08/17/2023 by Marsha Little | ,

Designing Meetings That People Don’t Dread

people seated in a large meeting room

Back to school brings with it the joy of fresh starts, clean notebooks, and tidy to-do lists. But the opening of school also generally means an onslaught of meetings, and for even the most zealous of educators, those meetings can prove more draining than inspiring. I don’t think it has to be that way. Over the past decade, I’ve spent considerable time practicing bringing educators together in settings that drive community, inspire learning, and are responsive to the often-complicated emotional terrain that exists any time a group of people come together.

My fascination with meetings started years ago, when I attended two training conferences in relatively quick succession. The first was an energetic affair, full of frequent participant exercises, get-to-know-you games, table switching, videos, and stories. The facilitator was clear that we, the participants, were adults and would be treated as such. Accordingly, while the leader hoped we would be engaged, we were free to use our computers and phones and take care of other business as necessary. The energy of the conference coupled with the distractions of my own phone and email—not to mention others’—made for a somewhat frenzied few days. I learned a lot, and at the end I was exhausted.

A few months later I prepared for the second conference, focused on a similar topic but run by a different organization. Days before the conference, I received an email full of conference rules and extensive pre-work. The rules were clear: come on time, stay until the end, leave your computer in the hotel, and turn off your phone. The participants might be adults, but there were going to be structures in place to ensure our focus. I confess, I initially chafed against the rules. At the workshop, we were given assigned seats, minute-by-minute agendas, and plenty of time for reflection. We talked repeatedly to the same partners and built community at our tables. I learned a lot, and at the end I was inspired and energized.

In the intervening years, I have thought a lot about these conferences and how the different meeting structures created such radically different experiences. As I design meetings now, I do so by implementing the following four-pronged framework, which includes reflection, intentionality, and purposeful play.

When planning meetings, start with questions

As I’ve sought to optimize meeting planning, I’ve found it wise to first pose a series of internal questions, not unlike those teachers ask as they design a student learning experience:

  • What is the meeting goal and how might one design purposefully toward that goal?
  • How might one honor both the introverts and the extroverts?
  • Where is there space for reflection and synthesis of ideas?
  • How might the leader attend to the emotional safety of participants?
  • What is the ideal balance between defining “rules of engagement” and leaving participants to make their own choices about how to engage?
  • Does the meeting design facilitate creativity or control?
  • How might the leader design intentionally to hear all the voices in the room, with their varied perspectives and needs?
  • Are there planned opportunities for laughter and play?

These questions and others swirl in my mind whether I am planning a one-hour staff meeting, a festive dinner for school leaders, a half-day board workshop, or a multi-day annual retreat for colleagues.

Design each moment with intention…

Two books have been particularly valuable in reframing my thinking about the use of time when adults come together. Elena Aguilar’s “The Art of Coaching Teams” is front and center. Aguilar contends that the purpose of every adult meeting in schools (the context in which she and I work) is to learn together. When I began thinking about designing meetings as adult learning experiences, just as I already knew to design a 65-minute English class as a learning experience for 15-year-olds, I completely changed how I thought about meetings. Adults learn differently from children, but intentional design matters in both settings. Aguilar also taught me to incorporate check-ins and reflection as a matter of course and to notice and dismantle problematic power dynamics that can interfere with learning.

…including the moments before the meeting begins

More recently, I read Priya Parker’s “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters.” Parker, a professional meeting facilitator, speaks more broadly about a range of gatherings, from baby showers and dinner parties to corporate “off-sites,” political gatherings, and graduate school lectures. From Aguilar I learned to bring intention to every moment of the gathering. From Parker, I am learning to bring similar intention to what comes before the gathering starts. She writes, “90 percent of what makes a gathering successful is put in place beforehand.” From the guest list and invitation to the greeting upon arrival, to the care for the opening moments that help a participant transition from one world into another, the facilitator must be as purposeful in planning the before-moments as she is in planning the meeting itself.

Make it fun

In their text “The PD Book: 7 Habits that Transform Professional Development,” Elena Aguilar and Lori Cohen make a powerful case for play as a tool for shifting energy, building resilience, and fostering community. It took me a long time to find an authentic way to incorporate play into the meetings I design, and that’s still a learning edge. (“Playful” isn’t the first word my friends and colleagues would use to describe me.) But I’ve long been fascinated with improv, and the more improv classes I take, the more my own capacity for risk-taking and playfulness has increased. For years I began and ended the all-school meetings I led with a “dad joke.” Now, it’s second nature to build connection through an improv game at the start of a meeting, incorporate a more physical post-lunch game to re-energize a team, or—at the very least—provide mini containers of playdoh to occupy those who are prone to fidget.

Make meetings enjoyable and productive this school year

Thanks initially to Elena Aguilar and Priya Parker, I am unflinching in my beliefs about how best to convene adults. In fact, I marvel (recoil?) to think that for so many years of my professional life a meeting was just a meeting, rather than an intentionally designed opportunity to learn from and with others. Now, as I coach school leaders, how they use meeting time is one of the first things we tackle, recognizing the power of a well-crafted gathering as a vehicle for learning, building trust, and designing equitable structures and ways of interacting.

Marsha Little is a Senior Consultant, Coach, and Director of Professional Learning and Development at Carney, Sandoe & Associates. Internally she facilitates professional learning opportunities for her fellow consultants. In partnership with schools, she runs retained searches for heads of school and senior administrators, consults on a range of topics, supports current and aspiring school leaders through coaching, and facilitates administrative team and board retreats.

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