Mindful Meetings

See Also: Meetings - Planning and Structure

Are you one of the majority of people who hate meetings, because they go on too long, and never seem to be really relevant?

Recent research from the Cranfield Centre for Business Performance at the University of Cranfield found that meetings don’t have to be like this.

Instead, the researchers suggest, meetings can be one of the most powerful tools in any manager’s armoury if the chairperson can help participants to enter a state similar to ‘mindfulness’.

In this state, the participants will see things more clearly and help to make better decisions.

What is Mindfulness?

Fundamentally, mindfulness is being aware of the present.

Originally a Buddhist concept, mindfulness is one of the seven factors of enlightenment. In this context, it means an awareness of the reality of things and is therefore considered to be a way of overcoming delusion, and a key power.

On a personal level, mindfulness means being aware of one’s body, mind, and feelings.

See our page on Mindfulness for more.

In a ‘mindful meeting’, the chairperson helps the participants to be aware of the ‘now’ but not react too quickly to information.

This allows for exploration of new ideas and different perspectives.

The Cranfield research, led by Dr Andrey Pavlov and Dr Jutta Toblas, suggests that if the chair helps participants to become more mindful, they engage more effectively, focusing on the priorities of the meeting rather than their own thoughts. Although this may sound difficult, there is a surprisingly simple series of ten steps which the chair can take to help participants enter that ‘mindful space’.

Mindful Meetings: A Ten Step Process

1) Encourage Openness

Those attending the meeting need to feel that they can speak openly, without having to worry about the potential consequences of what they say. Chairs can take action to encourage this by encouraging everyone to have their say, and ensuring that personal criticism is not permitted.

2) Establish Trust

Trust takes time to develop but, once it exists, it’s a powerful tool in encouraging openness and sharing of information. It’s important that the group in the meeting knows each other, and has a chance to build up trust. The chair may therefore wish to make clear that sending substitutes is not acceptable if one person is unable to attend, or that it’s important that the group works together over time.

3) Make Sure Everyone is Physically Comfortable

It sounds strange, but research shows that all thoughts and emotions arise first as physical sensations. These are interpreted as feelings, and then influence decision-making. Hence it’s really important to make sure that everyone is physically comfortable. This means that the chair needs to ensure, for example, that there is enough room in the meeting room for everyone to fit comfortably, that it’s not too hot or too cold, and that everyone who wants one has a drink. With many organisations having banned even the idea of providing free coffee, this may mean emailing around to remind everyone to bring their own drinks.

4) Make Sure that there are Different Views Among the Group

If the group is too similar, several unhelpful issues may arise including the danger of ‘groupthink’ where the group does not see that other perspectives are possible. It is therefore good practice to ensure that those attending come from different backgrounds and functions within and beyond the organisation, and that they will therefore bring different perspectives. For example, in healthcare organisations, have you included a patient perspective?

5) Allow Participants to Express Emotions

It can sometimes seem as if expressing emotions is frowned upon in a business context, and even in a personal meeting. They’re just so messy. But how we feel is an integral part of how we make decisions, and so a mindful state cannot emerge if expressing emotions is not allowed. The chair may need to ensure that it is explicitly agreed that expressing emotions is permitted as the group may otherwise assume an implicit ban.

6) Meet Face to Face Wherever Possible

Although it is perfectly possible to foster an existing relationship by email, and even develop one, meeting face to face gives a powerful sense of connection. While you wouldn’t want to drag people 200 miles just for a half-hour meeting, if possible, hold meetings when people are already in the same space to avoid teleconferencing, and encourage participants to speak in person whenever possible.

7) Respect the Fact that People Have a Limited Attention Span

Focus and attention is crucial to maintaining mindfulness. It’s also hard work and in limited supply. So the chair needs to respect that and ensure that meetings are kept brief and to-the-point, with breaks and refreshments provided if necessary.

8) Maintain Focus as Chair

The chair is the focus of the meeting. Whoever is talking, it is likely that at least one other person in the room will be keenly aware of what the chair is doing. The chair therefore needs to stay present in mind as well as body and not be tempted to leave early and let the others carry on. The chair also has a role in keeping the meeting focused by bringing it back on course and clarifying the structure if necessary.

9) Allow New Ideas and Priorities to be Discussed

Mindfulness is all about the ‘now’, the present moment. If the meeting is focused on how the company or organisation has done things in the past, it is likely to miss new and emerging ideas. The chair therefore needs to stay involved as discussions develop, and try not to resist new priorities if they emerge. The best way to do this is to focus on what is needed ‘right now’, which is likely to encourage the emergence of the required information and help the group to make the most effective decisions.

10) Shape the Structure of the Meeting

Regardless of how easy it would be to let someone else shape the agenda, it’s important that the chair is heavily involved. The chair also has a role in shaping the structure of the meeting as it unfolds, and allowing it to develop flexibly if necessary. With the chair paying attention to the structure of the meeting, everyone else can focus on the content, and therefore make mindful decisions.

Just Common Sense?

You may be thinking that many of these ten steps are just common sense. And set out like this, they do look quite obvious. But it is also clear from research at both Cranfield and elsewhere that they are not necessarily the norm.

As chair, if you incorporate even a few of these ten points into your meetings, you are likely to find your meetings become more effective. If you incorporate them all, you will certainly find that groups that you chair make more effective decisions and that people are more willing to attend in body and mind.