Feb 11, 2022 12 min read

The Art of Inclusive Meetings

Image of Host with Quote from Transcript

Episode 22, 18 min listen

We all have the power to be more inclusive. How about starting with the next meeting you are hosting or attending? In this episode we'll discuss the art of creating more inclusive meetings. This episode defines what it means to have an inclusive meeting and also includes practical information about how to make your next meeting more inclusive, whether you are a host or a participant.


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Ame Sanders  00:11

This is the State of Inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. I’m Ame Sanders, welcome.

-Remember A Moment You Felt Excluded

Let’s take a minute together before we start this episode today.

I’d like for you to think back and recall a time when you personally felt excluded from something–some group or some event. Maybe you weren’t invited to a party or a night out with people you felt were your friends. Perhaps it was a sports team you weren’t chosen for, maybe a work opportunity you missed out on. It could have been something big or even something really small. Might have been yesterday or a long, long time ago. I’m pretty sure that everybody that’s listening today knows what it feels like to be excluded from something. For the moment that you remembered, can you remember how it felt?

[Brief pause]

When I did this exercise, the time I was thinking about was really a long time ago. It was early in my career. I was working for a French-owned company and I was excited to be traveling to France for a workshop. As soon as we arrived in France, we were whisked off to an offsite venue–a really lovely place  in the French countryside. Having traveled all night, our small group from the US was all exhausted. I desperately craved a shower and a nap. But that wasn’t going to happen. The meeting started right away. As the meeting started, I was a little surprised–more than a little surprised–to learn, the meetings would all be conducted completely in French. Now, our hosts knew that none of the group from the US spoke French. While we also all knew that the rest of the team who were French, all spoke excellent English. During the meeting the US team moved to the back of the big room and clustered around a French colleague who thankfully was attempting to simultaneously translate what was going on for us. After a little while, the host of the meeting asked him to stop translating. Our group for the US sat in silence unable to understand what was being said and unable to participate in the meeting.

Decades later, I can still remember exactly how I felt that day. I’ve not forgotten that moment–my disappointment, how mad I was, how angry and frustrated I was. The shame that I felt that I wasn’t smart enough. Even though I’ve been taking classes, I still couldn’t speak French well enough. And that I wasn’t perceived to have any value in the meeting or any contribution to make. And all of it was really made a lot worse by the fact that we’d been traveling for nearly 18 hours, and I had almost no sleep in nearly 30 hours.

The reason I thought about this moment and decided to share this story is because the focus of today’s episode is on how we can have more inclusive meetings. Our communities and our companies invest a lot in meetings. We spend a lot of time and a lot of our lives in meetings. And as leaders, volunteers, or community activists, we’re involved in all different types of meetings with all kinds of people. So, making sure those meetings work for all of us is important. Since the time I had the experience in France, I’ve actually spent a lot of my career building better meetings. I’ve been a professional meeting facilitator and managed and led hundreds of meetings, some of them big events. I have led meetings for projects and programs that I’ve either been part of her been responsible for. I’ve led volunteer and community meetings and I’ve also coached others on facilitation and meeting techniques. Most recently, I’ve also gathered wisdom from some of my podcast guests on this question of how to have more inclusive meetings.

So, along the way, what did I learn? First, I’m far from alone in my experience of being excluded from effective participation in the meeting. It happens every day in small and in large ways, visible and less visible, intentional and unintentional, overt and covert. Before you go to the meeting, during the meeting, and yes, it even happens after the meeting. So let’s talk about the art of creating more inclusive meetings. And I do mean the art of inclusive meetings. Before we talk about meeting specifics, let me just ask you this: do you really need that meeting? Some people default to meetings for any collaboration, discussion, or information exchange. They have a lot of regularly-scheduled meetings. It’s their go-to tool for collaboration. Earlier, I spoke with Joel Dock, Planning Coordinator for Louisville, Kentucky Metro Planning and Design Services, about the practice of creating more inclusive meetings and he had this advice to share:

-Do We Need That Meeting?

