How to Run Inclusive Meetings
Peer review and feedback season is well upon us, and one of the most
frustrating pieces of feedback I’ve received (and regrettably given) is
“you should talk more in meetings.”
$PERSON should speak up more. They alway have good, thoughtful input,
and I think that $PERSON would be more impactful if they contributed
more in meetings.
I got something along these lines when I was starting out as a
developer. This feedback insidiously conflates a mix of external
factors (how the meetings are run) with internal ones (I am, admittedly
on the quieter side) and puts the blame entirely on the individual.
For managers who see this feedback for their direct reports and notice
that they’re quiet in meetings, take a moment to step back and reflect
on why this individual isn’t participating. There are a lot of reasons
why individuals may not effusively express their thoughts or feedback,
and telling someone to just “talk more” often isn’t useful feedback.
Some example reasons that run through my head (consciously and
subconsciously) that might keep me from saying something are:
- Do I have enough context on this topic? Was I given enough time to
- Are there strong personalities in the meeting? Is someone doing most
of the talking?
- Is there a high cost to being wrong? (Do I want to sound stupid in
front of an exec?)
- How is criticism/disagreement handled? Do individuals “Yes, and…” each other or just shut ideas down?
- How are ideas attributed and recognized? Will my ideas be ignored
initially then restated by someone else?
It’s the meeting moderator’s job to both create a psychologically safe
environment and ensure that participants have an equal opportunity to
contribute. Shaping the environment that meetings happen in helps to
lower the barrier for people to contribute in meetings by hopefully
eliminating entire classes of extrinsic factors that may dissuade
Meetings are often highly visible, decision-making and ideation forums.
By making sure all participants have an equal opportunity to
participate, you are helping to create an inclusive culture. Effective
meetings generally don’t run themselves, and fostering an inclusive
environment is required for getting the most effective interactions out
of a diverse set of participants.
Here are a few things that I’ve found work well when running meetings:
Send out an agenda
Let’s start with the fact that I’m not going to open my mouth until
I’m 90% sure of the entirety of what I’m about to say.
“So,” Rands in Repose
Not everyone has the same threshold for when they decide to jump in
with their thoughts on a subject. Coming up with an agenda with
discussion topics and any relevant context and scope levels the playing
field so everyone can feel more comfortable that they’ve prepared
One pattern I’ve seen work well
(h/t mudge) is PAL (Purpose, Agenda,
Limit), but they don’t need to be super fancy:
Purpose: Retrospective on Project Honey Farm (Context: <link>) Agenda: * Welcome (5 min) * Brainstorming exercise (15 min) * Discussion (20 min) * Summary & determine action items (5 min) Limit: 45 minutes
Starting a meeting by briefly talking through the agenda, goals, and
expectations from the meeting gets everyone on the same page.
If there are multiple topics for discussion, set time limits for each
to maintain a focused discussion; it’s easier to stay on track with
three 15-minute discussions rather than one 45-minute block. For the
moderator, this also creates natural breaks to stop runaway bike
shedding or a single
individual from dominating the conversation.
I find it incredibly challenging to both talk and take notes. I
recommend that the moderator take notes since they aren’t as active of
a participant and are already responsible for understanding the flow of
the discussion and guiding it.
For recurring meetings, it can be useful to have a note-taking rotation
to distribute responsibilities across the group so that over time
everyone has a chance to participate.
At work, we generally circulate a shared, collaborative notes document
in the agenda or at the beginning of the meeting . This way, folks
can follow along and fill in anything the note taker may miss. Using a
collaborative doc is great since (especially in small meetings) someone
else can fill in notes to give the note taker a chance to participate
in the discussion.
Great moderators make sure that group is asking the right questions.
Not only are they useful for guiding a discussion, but asking questions
also shows a degree of vulnerability and illustrates to everyone that
it’s safe to not have all the answers (assuming the answerer follows
through of course). It can also be useful to ask questions to make sure
everyone has the same context (in case it wasn’t provided ahead of
Give everyone a chance to speak
For each discussion, be proactive about making sure everyone has a
chance to speak. This can include handing the mic to individuals who
haven’t participated via a simple:
$PERSON, do you have any thoughts?.
If an individual has expertise in a particular topic, it’s great to
give them the floor:
$PERSON has the most context on that since they’ve done most of the
work, so I’ll defer to them.
In some cases, someone (including the moderator) may do a large portion
of the talking. Most meetings aren’t intended to be lectures, and
participants are likely to disengage of them don’t feel like they have
a chance to speak. Shifting the conversation away from those
individuals is critical to keep a meeting engaging, and may require the
moderator to be a bit more forceful if it’s hard to get a word in:
So, before you continue on that, I just want to jump in here and
make sure that other people have a chance. $PERSON_A? $PERSON_B?
For meetings with a mix of remote and “local” participants, this is
especially critical. Video conferencing latency makes it difficult to
read some social cues. If there are locals who like to jump in right as
someone else finishes, it’s easy to end up with either remotes talking
over locals because they can never jump in or remotes not participating
at all. Redirecting to remotes that are trying to participate works
reasonably well to avoid these cases.
Make it a point to positively acknowledge and reinforce contributions
from participants who don’t speak up as much. Building off of their
comment or idea is a great way to show their contributions have value:
That’s a great point, $PERSON. If we take that approach, then we can
do this other thing…
I’ve found that running inclusive, effective meetings is one of the
most important leadership skills. Fostering an environment where
everyone feels that their opinion is valued and that they are included
in the discussion and decision-making processes is incredibly
rewarding, and gives everyone in the room a chance to learn from one
You don’t have to be the moderator to use the strategies covered above!
Redirecting the flow of conversation if there’s a clear imbalance, or
jumping in to take notes are doable as participants.
What are some things you’ve found to work well to improve inclusion in
- “Run Meetings That Are Fair to Introverts, Women, and Remote Workers,” Harvard Business Review
- “So,” Rands in Repose