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The Importance of Inclusive Meetings

May 19, 2021

Organizations have recently started evaluating their company cultures and considering their level of inclusivity. Many leaders have made great strides in showing that all their employees are valued and heard.

One of the best places for a company to demonstrate this inclusive culture is in meetings. 

That’s because culture is more than a statement on a website. Culture is set by what happens when a group of people get together. And there’s nothing more group-oriented than a meeting. At least, not in the corporate world. 

That’s why it’s critical for organizations to take a good look at the inclusivity of their meetings. 

We’ve written this little post to help you have the most inclusive meetings possible. 

What Does Inclusion Actually Mean?

Whether you’re reading Forbes, the Harvard Business Review, or just seeing posts on Linkedin, you’ve probably noticed the growth of content around inclusion. 

It’s sort of becoming one of those corporate buzzwords that get pushed by executives who can’t always provide a clear definition: “Uh, it’s like… including people and stuff?” That’s not quite gonna cut it, boss. We’re gonna need a little more than that. 

Inclusion, in its simplest form, means giving everyone a seat at the table, no matter who they are. Inclusive meetings happen when every team member feels like they have a chance to contribute to the overall conversation, or at least that people like them are represented in decision-making.

Practicing inclusivity isn’t just about trying to get more voices to speak up. It’s about trying to get the leadership to listen to all the people on their team without any biases. 

On paper, it doesn’t sound that complex, right? Just listen to more people! But this has proven to be more challenging than you’d think. 

Gathering a large group of people and covering every key point has enough challenges as it is. Ensuring that you hear from a variety of perspectives just adds to the difficulty. 

But a few small changes can lead to massive improvements. 

Company-Wide Adoption Starts With Leadership

Like any large-scale change in a company, adoption starts at the top. 

Business leaders – whether executives, directors, managers, or senior staff members – are the people who drive change in any organization, and they’re typically the ones facilitating the meetings. They set the agenda items, and ultimately, they handle all decision-making. 

That means that even if the team has a passion for inclusivity, the leaders need to step up and lead the way towards inclusive meetings, and that starts with preparation. 

4 Things to Do to Prepare for an Inclusive Meeting

  1. Send out meeting agenda at least 24 hours in advance

Not everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas or feedback off the cuff. Some people need time to process the information before sharing their own ideas. Sending out the key points ahead of time ensures that they can come to the meeting prepared and be more ready to participate. 

  1. Invite a diverse group of people that can contribute different perspectives

Research shows that diversity has a lot to offer corporations. Groupthink shutters in the face of diversity because the group becomes less homogenized. People grow as they get introduced to new ideas and points of view. Everyone benefits from hearing other perspectives. 

But there’s an important piece here that will make or break the meeting: the safety of the room.

 A Harvard Business Review study found that many women feel so unheard in meetings that they completely shut down. Others talk about the fact that they’re not even invited despite their high positions in the company. Similar studies show that people of color and other minority groups have had similar experiences. 

Inclusivity, therefore, is a twofold issue: offering a place in the meeting and fostering a space where everyone feels safe enough to speak up. 

  1. Don’t invite too many people

As much as you want to include as many perspectives as possible, there is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen. We’ve all been in those meetings where all we do is think about how little we needed to be there. 

Hosting a meeting with a smaller group of carefully selected people can eliminate that issue.

Think of the meeting participants as representatives of different teams or departments, and try to keep the invite list to a minimum.  

  1. Budget enough time (but not too much!) 

If time really is money, then most meetings act like a kid with their rich dad’s credit card. No concern for a budget. 

Some of this comes down to the idea of set times. We naturally assume something should be scheduled with a nice round number – an hour or hour and a half or something similar – even if it only takes eight minutes to get the information out. 

Think about the meeting agenda and consider how long it will take to get the key points across with enough time for responses. Keep track of the time as the meeting progresses and make sure things are staying on schedule.

How to Host an Inclusive Meeting

The facilitator’s preparations help set the meeting up for success, but they still have to actually put the meeting on, too. Hosting an inclusive meeting comes down to intentionality before, during, and after the meeting. Here a handful of things you can do:

  1. Use equal seating if in-person

    The increase in virtual meetings makes this tool a little tricky, but as the pandemic settles down, in-person gatherings are making their way back into the corporate world. In these spaces, seating is everything. 

    Make the meeting feel even by eliminating any “preferable” seating. Avoid stacking people to eliminate “front-rowers,” those quick-to-speak extroverts that may (unintentionally) intimidate the introverts in the meeting. 

    Instead, opt for a set up that naturally leans toward a discussion with no clear focal point. If you’ve got remote workers dialing from Vowel or a similar platform, don’t push them to the corner or throw them on a big screen. Consider how you can keep them engaged and comfortable as well. It can be awkward to chime in remotely, so check-in on them specifically every once in a while to make sure they have a chance to speak as well. 

  2. Greet each attendee in a friendly manner

    A friendly greeting sets the tone for the meeting and can help the introverts break out a little bit.  

