Good meetings set the right tone from the start. Much depends on what everyone feels about being there. People in business often lead such busy lives that they rush from one thing to the next without so much as a pause for breath.
If that’s how you arrive, you’re not walking into that room with the intention of being present with and for the people you are about to meet. So you’re not really arriving at all. Because whatever you’ve just been doing is what you’re carrying along with you into that meeting.
You may think this doesn't matter, especially if it’s a routine internal gathering. You may not intend to contribute or expect to be asked for an opinion. You may expect it to be boring, even a waste of time.
If that’s what you bring in with you, you’re probably right – it will largely be a waste of time. Everyone else’s as well as your own. The good meetings that I’ve observed begin with a smile and a word of welcome from the chair – even when all the faces are familiar to everyone there. Great.
The trick that’s usually missed, however, is the opportunity to make sure that straight away, everyone around the table is given a voice. So if you’re leading, or opening the meeting, invite everyone to say something brief to kick things off.
In situations where not everyone knows everyone else, this is more than just a matter of asking for names and job titles around the table. Most people gabble their way through this, and are particularly dreadful at saying their own name in a way that others instantly understand and feel confident about using. So it’s often not much help. If that happens, do pick them up on it – whether you’re in the chair or not. Ask the name again, repeat it back and if you’re still not sure, smile and say “Have I got that right?” or even “How do you spell that?” if it’s particularly unusual.
As meeting leader, however, make sure you also pose a relevant initial question for all to answer – in a brief sentence or two – in turn. For example:
What do you hope to gain from this meeting?
What do you bring to it?
Giving everyone a chance to put their voice into the room at the start of the meeting creates a sense of permission to speak thereafter. Helpful for the shy ones. It also demonstrates that everyone has the right to be listened to. A useful reminder for the more garrulous or self-important ones. (And I’m talking here about meetings of up to, say, 12 people so that the go-round doesn’t become tedious. With larger numbers, get people to exchange their answers in pairs or threes, then hear back in plenary from one spokesperson in each. Or have smaller meetings.)
Introducing this kind of ritual may not be possible, of course, if you aren’t in a position to suggest it to the chair or to lead the meeting yourself. But you can still make a powerful contribution to the meeting by ‘playing host’ – something I’ve talked about before. The first attribute of a good host is to learn names. If you don’t already know, find them out while people are arriving, as everyone settles.
And use people’s names around the table – sparingly, but judiciously. Then you can greet or take your leave, or bring individuals in to the discussion if appropriate: “As Jane commented earlier, it would be useful to see some evidence of the problems Paul has been describing…”
Good hosts also pass the sandwiches – without having to be asked. (People who sit around a table with communal food or drink in the centre, in my experience, are usually thoughtless about helping others to reach it!)
And notice what’s going on in your immediate environment. If you think the room is too hot or cold or badly lit, take the initiative and offer to adjust windows, air conditioning or lighting. Don’t just suffer in silence or wait for someone else to do it. The chances are that others will be grateful to you. If not, concede with good grace!
Playing the good host is part of getting that meeting to go well. And you’re just as responsible for that as anyone else.