We all know most meetings are meandering, confusing time-wasters.
How to make meetings better through framing
You really can improve meetings and build a better meeting culture around you.
How the heck do you make meetings better?
This is something that I’ve ended up talking to a lot of senior coaching clients about in different formats recently. I see people coming to them for meetings and not using the time wisely, and these are people whose diaries are incredibly full — I know because they have to battle to keep their appointments with me! The practice I introduce here comes from a few patterns that I noticed in conversation with them:
- leaders making forays into collaborative ways of running meetings but not getting the results they wanted (or secretly wanting people to collaborate, ahem, in a particular direction!)
- meetings overrunning, to the detriment of the leader’s mental health/effectiveness
- leaders wanting to grow a culture of collaboration but not knowing how to really grow different behaviours and attitudes
- leaders developing into a more tuning-fork sense of being a leader, but people around them not really getting it.
This article was published in an edited form in Street Smart Awareness — a collection of practices that focus on developing in-the-moment wisdom.
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(If you’re a group dynamics nerd like me, read to the end to see the shoulders I stand on here.)
Framing The Meeting — the practice
Implemented well, Framing The Meeting allows for more productive and timely meetings that achieve their aims, but also more peace of mind for all concerned. Over time, this practice can build capacity and capability for more consciousness during meetings, if you’re interested in leading leaders.
These are the two main ways of starting with this practice.
A. Be the framing guardian
Here you are the person who in the meeting is paying attention to not only the content, but the process.
There are many aspects to this.
- Type: What type of meeting is this?
Is it a chat? Is it a consultation? Are you giving information? Is it a communal consensus-building meeting?
- Time: How much time have we got?
I always check with the other person how much time they have — sometimes things have shifted, or one or the other of us was late. It’s important to know that in advance. Also, as the process guardian, its your job to neutrally say how much time is left maybe half-way through and as you’re nearing the end of the allotted time. If things are taking longer than planned, you transparently adjust the plan.
- Outcomes and Decisions: What are you hoping is going to happen by the end of the meeting? Will there be a decision made, and if so, how?
Are there particular questions you are hoping to have answers to? Are there agreements that need to be put in place? Is it ‘just’ that you have both heard each others’ thoughts? Will there be an action plan?
If there is a decision to be made, who will be making it and how? Will you be consulting but ultimately making the decision? Will people vote? Do you have the deciding vote? If it’s by consensus, then does that mean everyone’s enthusiastic consent (ie can anyone veto it?) Or will you summarise and then check for any deep concerns, and otherwise go ahead?
- Process: What are the big process chunks?
How do you see the meeting going? Is there an input phase? Who’s going to go first? Then who? Will there be discussion? If there is a decision/plan to be made, how much time will you need to keep for that?
(Although this seems complex and unwieldy, in most situations, discussing this just takes seconds.)
- Reality check: Are we all on the same page?
If it’s been you laying all this out so far, now it’s time to (genuinely) check: Is that what the other people expected? Do they want to add to/alter the plan in any way?
So that’s how to handle this if you are going to be the process guardian. The next level up is working in a more mutual way and jointly designing the framing. Not as complex as it sounds.
B Jointly design the framing
Jointly designing the framing involves the same aspects as above, but encouraging everyone to build the framing together. Many if not most people are unaware of the process of meetings, so you may need to build their process consciousness over time via being a visible process guardian.
But if you put out feeler-questions at the beginning (“What are you hoping is going to happen by the end of this meeting? Is there a decision to be made?”) and people respond well, it can be good to get their input — maybe before yours — then co-designing the process to include everyone’s inputs.
(Honestly consider: How are you holding yourself to truly welcome co-creation? Do you have any tension around it? Some meetings need to be sharp and to the point — that’s part of your framing!)
Maybe after a time, people come to expect that when they have a meeting with you, they need to come prepared with these kinds of process thoughts. And perhaps they can then take them into their own meetings.
Again, I’m making this sound cumbersome, but it really can just be a couple of minutes at the beginning of the meeting which make sure you’re all aware of each others’ expectations. And sometimes you both agree you just want an unstructured chat and that’s what happens!
Even if you don’t have many meetings, you can practice the following even with smaller conversations.
Simple things like “We’re half-way through our time. How are we doing, do you think?” or “You said you wanted to ask me some questions and I’m aware we’re ten minutes from the end. Do you want to ask me them now, or would you prefer to continue as we are and leave them for another time?” can introduce aspects of framing without being too cumbersome.
One of the ways I started introducing these practices was by starting a meeting or conversation with “Can I just check how long you’ve got? We’ve got this booked until 11.30. Do you need to run away at that time?” Knowing in advance that there is a limited time allows you to not leave things for when the other person might be distracted.
Adding in signposting comments can be a simple way of introducing consciousness, even in a traditional meeting with an agenda as well as conversations. “So we’ve just covered points one and two… Are we still okay to move on to point three?”
I find that pausing and finding out how the other person is doing can really help bring awareness back up to the framing/process level.
An inner practice that I try to implement when coaching and facilitating is noticing when I’m hiding what I’m thinking or feeling and somehow ‘managing’ the other person. I then try and ‘step out’ of the meeting by saying something like, “I think you’ve gotten a little reticent in the past couple of minutes and I’m avoiding asking if you’re okay. Can I just check: Is everything okay?”
This level of transparency often allows a deepening of the conversation so neither party are wearing heavy masks. Even coming clean about the fact you’re practicing framing meetings better can help you do it better!
How does this sit with you? Feel free to leave a comment or ask a question!
A lot of my inspiration for these ideas is rooted in the incredible work of Sam Kaner and the Community At Work team. Their book “The Facilitator’s Guide To Participatory Decision Making” changed my life as a someone who holds the space for groups. Some of the idea of creating a process sequence and sharing it comes from my reading of Roger Schwarz, particularly his take on Unilateral vs Mutual Learning (itself an evolution of the work of Argyris and Schön, et al). He also influenced my thinking on the transparency of meta-comments (“I’m aware I’m not saying something to you, so I’m just going to come out and say it…”).