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3 Questions for Leading Inclusive, Interactive Virtual Meetings

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interactive virtual meetings

A while back, I led a strategic planning meeting for the board of a social service nonprofit organization.

We first honed in on the organizational vision for work for the next year. We then discussed blockages to accomplishing the work. Then, we moved from vision to plan by agreeing on board projects in the upcoming year.

We finished with a feeling of excitement and achievement. The board was finally unified on priorities!

After we reviewed the list together, Tonya, one of the board members, asked, “Who’s going to do this work?”

As the facilitator, I experienced a moment of shock. This is the work that you just agreed on, I thought to myself. But another part of me was energized. Tonya surfaced a question that others were also feeling: Do we actually “own” this work? The question allowed us to discuss this together. In the end, board members realized that their actions in the year ahead would amplify the organization’s fundraising and programmatic success. Each took responsibility to ensure that this happened.

Over the past month, after facilitating many interactive virtual meetings, I’ve thought a lot about Tonya and her powerful question. Whether virtual or in-person, we must design meetings and conversations so that people care about and own the content being discussed. These three questions will enable you do this in every meeting you design or lead:

1. What’s in the room now?

Most of us have had the experience of trying to talk with someone, but the person we’re trying to speak with is too distracted by something else.

Writing this post in Spring 2020, almost every one of us has something else on our minds, the perfect excuse to be the person who is ‘too distracted.’

In the COVID-19 crisis, social distancing has caused a complete change in routine for most people and feelings of grief around that change. Working parents experience increased responsibilities juggling work and parenting. Many who live alone face isolation and loneliness. Those who live with others experience challenges getting along. On this extreme end, this includes danger, as there are reports of higher rates of child abuse and domestic violence.

Many are feeing anxiety about contracting COVID-19 or grief if a loved one is suffering or has died. Healthcare and essential workers are risking their lives to do their work. Then there are the economic challenges of layoffs and furloughs. The crisis isn’t hitting everyone the same: It is layered on top of longer-term crises of economic inequality, food insecurity, affordable housing and health care. Some people are struggling with working from home, others are struggling with losing their home.

You might think that by mentioning all of this, I’m being “negative.” But actually, it’s the opposite.

We must design meetings that show awareness of and compassion for what people are feeling and experiencing. Once we do this, people can attend to the topic at hand.

Concretely, meetings at this moment need to give more space for feelings, especially at the beginning of the meeting. Depending on the size of the meeting, this can include time for each person to introduce themselves and check in, or including a moment to breathe and acknowledge the challenging moment that we are in as a society.

2. Who is in the meeting? And how do you want to include their thoughts and perspectives?

So you’ve brought together a diverse group of people with thoughtful perspectives who can contribute to the conversation in many different ways. Hopefully, you have brought together people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, who bring their stories and experiences to decision making.

People in your in-person or interactive virtual meetings vary in the ways that they process information and participate in the meeting. Some learn by hearing information, others are visual learners. Some prefer to learn in groups, others on their own, preferring to learn and think by working independently. Some are most interested in financial information and analysis, others love emotional and anecdotal stories.

Designing and leading meetings that reflect this creates increased participation and ownership.

For example, meetings should offer the option of real-time written collaboration in addition to video conversation: Teams can speak on Zoom and use Google Docs or Google Slides to answer questions together on virtual sticky notes. Even on a large webinar, meeting organizers can create a Google document for the group to share resources and insights.

Some people are more comfortable speaking in a small group or pair. To incorporate more perspectives in meetings, use breakout groups.

3. At the end of our time together, what would success look like?

After considering the first two questions, you’re ready to design the agenda.

Effective agendas incorporate a clear purpose. Then work backwards to think about how to structure the conversation:

  • What background information do people need to review to be informed and make decisions?
  • What roles can people in the meeting take to make better decisions?
  • What decisions must be made during your time together?

Sharing the agenda with participants ahead of time is another way of honoring their contributions and encouraging them to begin thinking about the work.

Every meeting is an opportunity to design conversations that reflect values of compassion, inclusion and change. These questions build interactive virtual meetings in which participants feel ownership of the work and excitement to move it forward.

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to the East Oakland Boxing Association.

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  • Renee Rubin Ross

    Thanks Rachael! Anything we can do to empower participants to think about meeting issues ahead of time is positive and productive.
  • Rachael Stout

    Thanks for the post! I really liked the idea to send the meeting minutes beforehand. That might be a great way to help with distractions.
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