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3 science-backed ways to help you run better meetings

Miro’s Shipra Kayan explains the simple principles that successful facilitators apply to make meetings more engaging for everyone.

3 science-backed ways to help you run better meetings
[Photo: fauxels/Pexels]

Meetings have never been a popular part of the workplace, but in the era of remote and hybrid work they’ve become especially loathsome. Recent analysis shows employees are spending at least 25% more time in meetings than in February 2020, and many speculate that meeting fatigue is one of the factors contributing to the Great Resignation.  

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Meetings should be an area where we all resolve to improve. Facilitators are trained in the psychology of meetings to produce better outcomes and energy, and all managers can benefit from learning the basics and applying them to their meeting plans. Here’s how understanding some important psychological principles can help you have better, more engaging meetings. 

Activate Systems 2 thinking

The fastest speakers have an early-mover advantage in influencing the direction of meetings. They ask questions and share their observations the most quickly, and (perhaps unintentionally) wind up bending the direction of projects and initiatives with these rapid-fire thoughts. But there are two types of thinking, and leaders must be sure to make room for both when planning and executing meetings.  

Daniel Kanheman discusses the two systems of thinking in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He identifies System 1 thinking as the automatic, reactionary thinking that helps us do things like analyze people’s faces and recall the answers to simple problems from memory. System 2 thinking on the other hand, requires a deeper level of concentration and allows us to analyze problems and control our bodies in complex ways. Getting your teams to access System 2 thinking is critical in ensuring that meetings uncover the best ideas, not just the first or loudest.  

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The easiest and simplest way to unlock System 2 thinking is to give meeting attendees a platform to share their ideas silently rather than blurting them out as they come to them. Online whiteboards are a great tool for this because they offer a coauthoring environment where people can write down questions, ideas, and observations in real-time and also view and build upon each other without completely derailing the conversation. 

This approach solves three problems:

  • Each person gets to refine their ideas as they write them instead of taking more of the group’s time trying to explain them
  • It allows all attendees’ thoughts to be seen and considered equally
  • It helps reduce the halo of HIPPO—or “highest-paid person’s opinion”—that can have an overweight effect on the outcome of conversations

In addition to creating a shared focal point to silently write questions and comments, you can also build in silent brainstorming time directly into the agenda, taking short three- to five-minute breaks specifically to invite people to think of ideas or write reflections on what they’ve heard or seen. This silent time will force attendees to activate their System 2 thinking and dig deeper into their thoughts and ideas as they share. And after the meeting, you’ll have tangible artifacts that help document the conversation and decisions that were made. 

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Create psychological safety

In a study called Project Aristotle, Google found that high levels of psychological safety encouraged healthy debate in meetings and were indicative of high performing teams. Creating psychological safety organization-wide is a challenge that goes well beyond the scope of any meeting organizer, but facilitators have some tricks that they routinely deploy to create psychological safety within the confines of a meeting. 

If you’re anticipating the meeting to cover topics that may be contentious or require vulnerability (for example, a retro of a failed project) consider starting off with an icebreaker that starts the meeting off with a sense of togetherness. CozyJuicyReal is a game company that designs icebreakers that encourage meaningful sharing, and these can go a long way in encouraging honesty and vulnerability without the hostility that may come from jumping directly into a difficult conversation. 

You can also ask attendees to collaboratively create ground rules for the meeting and give everyone the opportunity to set the norms for how to speak with each other. These rules will help everyone hold themselves accountable for their voice and tone in the conversation and make them feel more confident that they are sharing feedback in an appropriate way.  

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Anonymize suggestions to create a collective culture

I previously mentioned how the HIPPO, or “highest paid person’s opinion,” can dominate the conversation and influence projects, even if it’s not the best path to follow. One way to prevent this is to anonymize ideas and questions so that every thought is considered equally. Tools like Sli.do can help attendees submit thoughts anonymously and vote on them, and online whiteboards can also create environments where ideas are considered democratically.  

This has two goals:

  • Reduce the fear people might have to speak up, which can make meetings more inclusive and surface new voices and perspectives that previously may not have been heard
  • Build a collective culture where people are less concerned about whose ideas are being put into action and more concerned that the best one is

You can start a meeting in this format by reminding everyone that the meeting is about the ideas and the content and encouraging people to speak freely through the tools you designate.  

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Facilitation is a labor of love and it takes a huge commitment to make facilitation a career. But with a basic understanding of the psychology behind sharing and thinking, anyone can improve how they run meetings to get the best ideas from their teams. 


Shipra Kayan is the principal product evangelist at Miro.


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