I've found one of the most powerful questions to ask in a meeting is, 'What do I need in order to bring my best contribution?' It's based on a wider question, 'What do we need to be engaging and effective?' If I exercise personal leadership, if I'm proactive and take responsibility in a meeting, I will pay attention to what I and others need and seek to address it.
I was in a leaders' meeting recently and, as we were about to move onto the next agenda item, I felt the need for a comfort break. I felt tempted to try to suppress it, to ignore it, but noticed how it was affecting my attention. I didn't want to interrupt the flow of the meeting and felt a bit embarrased to raise it but decided, nevertheless, to exercise this personal leadership principle.
'Would you mind if we pause for a 5 minute comfort break before we move on?' The others looked at me, surprised, then started to laugh. 'I'm so glad you suggested that', said one person, 'me too' said another, with looks of relief on their faces. We paused for a break and returned feeling more focused and energised. It was a simple step that really enhanced the quality of the meeting.
I met with another leader recently who commented how he finds meeting difficult if everyone is speaking and he can't think fast enough to interject. By the time he has formulated what he wants to say, the conversation has moved on. His best contribution is lost. How much do we lose in meetings by not paying attention to what people need?
I asked, 'What do you need in such a moment, to bring your best contribution alongside others?' 'Space to think.' 'How much space would you need?' 'Oh, perhaps a minute or so before we move on.' 'So how would it be if you proposed to the chair that you all pause for a minute or so after each agenda item, to see if anything else emerges, before moving onto the next item?'
His face lit up. He had a practical solution. Imagine the potential to transform the quality, experience and output of meetings by such simple, practical steps. It would require him to pay attention to what he needs and to speak it out in the meeting, not just to think or feel it. It takes courage to break into normal patterns of meeting behaviour, but the potential for change is considerable.
I was invited to another meeting where the agenda was packed full. The team hadn't met for a while, had each been involved in intense activity or travelling. This created pressure to become even more task focused than usual. I asked them to pause and reflect at the start, 'What do you need here and now to arrive well, to be fully present to one-another and the tasks ahead?'
They went quiet, thoughful, then spoke about how they felt the need to connect with each other before moving onto the formal agenda, to share something of what they had been doing since they last met, what was on their minds and hearts now, to pray together to seek God's guidance and wisdom. They spent the next 30 mins doing just that, and the whole meeting was transformed.
This focus on need fulfilment need has its roots in Gestalt psychology, the notion that our performance is likely to be affected if we don't pay attention to what we need and take steps to resolve it. We can't always fulfil everything we need and sometimes what we need may conflict with the needs of others. Nevertheless, we can still speak up - and explore the possibilities.
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.