a unique role and purpose for attending that meeting.
  • Everyone receives a voice and will feel less intimidated to speak up again whenever they have something to contribute to the discussion. We observe that if you have spoken once, the likelihood that you will talk again significantly increases.
  • The check-in helps participants to develop empathy towards each other so that they can put other’s reactions into context. For instance, attendees will abstain from judging someone’s emotional response if they understand that their colleague is currently going through a divorce.

We don’t have time for check-ins

When we are busy, we speed up. That’s our instinctive response, and it seems reasonable. At first. But, think about the number of mistakes you do when you speed up, the pieces of information you miss when you try to multi-task and energy you waste to backward engineer the discussion that you missed because you were distracted.
When we feel stressed, our brain switches to survival mode. Our perception narrows down, awareness of potential risks increases. When we stress, we tend to take pre-mature decisions because we ignore pieces of information or don’t clarify facts. A well-chosen check-in will reduce stress levels among attendees and thereby kick-off meetings that matter.
When time is short, you will feel tempted to skip the check-in before skipping any other agenda item. And then, you’ll find yourself wasting time on unnecessary discussions or among lethargic colleagues. So, don’t follow your animal instinct, don’t skip the check-in. Instead, set the routine up for success.

We are professionals, we don’t need to check-in

Although you may think that everyone in the room was professional, aware of the purpose of the meeting and the importance of their presence – what if they didn’t? I heard from managers that they didn’t have time for such “esoteric” practices (and, yes, “esoteric” was indeed the word I heard in a debrief). In masculine environments, some may call the routine “touchy-feely” as it invites participants to open up.
In case you anticipate such resistance, you may want to start the check-in without explicitly calling it out as such. When the group seems to get ready for the meeting, make eye contact with one person and ask about their current state of mind (“Alex, what’s on your mind right now?”). Ask in an informal but present way so that all participants hear you clearly and you catch their attention. After the answer, pass the question to the next participant until attendees join in automatically.
Also, if you have never done check-ins before, I suggest starting small so that you can slowly build a habit and safe space. In the beginning, many participants might feel uncomfortable to share their state of mind. In such a case, it helps to start with a simple “weather report check-in” where participants use the analogy of the weather to share their emotional state. Offering a set of options everyone can select from (such as cloudy, foggy, stormy, sunny), the exercise becomes very easy to apply and fast to execute as everyone says only one word. Although simple, you will experience an increase in the others’ understanding of someone’s silence or hot temper. The argument of short time no longer holds as even for larger groups, the routine will hardly take more than five minutes.

Experiment with the check-in and own it

Physical activity raises the energy level of the group and reduces stress levels. One exercise that I learned in Improv’ Theater and that became a standard routine with some teams I work with, is the “Stretching check-in”. The group stands in a circle and one after the other answers the check-in question. While answering, he or she stretches one body part while all others mirror the stretch. Research showed that sharing embarrassment increases trust. And with this exercise, participants can relax their muscles while grounding into the meeting.

“[…] observers recognize the expression of embarrassment as a signal of prosociality and commitment to social relationships.”

Feinberg, Willer, Keltner 2012

Alternatively, when you don’t feel comfortable to ask attendees about their state of mind, you can use humour. When I meet a group for the first time, I like to ask participants what superpower they would like to have. As nobody usually expects such a question, I catch attention. Although the exercise doesn’t ask participants to explicitly open up, it helps reveal personal traits without exposing too many emotions. The group will share laughter and thereby relax and develop trust.

Check out

As much as I praise check-ins as the one key to successful meetings, I could write a separate article about the value of check-outs and how they help you to leave sessions on an energetic high. I’ll restrict myself to the core message: Use the last minutes of the meeting for everyone to check-out by reflecting on the meeting in one sentence without discussion or comments. The routine helps all attendees to align understanding and clarify final questions. You may ask “What aspect from the meeting are you taking home?” or “What would you like to leave in the room from this meeting?” or “What’s on your mind now that you would like to share?”
In some cases, it is the last opportunity to point at the elephant in the room and to address it on spot with all people present. This can avoid conflicts to escalate. In case you decide not to open space for discussions to erupt, ask for reflections about the process of the meeting only: “According to you, how did the meeting flow today?” This will help you understand attendee’s perceptions on how to further improve the meeting’s effectiveness.

The nutshell to take home

For hosting successful meetings or workshops where all participants are mentally present and engaged, the check-in routine is key. It helps attendees to focus on the topics and feel more comfortable to participate in the discussion. Depending on the maturity of the group and time you have, you can ask for a quick “internal weather report” or engage in an extended form of stretching together while sharing what’s on everyone’s mind at that moment. This routine will help you to speed up by slowing down! Remember that meetings work if everyone is present and focused. Otherwise, an email would have done the job.

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