Joel Dock  05:18

I keep coming back to these articles from 2010, from Strong Towns, and one of them is called Public Engagement is Worthless. One is called Public Engagement is Worse than Worthless. And the other one is called public engagement is about knowing your neighbors not planning a meeting. And then Strong Towns has a “build a better public engagement.” I’m trying to figure out how to have not meetings and try to just talk to people. I think there’s a strong pull in certain areas to have and continue to have traditional meetings. We need to go out there and we need to just talk to people when a lot of people just want to hear what we have to say. But at the same time, I think one of the things that I want to start doing and one of the things that I think is really beneficial is planners just getting out there and putting yourself out there. Getting uncomfortable a little bit and going and having smaller conversations and not trying to sell an idea, but understand people and where they came from and where they are now. If you can take from that one conversation, one person, that might share a good experience with a city official, especially a planner, I think that’s a great way to start improving public engagement and trust.

-What Is an Inclusive Meeting?

Ame Sanders  06:38

So okay, let’s say that you’ve considered various approaches to accomplish your objectives and you’ve still decided that a meeting is the best approach. Since you’re listening to this podcast, clearly you’d like for it to be inclusive. Still, you might wonder, what do I mean by inclusive meeting?

So, here’s my definition. An inclusive meeting is one where the right set of diverse meeting participants come together to achieve shared meeting objectives in an environment and within a process that allows everyone to have a voice and contribute to their highest level.

Okay, let me repeat that. An inclusive meeting is one where the right set of diverse meeting participants come together to achieve shared meeting objectives in an environment and within a process that allows everyone to have a voice and contribute to their highest level. That definition has a few pieces in it, so let’s break it down.

First, the right set of diverse meeting participants. Who is that? Well, obviously, it should include anybody whose expertise is needed to accomplish the meeting objective. But to avoid everybody thinking alike, doing what we call groupthink, it’s important that the group represent different ways of thinking, different ways of looking at the problem, different ways of processing information, and even different opinions. We would also do really well to remember the old maxim, “Don’t do anything about me, without me” which means it’s important to have around the table the voices and representation of the people who our decisions will impact and those who have the lived experience to best inform our work. If we look around the room and everybody looks like us or we know that they already agree with us, or they think like us, then we can feel pretty confident that we don’t have the right participants at the table and probably don’t even need the meeting.

The next part of the definition, come together to achieve. In a meeting by definition, we’re saying that people are coming together. That can be physically or now more often virtually. It’s the act of coming together to achieve, which is key. So, bringing a diverse group of people together can be inclusive, but it’s not a successful meeting unless it’s done in a way to achieve the shared meeting objectives. So, diversity and inclusion in itself is not the goal. The goal is achieving the shared meeting objectives in an inclusive manner.

Okay, so then there is this phrase shared meeting objectives. What does that mean? Well, this implies first that the meeting objectives are defined or clearly defined, then they’re communicated, that they’re understood, and they’re shared by all the participants. You know, that sounds so simple, but it’s really critical and a lot of people don’t even take time to define meeting objectives. It’s important that these objectives be clear in advance of the meeting to help make sure that we even bring together the right diverse set of participants. It’s also worth writing it down, and then covering it at the beginning of the meeting again just to make sure that we have the best chance that the meeting objectives are understood and shared.

So, that brings us to the rest of the definition, in an environment and within a process that allows everyone to have a voice and contribute at their highest level. Before each meeting that you host, do you ask yourself, “What kind of environment will make sure the participants have a voice and contribute at their highest level? What kind of barriers might they face? And what could limit or block their participation in the meeting?”

So, what you see is that if we really want full participation and the best level thinking from everyone in the meeting, it’s really important that we think about the meeting environment, the supports, the accommodations, and the needs that our participants might have to help them participate to their highest level. But you know, the definition also says within a process, and for me, the meeting process includes the agenda, as well as any facilitation techniques that we might use to solicit input or ensure participation. So with a diverse set of participants, we’re almost surely going to have different personalities and different participation styles. There’ll be introverts and extroverts. We’ll have individuals who have shorter or longer attention spans. Folks who are visual or aural learners. We may have people with different languages and cultures and different physical abilities. We want to design each step of our meeting process to recognize the unique diversity of our participants in that specific meeting. The key is, to me, that a thoughtlessly or poorly designed meeting process almost never yields a good level of participation or inclusion. I asked Judith Mowry, Senior Policy Advisor on equity strategies and initiatives for the City of Portland, for some ideas or tips that she might have to create more inclusive meetings. And here’s what she shared.

