Anna Shipman : JFDI

Encouraging meeting participation with a check-in

22 March 2022

If you want participation in a meeting with people who don’t spend a lot of time together, one thing that can help is getting everyone to say something at the start; here is a low-pressure way to do that.

Speaking up in a meeting with new people requires confidence

It can be hard to speak up in meetings. When you’ve worked with the same group of people for a while, it gets easier, but if you are running a meeting where there are new people, or people who don’t know each other, it’s worth having a way to make it a little bit easier for people to feel able to speak up.

It’s good to have have something low importance to say first

Any of you who have met me in person might be surprised to hear that I used to be extremely shy. I did speak up in meetings, but I would have to spend time gearing myself up to do so, and I also used to blush whenever I spoke.

When you are not as confident speaking up in a meeting, you can spend a lot of mental energy wondering about how to say what you want to say, including things like how loud your voice will have to be, and often the moment will have passed. Once you’ve made your first contribution though, the next one is easer as the technicalities are out of the way.

So in a meeting where you want everyone to participate, it’s best to give everyone a chance to practise using their voice on a low effort, low impact comment at the beginning,

Don’t make it something meaningful

The first time I was involved in a retrospective at work, many years ago, the facilitiator asked us each to warm up with a comment about “our hopes and fears for the retrospective”. That’s a pretty hard question! First you have to think of the answer, and then you have to filter it for what you think is appropriate to say in that context with those people (“I fear this is going to be the biggest waste of my time” is probably not the opening gambit you want to go with.)

Personal questions are also tricky. Some people like sharing at work, and some people do not; so a question that involves revealing something about yourself can also be pretty stressful. (“Tell us about the best holiday you’ve ever had”, or “If you were an animal, what animal would you be and why” are examples of questions I do not want to answer unless I’m comfortable already in that team.)

I favour questions that are unrevealing if the person wants them to be; brief; and something that just gets participants to practise speaking and being heard in the meeting.

Some sample questions

I usually offer a choice of questions so that people can choose what they want to share. The last time I used this, I asked for one of the following:

*Safe For Work.

Some more imaginative questions – but be careful with these

If you are doing this regularly with the same team, and people are expecting it, it can be fun to play around a bit with the questions, e.g. basing them on current events:

Be careful with these ones though; they can put new people on the spot in an unhelpful way, and some of them are not appropriate for your workplace.

For example the last one is only appropriate in a workplace where everyone feels comfortable discussing politics. If you’re not 100% sure that absolutely everyone is comfortable with that, stay away.

Keep them simple

The purpose of the check-in is solely that everyone has a chance to practise speaking in that meeting and being heard.

So it doesn’t matter what is said, just that they’ve already spoken, before the time comes where they may have an important contribution to make.

This is not a silver bullet

This is not the only thing you have to do to encourage participation, and on its own, it won’t get people to speak up who do not feel inclined to do so. For that, you need to also do other things: smaller groups, deliberate turn-taking, doing the work to build and maintain psychological safety, and much more.

However, this is one small way you can help shy people like past Anna.

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