It’s been about two years since the first time I was in a large group meeting and someone led a grounding activity. We turned off our Zoom cameras and one of the facilitators led us in a breathing exercise. I didn’t get the point.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with the opening minutes of meetings. For a while, the culture of the organization I was in was openly anti-ice-breaker. Those corny activities felt silly and lacked value when compared to the overflowing agenda of “business” items. And yet, I know there is value in a purposeful approach to how we start meetings. In the last year and a half, I’ve finally done the work of better understanding how different moves impact the meeting space. In contrast to strategies suggested by many of the business articles on the internet, the techniques I share below don’t offer you greater efficiency or a chance to get through your ambitious agenda faster. But for me they offer some valuable trade-offs. I don’t claim to be an expert here, so I’ve drawn on the perspectives of colleagues to help share about a few different ways to begin meetings.
A grounding activity is one that helps participants in the meeting to situate themselves in the space and to become more mentally and physically present. We move between meetings and activities at a rapid pace, so grounding can help us make that transition mentally. Nicole Hindes, Director of the Human Services Resources Center, helps us understand why grounding activities can be effective: “starting a meeting with a grounding is helpful for me because it reminds me that I’m a body, that we all have bodies. Much as I’d love to quick-transition between meetings and conversations with others, the reality is that I’m affected by each person I talk with. Sometimes I walk into a meeting or conversation and [may] still be carrying a heaviness or tension (or other energy) that hasn’t dissipated from my body from the conversation space immediately before. Taking the time to ground (and offering the same time and space to others) can help everyone find the attention and inner-resourcing that feels right for the people in front of us. Working in academia, where the cartesian-split prizes my mind over my body, means that I’m regularly fighting pressure to ignore my feelings and my body. A grounding reconnects me to the wisdom available to me in my body and slows me down enough to get curious about the wisdom in other’s bodies too.”
For a check-in, each person in the meeting shares what is “up” for them. For large meetings, this might happen in pairs or small groups. These check-ins don’t require a prompt, just an invitation to share what you are comfortable sharing about how you’re doing in or out of work. Colleague Emily Bowling, Director of Community Engagement & Leadership, offers these example prompts: “What do you want to share with others that you’re bringing in today? How are you arriving into the space today? What’s on your mind/heart as you enter our meeting today?” She describes the value of these check-ins: “I find starting staff meetings with an opportunity for each staff member to check-in is a valuable way to ensure we are relationally connecting and creating space to understand what is on the heart and minds of our colleagues – to know what they are carrying with them in that moment.” For me, the value of these check-ins clicked the other day as someone offered up the connection between how they were doing and how they might show up in the meeting. It makes sense that we carry into a meeting what is on our minds and in our hearts and bodies. Naming that for others might help them understand the way you show up in a meeting.
Ice-breakers are prompts or activities that warm-up the conversation and bring up the energy level in a room. Examples include prompts that ask folks to share or weigh in on a topic (e.g., “what’s the best flavor of Girl Scout Cookie?” or “share one of your office pet peeves”). There are a lot of tools to do this, but offering a simple prompt for folks to respond to can be a way to get to know colleagues in a light-hearted way. More time-intensive activities like the sentence picture game or the 30 circles activity can spark creativity and energy for the rest of that meeting. Challenge Course Coordinator & Instructor Mark Belson describes it as “connection before content:” “connect[ing] and shar[ing] random bits of innocuous information with each other helps participants to feel a sense of collaboration while also getting to know more about each other and our group. These often times simple and brief moments allow us to have our voice heard and also to hear the voices of others. And if we can also share in laugh or a feeling of connectedness, then all the better.”
Anna Bentley, Administrative Program Assistant for the ASC&WC, calls this the “aimless opener:” deliberate and intentional space left for a conversation that meanders where the group wants to go, leaving open-ended space for relationship building, conversation, and sharing. Anna says, “Have you ever gone to a meeting early and started chatting with other folks in the room while waiting for everyone to arrive? It’s easy to get into a deep discussion that takes up the first few minutes of a meeting. The facilitator can create space for organic conversation to unfold so colleagues can build relationships. There’s no end goal, pre-determined conversation topic, or requirement to participate. Aimless openers aren’t structured and often aren’t planned, but that doesn’t mean it is time wasted. They can still be incredibly valuable moments for teams to build connections.” For me, this is an intriguing possibility – leaving time in the meeting turns over the conversational space to the group to use in a way that meets their needs. It’s worth noting as well that for those more accustomed to a traditional meeting agenda, they might wonder why the “meeting” hasn’t started. This technique and the other strategies can benefit from transparency – it can be helpful for meeting participants to know how the opening minutes of a meeting are going to be structured and what they might get out of that time together.
I hope these insights into ways to start meetings prompt your thinking around the types of spaces you can create in meetings you facilitate. You can explore additional activity ideas with the resources below. Also, please feel free reply if you have other meeting strategies or ideas you think facilitators would benefit from.