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Culture
Why Inclusive Meetings Are Better (And How To Lead Them)

Team meetings are when the real versus expressed or theoretical workplace culture really shows. Oftentimes, they’re the only opportunity for employees to be together, garner visibility for their strengths, and be recognized. 

Inclusive meeting culture results in greater innovation and equitable opportunities for career success and helps people bring their whole selves to work. 

So, where’s the problem? Well, it probably won’t come as a shock to anyone reading this that most people hate meetings (and for good reason). 

But, as we’ll go into, with the right approach it’s possible to run meetings people actually look forward to.

In this article, we’ll explore how you can lead meetings (in-person, hybrid, and virtual) that will cross off your productivity tasks, unearth the wisdom for your team, and foster human connection. 

I’ll share my top 5 favorite facilitation techniques for more inclusive meetings, some key considerations for more inclusive hybrid and virtual meetings, and how to lead meetings people will want to come to.

We’ll cover:

So, let’s get into it. 

The Truth About Most Meetings

Picture that meeting with that same person who always dominates the conversation, drives their own agenda, and does not listen to what others are saying. 

The meeting time runs out or over, people aren't prepared to contribute (ugh, and this one really gets me) the agenda is either non-existent or just too packed.

As meeting attendees, we leave feeling overwhelmed, confused, and like no one did their homework on what the goals for the meeting should be or what the needs of the participants were. 

They aren’t productive, they’re often unorganized, and, usually, the wrong people are asked to be there or the right people are missing. They distract from more important things, or are dominated by the same people taking up the whole time. 

Sitting in meetings like this gives me anxiety and leaves me feeling too frustrated to speak up and ask questions, especially in larger virtual meetings (I don't know about you, but if I never spent another second on Zoom again, it’d be too soon). 

Maybe this is a controversial sentence, but I believe meetings should be beneficial to the attendees. Wild, right? 

The truth is, secretly, we all love meetings! They just have to be inclusive!

What makes a meeting inclusive?

An inclusive meeting is when a diverse group of people each feel as though they are seen, represented, respected, and valued when working together during a meeting format. 

People will leave feeling energized, connected, and motivated to get work done afterward. 

When conversations are balanced, moderated to flow with ease, and, most importantly, we’re patient with one another—people feel listened to, understood, and like their time is valued.

This is the hallmark of inclusive meetings, and they’re no accident. To lead an inclusive meeting, one must plan ahead, know how to manage their time, ensure participation is equitable, and, most importantly, successfully help the group process the content of the meeting so that everyone is on the same page and can benefit from being there.

The tricky part is that ,while it’s possible to measure inclusion with employee experience platforms like Aleria or Culture Amp, having those authentic conversations live, either in groups or one on one with your team, may not yield the most accurate or honest responses. 

If you’re just now starting to think about making your meetings inclusive, you might need to do some self-work first, before asking people about their experience directly.  

Here’s where you can start. 

The Key Elements to an Inclusive Meeting 

Awareness

Leading inclusive meetings requires more than good intentions, however, that’s where it starts. You have to be aware of the language you’re using, who’s in the meeting, who’s not in the meeting and needs to be, and what information is needed for attendees to benefit from the meeting. 

A Common example is  calling people “guys”. Not everyone identifies as a guy. 

Humanity

If you’re like me, you routinely avoid the horrible small talk that happens for the first 3 minutes of any meeting. It’s not that I want to avoid chatting with the people there, I just can’t stand talking about the weather or about someone’s new haircut over and over again. 

I was once in a sequence of meetings where, coincidentally, a different person would comment on the same person’s haircut at the start of each meeting that person with the haircut and I were in all week. After the fifth meeting where a new person remarked on Jennie’s haircut for the fifth time, I started to believe I was in some kind of simulation. 

There are so many other ways for us to connect as humans with depth and inclusive meetings are all about finding ways to do this (apart from commenting on hair, appearance, or the weather). Here are 5 Ways To Make Better Small Talk (Without Talking About The Weather).

Accessibility

We don’t all learn and process information in the same way. Inclusive leaders and managers take this into account when presenting updates, making announcements, managing change, and addressing issues with their teams. 

This requires taking time to get to know your team (1:1s, questionnaires or assessments are good for this) so you can make sure you account for the differences in abilities, neurodiversity, and learning styles is essential for ensuring your meetings are inclusive. 

You might also be interested in getting specific DEI training.

Visibility

Meetings should be an opportunity for team members to speak up, support each other, and ask for help. Ensure there are balanced opportunities to give this visibility to members of your team when everyone is in the same space. 

