Ten tips for business meetings in the new world
As the world begins to reconnect, Paul Axtell explains how to get the most out of virtual and, ideally, face-to-face meetings
As a personal effectiveness trainer, I’m looking forward to working with people face to face. I miss the human moments. I miss sensing when someone has something to say and noticing when someone shuts down because they were interrupted. I miss the hallway conversations that start up after a meeting or the relationships that are deepened over a couple of beers. Conversation can become magical when we are together.
Meetings are at the heart of execution for any organisation, and the ability to convene a group of people and make progress during the meeting and afterwards will be respected by your colleagues. Here are my tips for making meetings work in a restricted world.
1. Treat every meeting as though it matters
Of course, not all meetings are equal, but your preparation and participation can be. If you call a meeting, respect the time and talent of people attending by ensuring that the agenda is exactly what needs to be discussed and that only the necessary people are invited. As a participant, ask questions for clarity and to provide colleagues with a runway to expand on their comments. Choose a level of ownership for every meeting you attend that improves how you participate.
2. Distribute an agenda and keep it brief
Every meeting can be enhanced by having a clear agenda that allows people to prepare. For virtual meetings, put 20 per cent fewer items on the agenda and allocate 20 per cent more time for each item. The process of getting broad participation (particularly in a virtual meeting) takes time and, if you or your team feel rushed, you might sacrifice clarity and alignment. A one-page agenda with desired outcomes for each topic will let people know how to prepare and how to participate.
3. Remove all distractions
That includes smartphones. Stop multitasking. Devote your attention to this meeting, to each conversation, and to each person who speaks. One of the benefits of in-person meetings is that it’s harder to multitask, so you have to concentrate on what’s in front of you. With virtual meetings it’s easier to get distracted so these are a good opportunity to work on devoting your attention to each person who’s speaking. When we return to meeting in person, attention and presence will improve our experience of being together. In particular, if you are leading the meeting, just devote yourself to the conversation. Your attention matters more than you realise.
4. Take a few minutes to connect and catch up
The quality of the relationships that enter a meeting determines the quality of the conversations that will occur during it. That’s why it’s important to set aside time to build relationships among team members. Note that not everyone needs to speak. Checking in with a few people will give everyone the sense of being reconnected. Going early and staying late is also good practice because it strengthens relationships that are essential to progress and influence.
5. Make an impact when you speak
Everything you say must add value. Be clear, concise, relevant, and respectful. You’ll notice that you speak less when you hold yourself to high standards. Speak succinctly at a calm pace and provide openings for people to ask questions. Avoid speaking more often than you should and longer than you should. People will stop listening and over time lose respect for you.
6. Listen in a determined way
Really listen, not only to comprehend, but to create the conversational safety for people to be vulnerable. Meeting in person can create a sense of safety that allows people to fully expres themselves when together, and this is easily lost through a screen. Creating that safety with how we converse in virtual meetings begins with listening generously without judgment. If we work hard on this now, we’ll be even better when we do get back together. In fact, listening is the most important social skill because it creates the psychological safety that allows people to say what they are thinking.
7. Notice who has not yet spoken
Broad participation improves engagement, alignment, and everyone’s self-esteem. Don’t rely on everyone to find a way into the conversation on their own. Ask others for their perspectives, ideas, and questions. Make it a point of emphasis for yourself: noticing who has not yet been in the conversation. Noticing who is on the outside is a critical social skill and key to creating an inclusive atmosphere.
8. Wrap up each conversation deliberately
Use the five elements of closure, as follows:
- Check for completion: Does anyone have anything else to say or ask that has not yet been expressed?
- Check for alignment: Is everyone OK with where we ended up in this conversation?
- Check for next steps: Are we clear about who will take actions and when those actions will be completed?
- Check for value: What value are you taking away from this conversation?
- Check for acknowledgment: Is there anyone we should acknowledge?
9. Create a culture of keeping your word
If you don’t make progress between meetings, the sense of whether a meeting is useful will erode quickly. Everyone loves to work with colleagues who are willing to do whatever it takes to move the project forward. Create the expectation within your group that taking on work means delivering as promised, and your team will be more productive. Clarity about who will do what by when is a critical part of execution. Being reliable is an important part of your reputation.
10. Keep two outcomes in mind
Expand your view of what you want to accomplish, from simply working through the agenda to ensuring that it’s a quality experience for everyone. Virtual meetings require a stronger leadership approach because you often don’t have access to the non-verbal cues about whether people have questions or would like to get into the conversation. These meetings also require more empathy and thoughtfulness on your part because people have this sense of being less connected than when they are in the same room.
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