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3 things great leaders do in meetings

You never want your attendees to think, “Yeah … that could’ve been an email."
Image: Targeting their interests
Researchers estimate the number of our scheduled meetings have more than doubled globally over the past few years.Cecilie Arcurs / Getty Images

Have you ever opened your calendar at the start of the day and gulped as you stared at a stack of meetings, piled up high in front of you?

You’re not alone. Researchers estimate the number of our scheduled meetings have more than doubled globally over the past few years. In addition, the average length of our meetings are 10 minutes longer than they used to be.

While getting together too much or too little matters, meetings alone aren’t the enemy. When planned and facilitated with purpose, they represent a unique, productive opportunity to build relationships, share ideas, and move projects forward. I just wish more meeting leaders understood that we benefit only if all participants have an equal opportunity to contribute an idea, hazard a guess or disagree with the popular view.

If you’ve ever been in a meeting that felt unproductive, or worse, predictable, it’s likely because the leader conducts meetings in a sort of echo chamber – they express their ideas and the usual suspects chime in. Or, the leader skips inviting people to challenge their view, creating a quiet pressure for people to simply acquiesce and nod in agreement.

Not only does this result in meetings that feel like a waste of time, but it leaves eager employees feeling unheard, unwelcome and disengaged.

We need leaders who are willing to see power dynamics in meetings for what they are - to recognize bad actors like over-talkers, idea stealers, interrupters and power hoarders. The best leaders don’t just go with the flow, but moderate the mix of individuals in front of them as they facilitate and participate.

These rare unicorns, I mean *leaders,* treat meeting time as a platform for everyone to contribute ideas and explain their points of view. This is especially urgent for women and people of color, who have been historically overlooked and undervalued in corporate settings, as well the LGBTQ+ community who is more likely to experience microaggressions at work than their straight colleagues.

Here are three things leaders can do in meetings to ensure everyone feels like they belong in their seat at the proverbial table:

1. Speak to clarify

Clarification is a vital aspect of active listening. It both ensures that you understand what the speaker is saying, thereby minimizing misunderstandings, and reassures the speaker that you are genuinely interested in what they are saying.

As a leader, it’s good to ask for clarification when you notice someone’s cut themselves short or when they offer a high-level explanation that could be better understood in a different way.

It is the leader’s responsibility to speak up and say something along the lines of, “Can you walk us through how that idea would look in our organization?” or “Share with us how that could work…” or even “Are you saying X? Do I have that right? Correct me if I’m wrong.”

This shows that you value the speaker’s opinion and want everyone in the meeting to hear it.

2. Speak your opinion last

Have you ever finished a meeting and thought, “Yeah, that could’ve been an email!” This usually happens when the leader acts more like a presenter – gathering everyone together, sharing some information and sending everyone on their way.

A meeting needs a volley of back and forth, and sometimes even friction, to be productive. When a leader begins a meeting with their opinions, or only gives their point of view throughout the duration, other participants may feel forced to subscribe.

Leaders who present their opinions first may give the impression that they already have their minds made up. That means junior, new, and reserved employees may assume the boss isn’t open to other opinions or may interpret those opinions as aggressive or challenging.

That’s why great leaders ask if anyone has an opinion they’d like to share - and considers those thoughts *before* sharing their own.

3. Close meetings with a catch-all question

Introverted folks may participate in meetings differently than their extroverted colleagues, even if the leader does “round robins,” and does their best to include everyone. For this reason, it’s good to end the meeting with a catch-all question that gives more reserved participants a final chance to speak their minds or a raise an issue.

You might ask, “Is there anything that we should discuss that hasn’t been brought up?”, “What did we miss?” or “Is there anything else anyone wants to contribute for the greater good of this project?”

Catch-all questions open the floor for incomplete thoughts or action items from earlier in the meeting. They also allow someone to raise a miscellaneous concern. Someone might have been waiting for an opportunity to share a thought, but it didn’t come up in the natural flow of the meeting. This gives them the chance to make a point without it feeling off-topic. Asking these questions shows humility too, that we’re all constantly learning and gathering new insights, and that as a team, we’re never finished or “done.”

Remember that great meeting leaders facilitate and guide a conversation to a productive conclusion. That means first deciding that if we’re going to borrow people’s precious time and put one more meeting on the calendar, it had better be meaningful. That requires sitting in discomfort at times to allow for friction and disagreement. It also calls on us to use restraint and share our position last, so all ideas are considered before moving forward with a project. And it means giving people plenty of openings and spots to speak up and say what they need to say. Yes, being an inclusive leader can be an overwhelming proposition at times. But it’s smaller everyday behaviors, just like these, that can take us from diverse membership to actual inclusion-in-action.