Put Your Diversity Statement to Work 

Traditional meeting formats center extroverted, neurotypical, and systemically dominant identities. 

As you know, there’s an endless amount of ways people can differ: socioeconomic backgrounds, levels of education, race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, political associations, learning styles, neurodiversity, ranges of physical, mental, emotional abilities, personality traits, cultural heritage, or being introverted vs extroverted. The list goes on. 

If your organization has a Diversity Statement that claims you “celebrate diversity”, but misses the mark on how people are working together and doesn’t evolve from these traditional and oppressive meeting formats, you’re not doing it justice

In a world where there is expressed value in our differences, prioritizing inclusive meetings puts the rubber on the road. 

How to run inclusive meetings

Remember this: inclusive meetings are well-facilitated meetings. A strong facilitator can take a meeting from pointless to productive, your attendees from clueless to captivated, and a project from dreaded to done. 

Anyone leading an organized group of people toward a shared objective is in a facilitator role and can adopt facilitation skills. 

It’s the team manager who calls a meeting to share updates on when customers can expect a new product release and ensures everyone is clear on the communication plan.

It’s the project manager keeping everyone informed on timelines, changes, and obstacles. 

Outside of work, you know that friend who's the planner, connector, and is even just a good listener? Boom, facilitation. We like these friends, right?

Every facilitator has a different style and every group will have different dynamics. This is what makes facilitation so exciting. A skilled facilitator adapts to the needs of the group. They can get people talking. They know how to feel out certain personalities, opinions, and sensitivities a group may have. 

What is it exactly, though? 

Facilitation is providing the necessary resources, information, and support in order for learners or participants to complete a task.

Sounds like teaching, right?

Facilitation is different but not mutually exclusive from teaching. Teachers help students acquire new skills or knowledge by telling them information about a subject area. There’s a measurable outcome at the end, like a grade. Teachers are usually content experts and they typically have all the right answers. 

Facilitators help participants with their experience of a meeting by guiding the overall process. Good facilitators know that it’s less about them and more about the group, thus creating an inclusive environment. They ask the right questions to help people make discoveries on their own and bring wisdom out of the people in the room. 

Now, what are those actual moments when we can tell that facilitation is happening?

It’s when your boss asks everyone to share how they’re doing or what they’re focusing on individually at the beginning of the meeting to allow everyone in the meeting a chance to speak

It’s when participants are having an open discussion during a training session and the facilitator builds a common theme between what’s shared to cultivate psychological safety and a sense of belonging. 

It’s during a brainstorming session when ideas are gathered in an organized fashion and the facilitator delegates a note-taker to capture ideas, assigns someone to respond to the chat window, and rotates the roles to encourage balanced participation.

Let’s take a look at our top 5 favorite facilitation techniques for more inclusive meetings. 

1. Create Community Agreements 

community agreement graphic

Community agreements are a set of basic ground rules participants are asked to follow. It can take the form of a living document you may revise throughout the long-term duration of your meetings. 

The goal is to create an open and inclusive space so that every individual feels safe, seen, and heard. When expectations of the group are made clear and visible to all, people can better trust they’ll be respected and safe to share openly in a meeting.

2. Check Ins 

check -ins graphic

Check Ins are a simple and natural way to foster inclusive human connection. They can be work-related or non-work-related, usually happen at the beginning of a meeting once everyone arrives, and are best for smaller groups of less than 10. 

The facilitator will ask the group to go around the room and answer a simple prompt like, “how are you today?” or “what are you needing support with?” If participants don’t know each other, this is an excellent opportunity for individuals to share their names and something unique about them. 

Because facilitation is about human connection, building in those opportunities for everyone to get to know each other (if they don’t already) is key.

3. Review an Agenda and the Desired Outcomes, Together 

So simple, yet often missed—creating a relevant agenda for participants to see before the meeting starts is so important. This helps everyone come prepared and know what’s expected of them. Better yet, ask your attendees for input beforehand

Asking for input before gathering gives people an opportunity to think about any questions they have before the meeting so they can come ready to listen to the content. 

Remember, people cannot listen to what’s being said and think of questions at the same time. If you’ve built in time for questions at the end of the meeting, honor that space. Don’t rush to end the meeting just because there are a few moments of silence. Silence means people are thinking before they speak, which is a good thing. 

4. The Two-Minute 360 

the two minute 360 graphic

This is a technique that allows your participants the opportunity to pause and reflect on what’s been said, with an opportunity to speak aloud. When speaking, participants may ask a question, make an observation, or otherwise verbally process the content of the meeting. We call it a two-minute 360, because it’s just that. 

