We all enter into meetings carrying the history of our past experiences with this group, this topic, this format, this setting. Our personal feelings, institutional hierarchy, race dynamics, sexism, ableism, and all other manifestations of power and privilege make their way into our work gatherings. When we default to letting our meetings run themselves, we fall into the trap of maintaining the status quo, which favors the dominant “norm,” (usually white, male, cis-gendered, heteronormative, etc).
While making changes to the way you run your meeting will not magically enable you to reach your DEI goals, you will have a much harder time achieving those goals if you do not take some time to think about—and adjust—how you meet.
Here are a few places to start.
Open with spaciousness
Before jumping into your agenda, take a few minutes to get grounded. This could mean holding a moment of silence to acknowledge pain and suffering (as when there is news of racial violence), asking a check-in question like, “What is something you’ve been interested in improving for the organization?” or inviting people to share one outcome they are hoping to get out of the meeting. Your opening should be an invitation to share, not a requirement, and should focus on helping to build relationships and centering the space on participants.
Create a container for bravery
Collectively create a set of norms, or let people individually pick an intention they want to hold themselves to for each session. These could include anything from, “Keep my cell phone off,” to “Listen deeply,” to “Be willing to make mistakes.” The important point here is to let participants determine what they are able to agree to each time you meet, rather than using the list to enforce a set of behaviors. Putting attention onto the culture of your meetings in this way can make a big difference in how comfortable people feel in speaking up and fully participating, particularly if you have been having issues with people interrupting each other, checking out, or dominating the conversations.
Use your time together to do things that require being together. Updates, reports, and announcements can be saved for written communication. When there are major pieces of information to share, share those in writing in advance and use your meeting time to collect and answer questions, collaboratively process how the information affects each person’s job, (e.g. through small group discussions by role), or to brainstorm next steps. Nothing maintains hierarchy more saliently than a long series of lectures (disguised as reports, updates, etc.) that everyone is forced to listen to but no one chance to respond.
Rotate who is in charge of your meetings. Provide access to a shared agenda template that can be used for participants to populate with topics they would like to see addressed. Create a schedule so that everyone who attends your meetings has a chance to be the one to both finalize the agenda, and facilitate the discussions. Let participants take turns leading your grounding and closing activities so that everyone has a chance to set the tone. Be open to trying new ways of meeting, and encourage people to bring new methods to the sessions.
Introduce hands-on activities that allow everyone to cocreate. This could include posting chart-paper up around the room (or a set of editable Google Slides if you are meeting virtually) for people to write ideas on, building models with manipulatives like Legos or Play-Doh when in-person (or creating collages with images from the internet when meeting online), or encouraging people to take notes on a shared document, rather than having one person take notes for the group. Ideas that are shared in meetings can be interpreted in many ways. When one person holds the responsibility of creating the meeting record for a group, you run the risk of a narrow perspective that does not include all viewpoints.
Practice equity of voice
One of the most palpable ways power dynamics play out in meetings is in airtime. Position in the organizational hierarchy, the identities people own (especially race and gender), individual personalities, and communication styles, all play a powerful role in how people show up in meetings unless there are intentional efforts to make space for everyone. Set group agreements around ensuring there are checks and balances in place to limit one voice dominating meetings, especially when decisions need to be made. Learn your team and make adjustments to maximize participation. For example, some people are internal processors, so you might send content to everyone in advance of the meeting to allow team members to process and be prepared to discuss and weigh in on decisions.
We tend to run-off from our meetings without giving participants a chance to reflect on how the session went, what else they still want to know, or what they are going to do with what they learned. Take a few minutes to collect this information from everyone either through a verbal share-out or via a written survey. Make sure this feedback is taken into account when planning the next meeting. Be explicit about doing so: “Today we are going to spend more time on ‘x’ because we heard last time that you all are concerned about that issue.”
While none of these suggestions explicitly address racism, ableism, or sexism, (which still need to be tackled as part of your DEI plan), they all focus on points of institutional power that historically have dictated how workplace meetings are run. Shifting even one part of your meetings towards these alternatives has the potential to expose and cantilever power imbalances, and open up the possibility of more equitable and inclusive environments throughout your workplace.
Eva Jo Meyers is a transformational facilitator and the author of Raise the Room: A Practical Guide to Participant-Centered Facilitation.
Adria Husband‘s most recent work includes a grantmaking strategy redesign project centering the voices and experiences of leaders of color, and coaching/consulting around culturally responsive practices in workplace practices. She is also the founder of D.I.V.A.s Middle School Mentoring Program.