    Meetings can often feel cold and lifeless. They function as a necessity, and meeting leaders often reflect this atmosphere by keeping things formal and to the point. 

    This isn’t always a bad thing. You want to keep everyone on task and ensure everything gets touched on. But at the same time, people rarely speak up when they feel uncomfortable. A simple friendly greeting will mitigate the discomfort far better than if the facilitator checks their email until everyone has come in.

  3. Talk about ground rules

    Setting a few key ground rules can help establish order and structure for an inclusive meeting. 

    Rules may include things like

    – Don’t talk over another person

    – Mute yourself when working remotely and not speaking

    – Be open to differing perspectives

    – Offer respect to all participants.

    Clearly communicating these rules will emphasize their value and make them easier to implement. Some facilitators may decide to send the rules out beforehand so people know them going into the meeting.

  4. Review meeting agenda

    Doing a quick review of the agenda items will help refresh everyone’s mind on the topic at hand, giving all people an equal starting point.

    The keyword here is “review” though. To optimize the meeting time, leaders can send a detailed agenda ahead of time. The review can then serve as a refresher before jumping in.  

  5. Zero tolerance for interruptions

    This one’s not complicated. No one likes being interrupted, and meeting facilitators have a responsibility to eliminate the number of interruptions in the meeting. 

    Part of the critical nature of this comes down to the fact that the most dominant voices typically get heard. Minority voices are more likely to be interrupted, and will therefore go unheard. An inclusive meeting will never happen when leaders allow interrupters to cut off other voices.

  6. Pass the scribe role every meeting

    This tip plays a few critical functions for inclusive meetings. 

    For starters, it ensures that everyone feels involved at some point. Getting chosen to take notes may feel like a big deal to leadership, but it does show that you trust and value the notetaker.

    It also allows introverts to get involved without forcing them to speak up or step out of their comfort zone. 

    Lastly, it can be a great way to silence interrupters. If you notice someone constantly chiming in, set them up as the scribe for the next meeting and see if it helps. Often, they will be too preoccupied to interrupt. In the best cases, they may take the silence they practiced while scribing into future meetings, too. It doesn’t always happen, but we can dream, right? 

  7. Call on non-vocal people

    Another useful tool to get people to talk is to simply call on them, but there are good and bad ways to do this. 

    For instance, shyer employees may not want to be put on the spot to answer a specific question. If there is a clear right and wrong answer, some people may feel embarrassed and buckle under the pressure, even if they know the correct response. 

    Instead, try calling on people for feedback. “Do you have anything to add?” Or other open-ended questions like that. 

  8. Acknowledge great contributions

    Who doesn’t like a little pat on the back every once in a while?

    You don’t have to hand out awards after every meeting or anything, but a small bit of encouragement will go a long way in promoting inclusivity. 

    Specific acknowledgment makes people feel heard and appreciated, which makes those people feel more comfortable speaking up at the next meeting. 

  9. Set clear next-steps for each individual

    Every meeting participant should leave with a clear idea of where they go from here. This can include action items or ways to implement the communicated content, but whatever it is, make sure that no one feels lost or left out. 

    The goal is to avoid that question so many have at the end of a meeting: “why was I part of that?” Usually, the underlying assumption is that the information was for other people, but not the person asking the question, resulting in an isolated feeling. 

    That’s the opposite of inclusivity, and leaders can easily avoid that problem by making sure every team member has a clear understanding of next steps. 

Following Up at Inclusive Meetings 

Inclusivity can’t end once the meeting is over. The follow up process carries just as much weight as what happens in the conference room, and there are a few valuable tips that can promote inclusivity:

  1. Thank participants for their contributions.
  2. Send out notes in a timely manner.
  3. Solicit additional comments if not everything was discussed.
  4. Reiterate action items to individual owners. 
  5. Set deadlines for next steps. 

These simple steps show that meeting leaders value the contributions of all participants.

How Vowel Helps Promote Inclusive Meetings 

Keeping track of all these moving parts can feel challenging, but inclusivity doesn’t have to be complicated. 

Vowel exists to make meetings better. Our video conferencing enables users to easily plan, host, transcribe, search, and share their meetings.  

The tool empowers facilitators to focus on hosting an inclusive meeting. Preplanned agendas help everyone stay on track. Clearly marked action items ensure that no one gets left in the dust when it comes to what happens next. 

Team leaders can also review their recorded and transcripted meetings, offering insight into what the meeting actually looks like. Nothing shows you how inclusive the meeting actually was better than getting to see for yourself. You might find that certain people never spoke up on that other chat boxes spoke way too often. Take that data, learn from it, and make improvements for your next meeting. 

No tool can replace the drive and desire for inclusivity, though. We can help you implement that passion, but at the end of the day, the organization’s leadership has to value inclusive meetings. 

Inclusivity will lead to meaningful insights from all members of your team. Hosting inclusive meetings is a great place to start, and it doesn’t take much change before you start seeing the benefits.

, Head of Growth Marketing

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