When I learned to canoe, the first things I was taught was how to enter and leave a canoe and what to do if the canoe turned over. I was told that if I didn’t enter the canoe properly or leave the canoe properly I could sink the canoe.
I then thought of meetings and how often we omit the beginning and end of the meeting, not thinking at all about how we enter and leave the meeting. We jump right into the heart of the matter, before we know who we will be working with or what we are trying to accomplish. Canoes that start this way go nowhere; the same is true for meetings.
A good beginning helps people feel welcome and connects them to each other and the work. This creates what psychologists call psychological safety. In order for a meeting to be productive, meeting participants must feel safe enough to do the work. It is important to create a climate where people are not afraid of looking stupid, or worried that they will lose their job if they speak up.
We scan for fear ten times more than we do for rewards. Humans are built to be on the lookout for danger. The first thing we do when entering a new situation is to determine if it is safe. Our brains scan for threat ten times more often than they do for rewards. Neuroscience tells us that the innovative, collaborative part of the brain lights up when we feel safe. If you want your meetings to be innovative, collaborative experiences, then participants must conclude that the environment is safe enough to do the work.
When people don’t feel safe they shut down. A classic example of what happens when it is not safe enough to speak up is the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Initially, an engineer who recognized the potential danger that was present when the insulating foam broke loose spoke about it to others. He soon got the message that he shouldn’t keep bringing up this issue and decided it was not safe enough to press the issue. The result: the astronauts died reentering the earth’s atmosphere. We will never know what might have happened had he pressed the matter or if others had listened to him.
The other common mistake is how we leave the meeting. Just like my canoe, if I don’t leave properly, no matter how great the trip, it will end by sinking the boat.
Many meetings are jam-packed, leaving little or no room to even think about how we end the meeting. We work until the last minutes, then say see you next week. We think we understand the decisions and who will do what, but as we walk out we say I heard Mary say she would do that and Jane says no I am doing that and Sydney says I thought John had that one.
We complain that the meeting went on too long, the leader was boring, and Mary talked too much. We wonder why we were talking about the mix-up in marketing when it had nothing to do with our meeting.
A good ending reviews the decisions that were made, identifies the next steps, and provides time to reflect on the meeting experience by asking questions such as, “Was this time well spent?” and “How can we be more effective next time we meet?” A good ending provides a sense of completion and builds energy for the next time you meet.
Recently I was facilitating a meeting about the vision for a new hospital complex. In attendance were physicians, staff, and the architects. During the break I complained to one of the architects about the hotel meeting room we were using and how it made it difficult for people to meet effectively. He replied that from an architect’s viewpoint, how people enter a space and how they leave a space is as important as what happens in the space. Remember his words next time you meet.