meetings

Make Meetings More Human: The Check-In

You’ve seen this happen, probably multiple times each day.

A group of people come into a room and sit down around a table just before a meeting. Barely looking at each other, they might mumble a greeting but give their devices their full attention. When the appointed time arrives, they launch in to the agenda items and get to work.

It is likely that each of those individuals was not waiting around all day for that one meeting to begin, doing nothing else, hearing nothing else, experiencing nothing else. Quite the opposite.

From the moment alarms went off that morning, they have each had a series of experiences. They may be worried about an ailing child or anticipating the visit of an old friend. They may have learned of unexpected team challenges or held difficult conversations. They may have stepped out of their comfort zone, or received a pile of perplexing data that needs analysis, or experienced the exhilaration of a success. Certainly their devices have provided a constant stream of up-to-the minute news about job, family, or world affairs. Their minds, bodies, and emotions are constantly engaged and bombarded.

The point is something is going on with each and every person around that table. Sometimes those things are no big deal, and sometimes they are incredibly important. They may be distracted, energized, worried, consumed, fidgety, worn down, amused, haunted, or hungry.

So, want to make meetings more human? Begin with a Check-In. That is, begin by making time to check in on how the people around the table are doing.

“But we don’t have time for that!”

Respectfully…Wrong!

We don’t have time to waste meeting ineffectually. And the Check-In can help us be more effective. Here’s how.

The Check-In.

The Check In was introduced to me by Edie Seashore, my mentor and dear friend. A brilliant, pre-imminent organizational consultant, theorist, teacher, leader, and writer, Edie instituted the Check-In for all the teams she worked with from the most powerful executive teams to classrooms of people in training workshops to tactical work groups. She insisted on the Check-In, as well as the Check Out. We will get to that in another post.

What is a Check-In?

A Check-In is a simple routine of pausing at the beginning of each meeting to “check-in” with each person and allowing the opportunity for individuals to share anything about how they are doing in that present moment.

The Check-In can be calibrated to the group’s purpose, the time available, and the work at hand.

  • Convening a group of 10 people for an hour from across your organization to resolve an issue? Take 5 minutes for a Check-In to understand anything that might help or impede the work of the next hour.

  • Launching a full day training or facilitated planning process? Take the first thirty minutes to check-in to build trust and collaboration for learning or crucial conversations.

  • Launching a new project team that will be working together closely for the next 18 months? Invest in a full morning to do a thorough Check-In, to form a strong base for your work, and then use shorter Check-Ins as the group begins to work day in and day out.

Why is a Check-In helpful?

When we meet together as a group for any purpose, we are not void of other human experiences. We walk into the room in a particular physical, mental and emotional state having just had some other experiences that are with us. Some of those experiences may have prepared us well to be in this room and do the work at hand. Other experiences may leave us distracted, drained or distraught.

Whatever the case, we do not leave those things at the door. They are with us. This isn’t a matter of just being “professional.” We can try to suppress and ignore these things. We can try to pretend nothing else in the world is happening except what’s in that room, on the present agenda. But because we are human, those things can influence us and our engagement and contribution.

The attempt to function in a group while ignoring ourselves and suppressing our human experience is harmful and ineffectual. It makes it more difficult to focus and get the rest of the work done. Instead, providing an opportunity to check-in and disclose, “how we are in this present moment” helps us better function in the group, helps us support each other, know each other, and builds bridges of relationship and trust between team members.

Examples of Checking-In

Here is an example of a check-in at a one hour meeting I recently led.

I calibrated the Check-In as the meeting began by saying, “We have an hour for this meeting today. Let’s take 5 minutes for the 10 of us to check-in and let each other know how we are in this present moment.” I explained that we all just came from other experiences and it can help a group to function better if we know what’s up with the other team members.

I led the way by sharing that while I was generally having a good, busy day, I’d just learned some difficult news about my son’s upcoming custody hearing for his children, my grandchildren. I was worried and sick at heart. Team members responded by voicing concern and empathy.

Another person then felt comfortable to share that her grandparent had just passed away that weekend, and this was still heavy on her heart and mind. Again, expressions of compassion were offered.

Others described a day packed with meetings, missing lunch, a routine day without anything too significant, and excitement for the purpose of the meeting.

With this five minute investment, we had better focus, connection, and trust. We went on to have a very productive, creative meeting where everyone was engaged and contributing actively.  

Thanks to Check-Ins at the start of meetings, I’ve seen the following:

  • A group rustled up a protein bar and juice for someone who missed lunch and whose energy was flagging.

  • Group members understood why one person was monitoring their phone due to a family concern. This awareness avoided misinterpreting phone monitoring as inattention.

  • A group gave a busy leader who’d gone from meeting to meeting all day long a chance to pause and breath for a minute, and so he could shift focus and become present.

  • A sick team member was supported to go home with a sense of compassion for their well-being.

  • A group realized that another issue was more urgent and needed to be addressed first and so adjusted their agenda and focus for their meeting.

None of this would’ve happened if the group had just started in and “got to work” without the Check-In.

The Check-In is one way we can actually meet each other when we meet. And in this way, we can be more effective in both our meetings and in our work together for the long term.

Because here’s the good news for those of us who are human, which is all of us: Building relationships actually helps us to do better work.

Building relationships IS getting to work, and that can start with a Check-In.