Humans have a fundamental need to belong.

In a recent session of one of our leadership programs, one of the participants thanked both us and the group for “not making this as socially awkward as I thought it was going to be”.  While we all had a good laugh from his remark, it got me thinking about how we make that happen and how I can share what we do with you so that you can make sure your creating a space where everyone feels welcome and included, so that they’re comfortable enough to participate.

If you’re pulling people together (it doesn’t matter why), you should know that someone in your group is dreading it.  Someone doesn’t “do” groups.  Someone would rather sit at their desk and just get e-mailed the notes after the fact.  There is someone who panics at the thought of being asked to respond to a question or to give their thoughts to the topic at hand.  Someone who doesn’t share personal things about themselves.  It's important to be aware of that.  Acknowledge it. 

If you are someone (like me) who gets overly excited about a group situation, stop for a few minutes and try stepping into that perspective.  Imagine what it would be like not getting excited or looking forward to this upcoming meeting?  What might you be thinking?  Who will you talk to?  What am I going to be asked?  Will I have to say anything?  What will people think if I don’t say anything? 

Once you have spent some time in that perspective, what can you do to make sure everyone feels welcome and comfortable to contribute? 

Glad you asked.

Send the Agenda.  Send it out before the meeting.  It gives everyone a heads up on what the meeting is about.  If you’re someone who leans on the quieter side, you have an opportunity to put your thoughts together before being asked to speak.  If it’s a meeting that includes breaks, when are they?  People will appreciate knowing that they will have an opportunity to check e-mail or make a quick call, hopefully encouraging them to be more present during the meeting.

Arrive Early.  You might be thinking, “That’s impossible. Our meetings are back-to-back.”  First, consider not scheduling things that are literally back-to-back.  Second, excuse yourself 5 minutes early.  Be ready so that when the first person arrives you can give them your attention.  Introduce yourself. 

Play Music.  Fill the space with something other than silence.  If you’re someone who isn’t looking forward to this, being the first to arrive in a space filled with silence can be intimidating.  What kind of music?  Here’s a play list I created that has a little bit of everything.  Feel free to use it.  (Playlist Link: https://spoti.fi/2qF7tYJ)

Have snacks.  If you’re in our space at any time of day, we have food available.  We have coffee brewed and ready to go, we’ve got a tea kettle and a drawer full of tea. Our refrigerator is filled with sparkling water and an assortment of soda.  We've got yogurt, granola, strawberries and grapes.  (If you really want to impress, cut the grapes up into little bunches so that people will actually eat them.)  We have a tub of snacks.  Food and snacks are something we all eat every day, something we all have in common, making it an easy thing to make small talk over.  Think of this as the warm up conversation to the real conversation that you pulled them together for.  

Be Flexible.  If the conversation is flowing and the group is really engaged – let it go.  Don’t stop it because you’re over time on that piece in the agenda.  Make adjustments and trim minutes in other spaces to make sure that you do end on time.   We recently demonstrated flexibility by taking the group outside for an activity.  It’s been a rough winter in St. Louis and it was the first sunny, warm day in what felt like months.  We had the activity set up inside, but quickly realized how much the group just wanted to enjoy the weather.  Sun for the win!

Be Willing to Go First.  This has never failed me.  Whether it’s an ice breaker, during the check-in, a personal story, a time I screwed up – go first.  If you’re willing to put yourself out there as the leader or the facilitator, you’ll start building trust with the group and it inspires others to follow your lead.

These are some of the ways that we work to create safe, “not socially awkward” meetings at our office.  What are some of the things you do?