-Starting with a Check-In

Judith Mowry  12:12

One of the things I think is really important as a longtime facilitator is to start meetings with a check in. So often in a business, or work situation, or government, we just jump into the business. I find that if you welcome everybody’s voice into the room that you have started in a more inclusive place. You can do this even with large groups of people. When I’m doing a large training or meeting, what I will often do is have people turn to each other in twos and answer a question (e.g., Would you rather be sticky or itchy if you have to be one for the rest of your life?) or tell a quick story about something. Tell a quick two-minute story about vacation. Once everybody’s voice is in the room, it just really creates a more inclusive environment. So that’s one of the ways that I think you can make more inclusive meetings. And then obviously, as you think about facilitating, being sure who’s being heard, how they’re being heard. I really think being interactive and some of the ways that trainers are trained around recognizing different learning styles. So making sure that the meetings are set up so that you’re not losing the reflective observers who might need a minute to process what’s going on. That the space isn’t being dominated by only certain voices. One way to do that is on any topic, just go around and ask people you haven’t heard from. Ame, I haven’t heard from you yet. I’m really interested in what you think about what we’re talking about.

Ame Sanders  13:48

Judith’s comments remind us of just how important it is to have people feel welcome, get every voice into the room, and actively facilitate and encourage the participation of everybody.

-What Can You Do as a Participant?

So maybe you’re thinking about this time, “You know, gosh, I’m only a meeting participant, I don’t host meetings. So, what can I do to be more inclusive?”

You can do a lot more than you might think.

Make a choice and an intention to be part of more inclusive meetings. That means think intentionally about what it means to be part of an inclusive meeting and what your role in that meeting would be. You can encourage and lobby for an inclusive design to any decision process or meeting that you’re a part of. If you think somebody is left off the participant list will then ask if you can bring them or maybe suggest some other individuals that might make the group more fully rounded out and offer to help identify them and bring them to the meeting.

-Set Your Intention for Inclusion

But sometimes we don’t really have a choice to influence or even a choice of whether or not to attend the meeting. In those cases, you can still make the best of every meeting you’re in. Again, set your intention. Once you’re there, be aware, sensitive, and empathetic to those around you. You have expectations for the meeting, but everybody else does too. So, try to understand and respect each participant’s needs and expectations. Maybe the most important thing is to manage yourself. That’s the hardest part for me sometimes. Manage your volume, your level of dominance, your participation. If you’re too loud, be quiet for a while. If you’re too quiet, speak up. If only a few voices are being heard, be the one to solicit the input and ideas of others. Be sure that you’re open and inclusive when it comes to ideas. Make room for all different kinds of ideas, different from your own, even if they don’t make sense to you don’t shut anybody down. Realize how easily you can shut someone down, especially with somebody who might not be used to having their ideas heard. You can shut someone down with your body language, a quick or snide or curt response, a look or even looking away, a smirk, a laugh. So, pay attention to your responses.

If you bring ideas and answers too quickly, slow down. Make sure you make time for others to be able to reflect and formulate their own ideas. Speed can be its own subtle way of shutting other people down.

Just as there are many types of meetings, there are also many ways to make those meetings more inclusive. All of us who host, facilitate, or participate in meetings can play a role in making it possible for everyone in the meeting to have a voice and contribute at their highest level. If you’re interested in learning more about how to have more inclusive meetings, I’ve included a printable quick reference guide in this episode’s show notes.

As we wrap up, I’d like you to think back to the scenario you imagined from earlier. You remember just how frustrating and disappointing it felt for you to be excluded or left out. How that feeling can stick with you, in my example, even after 20 years.

So, let me leave you with this thought. You may have heard me say it before:

Diversity is a fact,

Inclusion is a choice, and

Equity is by design.

-We Can All Choose Inclusion

We all have the power to choose to be more inclusive. You know, it may seem like a small thing, but the next meeting you’re planning to host or planning to attend is a great place to start to be more inclusive. Practicing the art of inclusive meetings requires three basic things: intention, empathy, and developing our process skills or what I would call “meeting muscles” to be more inclusive. Each of us can personally make the choice to be more inclusive and we can start today. How about starting with the next meeting on your calendar or the next meeting you’re planning?

Along the way, together, we can build a more inclusive world one meeting at a time.

This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time, and if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others or leave us a review. We’d love your comments. Thanks so much for listening.


Host: Ame Sanders

Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson

Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski

Sound: FAROUT Media

Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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