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Why I Always Start a Meeting With a Check-In

Why I Always Start a Meeting With a Check-In

January 7, 2015

Ted Lord, Senior Partner, The Giving Practice

Many philanthropists are turning to collective action because our siloed efforts are insufficient in the face of systemic social issues that continue to scale faster than even our most promising best practices can be executed in isolation. We have tended, as is usual in philanthropy, to examine the faults and weaknesses of the systems we are trying to change, rather than digging deeper into how we might change our own practices through reflective practice and greater curiosity.

We live in a time where “tight connections” (the solution-design and execution favored by so many PowerPoints) have almost completely triumphed over “loose connections” (the co-sensing and sense-making that is given air by conversation and learning together). When we don’t make time to listen -- to the populations we may impact with white-paper driven solutions, and to each other -- we lose the elusive balance in Drucker’s dictum “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing.” The greatest benefit of working in a group is our diversity of viewpoints and approaches; groups hobble themselves when they don’t continually give attention to creating a container of trust and shared identity that invites truth-telling, hard questions, and the outlier ideas that can lead to innovation

One antidote to over-designed collaboration is the check-in. Check-ins are a way to open every gathering, whether a generative conversation or an implementation meeting. They can be as simple as asking everyone to share their current personal weather or as corrective as asking participants to share one thing from the last meeting that shifted or hasn’t sat well.

Check-ins invite greater presence. Hearing every voice up front creates a container of inclusion. It allows participants to drop in more deeply by creating a ritual where we assemble for a shared purpose, invited to acknowledge and potentially shed the energy we entered the room with. It also alerts other participants about the collective state of readiness and capacity for the work that day—a group temperature reading.

Check-ins make it personal. They reinforce identity and stage of development of a group. Check-ins remind each member to exchange their “advocacy” beret for a “stewardship” Stetson. They reinforce shared vison and goal in the face of the usual strategy and language obstacles, and remind us that diversity means not everyone approaches issues as we do.

In short, check-ins encourage folks to show up authentically, and in so doing bring their “best selves” to group endeavors that often have their share of drama and differing perceptions of urgency.

“But Ted,” you say, “we don’t have time for such tomfoolery!” Perhaps it seems that way, but failing to tend to the identity and process of a group often has consequences that take far more time and have negative results: unexpressed feelings channeled into pissing matches, word-smithing to avoid real content disagreement and participants checking out with their mobile devices.

Check-ins can serve multiple purposes depending on the needs of the group, including:

Building trusted relationships. The more we see each other as three-dimensional and the more we know of each other’s story, the greater context we have to deeply and effectively listen. Sample check-in questions to build relationships might include:

  • “An unlikely job stop along the path of your career?”
  • “A personal hero?”
  • “A book that influenced you?”
  • “What is your relationship to money?”
  • “What makes for a successful community engagement effort?”
  • “What volunteer experience was most satisfying to you and why?

Inviting mid-course correction. People process on radically different timetables.  Questions that open groups up to adjusting things in flight include:

  • “What’s coming clear for you?”
  • “What do you want to affirm most from our last meeting?”
  • “What question are you still struggling with?”
  • “Do you see any parallels from other experiences that might apply to our work?”

Reinforcing our animating vison and goal: The weeds of committee work and exigencies of collaboration can often sap the shared energy and passion unleashed by our common purpose. Question that can help relight the fire include:

  • “What are you learning?”
  • “What’s shifted when you describe our work?”
  • “What should we celebrate?”
  • “Who should we ask for help and who might want to join us?”

Leveraging our group antennae: How do we nurture group engagement and catalyze a richer shared context? Questions that can invite critical thinking and divergent opinions include:

  • “What have you been noticing in the field?”
  • “What professional reading has informed you recently?”
  • “What is giving you hope?”
  • “What do you think isn’t working even though it’s a sacred cow?”

The “201” of check-ins is the elusive “check-out” when energy is flagging, and the “301” is a fluency with continuous rounds of check-in that invite any gathering that’s heading south to self-redirect or to affirm when it’s heading north and progress has been easy, effective, and energy-giving (my high bar for any meeting).  I’ll be “checking-in” on these in future posts. In the meantime, let’s check in: how do you like to check-in? What has worked best for you when?