How should you start a meeting?
Some say it’s not how you start but how you finish. As someone who has built a career helping leaders run meetings that are enjoyable and a valuable use of time (sounds improbable, doesn’t it!), I believe how you start a meeting is critical—whether with colleagues, clients, volunteers, your local government, or even your family.
And I always start meetings the same way. With “check-ins.”
At the beginning of every meeting, I invite each person to briefly answer the same question or set of questions.
My check-in question can be as simple as: How are you feeling? Or: What is going on for you that people in the room might need to know?
Sometimes, depending on my sense of the room, I’ll get more specific, asking: What question do you think is most critical that we discuss in today’s meeting? Or: What are you excited about and what are you worried about? One of my favorite questions for leadership teams that meet on a weekly basis is: “What is a high, and a low, from your week? Where do you need help?”
Check-ins encourage everyone in the room to focus on the meeting and one another. This may seem like a given, but unfortunately, in our distraction-filled world, it is not. During check-ins, you’re not looking at your e-mail or phone. You’re not interrupting the person who’s trying to speak.
The check-ins pull people in. Every single person speaks and everyone listens to every person speaking. (In other words, you don’t comment on other people’s check-ins.) And if you want input from introverts during meetings, check-ins help them get over the hump of speaking up. And because everyone talks at the beginning, check-ins make it clear that this meeting is for everyone, and not just the boss.
In check-ins, we all quickly learn where the other people in the room are coming from and what is going on with them on that particular day. Research shows that when you understand where people are coming from, you start to build relationships and trust. So when the inevitable bumps and miscommunications arise in our work environments, we are less likely to jump to negative conclusions about our colleagues, fight (or flee), or complain about a seemingly errant colleague.
Instead, we are more likely to walk down the hall or pick up the phone to talk with that colleague directly. When we develop relationships, we act from an assumption that our colleagues are trustworthy and we can work things out. So problems get resolved more rapidly, and organizations are able to adapt more quickly.
Some people think that check-ins slow you down. They don’t. Check-ins allow everyone to get a sense of the whole room much more quickly than is possible with one-on-one conversation. And they can draw out information that is essential to conducting a good meeting. I encourage people to mention if they are feeling tired, sick, or overwhelmed during check-ins.
Of course, there is sometimes resistance to doing check-ins: They can seem too structured or touchy-feely for some cultures. While check-ins may feel awkward at first, the benefits of them make it worth your while to push through the resistance.
Sometimes people learn the hard way the need to be open in check-ins. On the second day of a recent two-day-long leadership team meeting I facilitated, an executive—a private person who doesn’t like being vulnerable—chose not to say in the check-in that he had been up since 3 a.m. with a toothache. So his clenched jaw, contorted facial muscles, and sharp speech were interpreted by many of his peers as, “He’s not happy with where this conversation is going. He’s angry.” Had he mentioned in the check-in that he was exhausted and in pain, his peers and boss would have understood the cause of his behavior.
I’m unsure of where the check-in originated, but I know it is a longstanding technique in focus groups. I first learned about check-ins at my first organizational development job at a Massachusetts consulting firm. The company had a meditation room, and we opened our weekly business development meeting with a minute of silence followed by a check-in. I’ve been using check-ins as a tool to run productive meetings ever since. From small NGOs and start-ups to Fortune 100 leadership teams and the United Nations, I start every meeting the same way: with a question. I even use them at home in an effort to get my pre-teen son to open up at the dinner table about his day at school. (This may be the most valuable place to use them!)
Today, inside my own consultancy Groupaya, we do check-ins all the time—when we meet in my kitchen in San Francisco, and online every Monday. We also do them in our weekly conference calls with clients—even with eight people on the phone and just an hour for the meeting.
I don’t limit myself to check-ins. With all my clients, I also do check-outs—a question or questions posed to everyone at the end of meetings. The technique works for all the reasons check-ins do—and a few others. People often bring up a point or question that’s been missed in the discussion. People naturally end up talking about next steps, about what’s unanswered by the discussion, and about the meeting’s most important moments.
Most of my former clients continue to do check-ins and check-outs. Even those who were initially skeptical end up seeing them as a tool for discovering what is really going on in their company or organization.
I do acknowledge some limits on where check-outs are useful: I don’t do them at the dinner table. That would be a little much. I can just see my pre-teen son’s eyes rolling at the thought.