The path to improving your meetings is straightforward: Choose one aspect to focus on, and practice it for 10 meetings until the idea becomes part of who you are. Then, pick another idea, and be intentional about that one for the next two weeks. Three months later, you’ll be leading and participating in meetings with the confidence that you’re making an actual difference when your groups convene.

Here are six ideas that are worthy of your attention over the next three months:

1. Notice who is not yet in the conversation, and invite them to participate.

Broad participation is fundamental to high-performing teams, because participating in life is part of maintaining your well-being, and expressing yourself is part of contributing to the group. Being inclusive means inviting people who are not yet in the conversation to join it. It doesn’t matter why people are not yet engaged; it’s all about the invitation to join in:

“Armand, you’ve had experience in this area. Could you offer your view?”

“We haven’t heard from Ellen yet, and it’s important that we consider the impact on her department. Ellen, what are your thoughts on this project?”

2. Notice when the conversation goes off track, and bring it back.

Sticking with your agenda and completing the work that was planned for the meeting is essential to leading meetings that people want to attend. Conversations go off track easily for a variety of reasons, including lack of clarity about where the conversation is going or how to proceed, getting distracted by trying to solve a problem that’s not the point of the discussion, or a general unwillingness to point out that the conversation has strayed from the topic at hand. You can intervene with comments like these:

  • I’d love to stay with this conversation, but I think we should get back to the agenda.
  • It seems we’ve veered into a different conversation than we intended; do we want to stay with this topic or get back on track?
  • This sounds like a topic we should revisit at another time. Is that OK with everyone?

If you’re leading the meeting, introduce each topic by mapping out the path you want to take, and invite people to bring it back on track if they notice it straying. Ask someone to keep track of the conversation visually with notes or a mind-map on a white board.

3. Pay attention to the impact of interruptions.

What is the impact on the person who was interrupted or on the conversation itself? Does the interruption change the conversation that was occurring or diminish the input from the person who was speaking before the interruption? When you notice a negative impact, you can begin to repair it by inviting the person who was interrupted to complete his or her thoughts:

“Javier, I’m not sure you had a chance to finish your comments. Would you please make your points again?”

4. Observe each conversation for these three elements: clarity, candor, and completion.

Clarity requires precise language – making sure everyone has the same understanding. The surest way to achieve clarity is to give people permission to ask questions if they’re unclear.

Candor means being authentic – saying what you mean and meaning what you say. It is a cornerstone of groups that work well together. Master two questions that are designed to elicit ideas, concerns, opinions and questions: “What do you think?” and “Where are you on this?”

Completion means not leaving a conversation until all parties are ready to end the discussion. While this is a simple courtesy, it also ensures that no critical point or question is left unexpressed.

“I think we’re ready to move on to the next topic. Is everyone OK with that?”

“Are there any lingering questions or concerns before we move on?”

5. Don’t leave a conversation without nailing down commitments.

If you don’t agree on specific commitments in time (i.e., completing this task by this date), you should not expect anything to happen as a result of the conversation. It’s not enough to simply trust people to do what’s needed, because people need clarity. This isn’t micromanaging. It’s just good project management. Ask the group, “Before we move on, let’s confirm the actions we’ve agree to take.”

6. Listen and speak in a focused way.

When you listen:

  • Be attentive. Stay committed to the conversation, with no multitasking and no technology.
  • Be patient. Allow space for people to finish their thoughts before jumping into the conversation.
  • Be nonjudgmental. Remind yourself that the other person’s views are as legitimate as yours, and give the person speaking the benefit of the doubt.

When you speak:

  • Be clear and concise. Organize your thoughts before you speak, and provide only enough explanation for clarity.
  • Be relevant. If what you want to say doesn’t add value, don’t say it.
  • Be respectful. Leave room for others to see things differently. If everyone made his or her comments this way, conversations would be quicker, meetings would be shorter, and your sense of accomplishment and connection would be stronger.

Throughout this process, ask someone to watch you lead and give you feedback. We are better when we’re watched, and being open to feedback gives you an edge on your development. Give your observer some specific elements to pay attention to:

  • Do I make the path for the conversation clear?
  • Do I miss anyone’s attempt to get into the conversation?
  • Do I close each conversation completely before moving on to the next topic?
  • Do I let someone interrupt without going back to take care of the person who was interrupted?

Your ability to lead and participate powerfully in meetings is a key organizational competency. Mastering these ideas will allow you to have more influence and impact in your organization. And remember, the payout from deliberate practice can be exponential.

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