The 9 Best Tips for Running Successful Meetings

the 9 steps of effective meetings
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9 top pieces of advice for running in-person and virtual meetings

What is the best advice you have for running meetings?

The best guidance I have ever received for facilitating meetings comes from acclaimed author and coach Nancy Kline. Nancy Kline gives nine steps for effective meetings in her book Time to Think, to allow gatherings to be conducted according to the principles of the Thinking Environment. The nine precepts are:

1. Give everyone a turn 

2. Begin with a positive reality

3. Let them finish 

4. Identify assumptions and ask incisive questions 

5. Divide into thinking pairs 

6. Go round again 

7. Give permission to tell the truth 

8. Allow people’s feelings 

9. End with a positive turn 

Let’s expand on what each of these means with some extra advice from my own experience as a leader and professional facilitator. 

1. Give everyone a turn 

When you are leading a meeting give everyone an opportunity to contribute. The easiest way to achieve this is to ‘do a round’. This is initiated by the chair or facilitator asking a question and then everyone takes a turn to answer. This is very important psychologically as it ensures that everyone has a voice at the table and this balances contributions from the more extroverted (louder) people with the more introverted (quieter) folk within a group.

2. Begin the meeting with a positive reality  

Kick off the meeting with something positive. This shouldn’t be something insincere or contrived, just a positive statement. This will help to frame the meeting positively, and – through understanding cognitive bias– will help keep people in a problem-solving mindset. 

One way to achieve this is to do an upbeat round starting with something like, “Please can everyone share a success from this past week.” In this way you can achieve the first two points on this list and set a positive tone before doing a second round with the first agenda point. 

3. Let them finish 

Probably the most important thing in conversations – be that one-to-one or in large meetings – is ensuring that people are not interrupted. It is a sure sign that people are not listening properly.  If people are not allowed to finish, their train of thought will be broken, ideas will be lost, and psychological safety will be undermined. If people are continually interrupted, they will simply stop contributing and you will be left with the loudest (and rudest) people dominating and lose the cognitive diversity of the group. 

To achieve this, set the ground rules before you start, so that everyone will have a turn to speak, and no one will be interrupted. Part of this accord is that those speaking will be concise and not go on for too long (no filibustering!) 

If you are leading the meeting, you may need to gently remind people of this agreement if interruptions or long monologues take place. Persevere! Many people are not used to this way of working but hold the line and it will pay dividends in productivity. 

4. Identify assumptions and ask incisive questions 

Everyone needs to be listening carefully (and not interrupting) if they are going to identify assumptions that come up in the conversation. We need to make assumptions when making decisions because we never have all the facts. This being the case, we need to examine our assumptions and make sure they are reasonable. Questions can help do this, and this sort of questioning is at the heart of Socratic dialogue.

Many decisions are made on false assumptions and these need to be identified and explored using incisive questions. For example, you might hear an assumption (stated as a fact) in a meeting such as “it would be impossible to do that.” When you hear that sort of statement you can use incisive questions to gain a deeper understanding of people’s thoughts. In this case, I might ask questions such as “That’s interesting; what makes you say that it is impossible?” or “Could you explain your thoughts around what makes that impossible?” 

These questions will help separate fact from assumption and will also allow for new insights to emerge. For example, the answer to the question above might be “It is impossible on this budget” and then you could explore questions such as “What budget would be enough” or “If budget wasn’t an issue, how would we address this issue?”

5. Divide into thinking pairs (or small groups)

Sometimes, to get people engaged, to get out of a thinking rut, or just to be more productive, it can be helpful to break down the meeting into smaller thinking units. Frequently, when facilitating, I will ask people to take a pause and think individually (often noting ideas down for another round) or to break down into pairs or small groups to tackle a specific agenda item. 

With small groups, you may need to move around and even use other break-out spaces, so pairs have the advantage of being quick and easy to organise. There are times when you do want to break the flow and use discussion groups of more than two, but it takes time to re-group so do it sparingly. 

6. Go round again 

If in doubt, do another round. Set another question and let everyone contribute. The whole agenda can be achieved in this way, but you need to think about your questions first. This should be part of your preparation for the meeting. Alongside the agenda, have some questions to help illuminate each point. 

For example, you don’t simply want to say, “Can you give us an update?” For starters, this is a closed question, and people might just say “No” or “Not at the moment”. The question is also too broad and likely to lead to some people taking too long. So, keep things specific. Ask something like, “Please give an update on the progress of X relating to X” or “What is the one most important issue relating to X right now?” If someone raises a tricky problem you can then do another round to invite thoughts and solutions relating to that issue. 

7. Give permission to tell the truth 

Psychological safety is critical to the success of a meeting. Good leaders create an environment where the team can the truth, not just say what they think the boss wants to hear. This sort of atmosphere, where people are not allowed to tell the truth, is an indication of toxic leadership

If you are the leader, set an example and don’t avoid the brutal realities of your situation. Share the hard facts, admit mistakes, but maintain a positive attitude. As a facilitator, create an environment where people feel safe. Give encouragement to people who share difficult subjects, acknowledging their honesty and their trust in the group. 

8. Allow people’s feelings at the meeting

Many people get uncomfortable with the idea of feelings in the workplace. This is largely due to cultural norms (often patriarchal ones) and the philosophical notion that we are (or should be) purely rational. Modern psychology, such as the work by Daniel Kahneman, has debunked this theory. Our brains are not purely logical by design so don’t expect people to be entirely rational at work (or anywhere else for that matter). 

Expect emotion. Give space for people to share how they are feeling. That does not mean that a meeting should be a free-for-all of shouting and crying! But allow people to share the good and the bad of what is going on in their work and personal lives. 

Many times, I have been facilitating, and dealing with someone who is undermining the meeting, only to find out they had some hidden work frustration or problem at home. Once this was aired, they started to contribute constructively again. Yes, this can be risky, but in my experience, if these instances are handled well, they build deeper trust and cohesion in a team. 

You cannot avoid emotions, but you can regulate them and learn from them. How we feel – the fight or flight mechanism that is triggered in social interactions – can indicate issues that need to be resolved. My favourite tools for exploring feelings and their related meanings are The Iceberg Model and the SCARF model. I recommend reading up on these if you are not familiar with them.  

And if you can, get people laughing! It does wonders for rapport, creativity and general well-being. 

9. End the meeting with a positive turn 

You may have had to deal with a lot of challenging material in your meeting, but always try to end on a high. Start positive and end positive. That does not mean that you need to pretend that everything is rosy when it is not. You can be honest but employ a growth mindset and look at everything through the lens of being a learning opportunity.

Lastly, give appreciation. As the leader or facilitator, thank people for their attendance and contributions. Even better, do a final round and get everyone to give a word of thanks or personal comment of appreciation for other members of the team. 

Now to prepare for your next meeting

So, as you look to your next meeting, bear these nine ideas in mind. These guidelines work for in-person and virtual meetings, for small or large gatherings.

And don’t worry if you don’t manage to achieve all these elements in one go. Meeting cultures within organisations run deep. They can be very hard to change. But my advice is to persevere with these ideas; if you do you will find meetings less problematic and more productive, less combative and more creative, less frustrating and more fun. 

Yes, meetings can be effective and enjoyable, it is possible! And if you would like more help in your meeting preparation and delivery take a look at How to Plan and Run Effective Meetings (In 7 Questions).

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