Engage Me

Written by Gerry Lewis for MEETING Magazine, 2015



A meeting is like technology: When it’s working, it’s great! When it’s not working, everything grinds to a halt, and even the smallest task takes what seems like forever to complete.

While IT issues are beyond our realm of control, we have complete control over whether a meeting is a success or a failure. One of the best measures of the success of a meeting is participation by all attendees.

Participation at a meeting can be defined in many ways; however, for me, it means two things:
• That people are contributing in some way.
• That people are engaged and paying attention.

Participation is easy to define, yet potentially difficult to realize. The reason: Not everyone communicates in the same way. Some people love the spotlight and will have lots to say. Others tend to shy away from having the spotlight on them and are happy to just “listen and leave.”
Here are some effective ways to encourage participation from everyone in the room:

EXPECTATIONS
Research has shown that adults learn and function best with structure and guidance. Setting a clear agenda and an expectation of outcomes creates structure, which guides behavior. Clearly communicate in advance that all participants should come to the meeting with ideas, stories, experiences or challenges. This will set the correct expectation for participation. If you don’t ask for it, you definitely won’t get it. Email participants these expectations of engagement with good notice, but not too far in advance. I recommend about three to five days before the meeting, with a one-day reminder prior to the meeting.

NEGOTIATE
At the start of your meeting, let all attendees know that the success of this meeting relies on input from everyone. Inviting input and expressing the need for ideas and opinions from all sides will ensure that even the quietest person will feel safe sharing. After you have negotiated your position, ask the room if they are willing to share with you. Thank them for this. You have created an environment that is safe for participation.

GAUGE
As the facilitator of the meeting, you have many roles: to keep track of time, move the agenda items along, capture notes, etc. However, an important role for you, and one that is often forgotten by even seasoned facilitators, is to gauge the room for non-verbal gestures – nodding of heads implies agreement, a slight hand-raise or leaning in indicates that they have something to say, and looking at others for their reactions could indicate that an individual is trying to see if others agree with the speaker. A good facilitator should be able to notice non-verbal cues, and then invite feedback from an individual or the group based on these cues.

The difference between a great facilitator and one who just shows up is in their ability to take even the tiniest of thoughts from one person and weave that thought through the rest of the group to end up with a well thought out, collective and actionable idea.

ASK
I have always found that one of the best ways to get participation is to simply ask for it. Ask them to raise their hands. Ask them for their “gut reaction.” Ask them for more details. Ask them to rate their agreement 1 to 5 on a Post-It. Even quiet and shy people are willing to participate when the task is easy and invites their opinion.

GIVEAWAYS Having some fun giveaways for anyone who shares is another way to motivate involvement. Make it fun. Keep it light. We’re never too old for prizes!

ENCOURAGE
Being validated as someone who adds value is the most rewarding gesture you can do as a facilitator of meetings. Encourage quieter participants by thanking them for their input – this will more than likely generate more. Encouraging more vocal participants is also necessary; after all, they are usually the greatest contributors. Good facilitators need to know how to ensure vocal participants get their turn and quieter participants get their air time.

One of my most memorable lessons as a communicator was during a facilitation skills course I took back in the early ‘90s. The instructor said, “The difference between a great facilitator and one who just shows up is in their ability to take even the tiniest of thoughts from one person and weave that thought through the rest of the group to end up with a well thought out, collective and actionable idea.” Remember that and you’re well on your way to engaging the team!