1) Pause for two whole minutes for silent reflection. 

2) Go around the room once to allow everyone an opportunity to speak. 

This may feel completely strange and awkward at first (silence is uncomfortable in our society), but it can be powerful and a simple way to build diversity and inclusion in your meetings. 

Especially during an important announcement, a big process change, a product training, or some other information being conveyed, show your participants that you respect them by allowing them to reflect on what’s being shared and respond in the moment. 

5. Share the Air

It’s a facilitator's job to ensure everyone has equal opportunity to participate in your meeting. Take mental notes of who’s asking questions, talking the most, and who is staying quiet. 

If there’s a group share, make sure you’re not guessing or asking who still needs to go. This is a very simple way to demonstrate that you're aware of the group's needs, which is essential in facilitation. 

Remember, the most important things that need to be said aren’t always said by the people who talk the most. Share the air. 

Hybrid And Virtual Meetings

For hybrid and virtual meeting formats, there’s more to consider, though, as we’ve seen, it all comes down to practicing awareness, humanity, accessibility, and visibility. 

Be intentional

Be clear and state your goal to be inclusive of remote attendees. It’s so simple, yet rarely acknowledged. Brief presenters that it's a hybrid meeting and that they deliver presentations as such.

Use the tech to your advantage

Chat bars can be great additions to meetings, when used appropriately. Remote attendees have more opportunities to articulate a question or comment in the chat, which can be more difficult in person.

Also, tools like Equal Time can help track how much everyone is speaking to ensure you’re allowing different people opportunities to chime in. 

Offer support and build connection

It can feel isolating to attend a hybrid meeting remotely. Having a designated “go-to” person for virtual attendees to answer questions and advocate for the attendees goes a long way.  Remember to pause and look if anyone has raised their hand or asked a question during the presentation.

For larger meetings, when in-person attendees are in between sessions, try including virtual networking or team-building opportunities for remote attendees. Speed networking is a great way to do this. 

Ensure clear and accessible audio, visuals, and meeting information

Especially in larger meetings, if it's not on a mic it can't be heard online. This makes it difficult to know who’s presenting, too. Ensure you have the proper audio equipment and ask for feedback from virtual attendees on the quality of the audio. 

Use a digital event planning tool, that updates in real-time, to add details and any changes to the agenda, explicitly introduce all speakers, and provide information on what the session entails in the meeting invites and/or agenda.

In my opinion, it’s no longer acceptable for people in leadership or management to begin their presentations by criticizing their own slides before they begin speaking. Lead by example and use well-organized, brain-friendly slides that are accessible and easy to follow. I guarantee you’ll have a much more engaged audience in your hybrid and virtual meetings (hot tip: most people won’t read your slides and listen to you at the same time). 

Being on camera for long stretches of time is a unique form of exhaustion. Set guidelines around when to have the camera on or off. I’m a huge proponent for the case for turning off your Zoom camera in large, hybrid meetings. 

Amplify Remote Voices

There's an old notion that attending large meetings in person is better for getting promoted, so give extra thought to the fact that these attendees won't have as much visibility in the organization as if they were in person. If there's an opportunity to amplify the work of a remote attendee, do it!

I used to work at a small education company based in Portland, Oregon that would have monthly, hybrid, “all hands” type meetings led by the VP of People and Performance. 

This meeting was a workplace culture jackpot. She, along with our HR Manager, was very active in pioneering different programs designed to elevate the employee experience and, far before covid, this organization valued their remote talent and saw it as a major opportunity to diversify the headcount. 

One of my favorite programs she ran was called, “See Something Say Something”. It was an opportunity to submit peer-level recognition for anyone across the organization. It was a part of the team culture to submit these in writing to be read aloud to everyone on the call. 

This company has under 80 people, so it was about a 10-minute process, but it was a very simple and fun way to recognize specific accomplishments and amplify the work of others in a meaningful way, every month. 

It’s All About Facilitation

Remember, inclusive meetings are all about ensuring equal and balanced opportunities for participation, building a sense of belonging, and nurturing psychological safety when we work together in groups. 

Whether you're leading a routine team meeting, brainstorming session, or even your next team-building event or social gathering, good facilitation skills result in better quality interactions, more creative ideas, and stronger connections. 

Interested in learning better facilitation skills? Reach out to me on LinkedIn to learn more. 

By Katie Zink

Katie works with visionary leaders and change agents to create positive and dynamic workplace cultures that hear, recognize, and support all voices. She leads task forces and committees that result in sustainable plans and programming, designs and facilitates custom workshops and skill sessions, and forms employee resource groups backed with executive sponsorship.

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