Three Questions to Start Every Meeting
Written by Dave Bailey
Bring even the most challenging meetings back under control by starting with these three simple questions.
Meetings are unavoidable. Team meetings, planning meetings, feedback meetings, one-on-ones, reviews, retrospectives, stand-ups, town-halls. For many of us, meetings take up a large part of our day. And yet, most of them suck.
We can all relate to that feeling you get when the people that most need to pay attention are on their mobile phones. Or when a teammate is so passionate about the details that they’re impossible to interrupt. Or when you ask a question and get an uncomfortable silence in response. And that realisation that you’ve gone totally off-topic and run out of time.
Intervening often feels awkward, like a teacher struggling to maintain order in the classroom — ‘Come on now, children, behave!’ I was resigned to the fact that crappy meetings are just a fact of life. That is, until I learned three simple questions that make meetings far easier to control.
Designing the Alliance
‘Designing the alliance’ is a coaching technique that establishes ground rules upfront to keep everyone on the same page. What’s the twist? Well, rather than state ‘how it’s gonna be’, you ask questions instead:
- What will we commit to so we all get the most out of this meeting?
- Do I have your permission to hold you to these commitments?
- How would you like me to do that?
Questions are far more engaging, thought-provoking and empowering than instructions. They transfer responsibility from you to the group. And taking two minutes to ask these questions at the start of your meetings can radically improve their outcomes.
1. What will we commit to so we all get the most out of this meeting?
Which behaviours do you want to see more (or less) of in your meetings? By framing them as commitments and bringing them up as suggestions, the team is able to agree (or not) to them. Examples of commitments are:
- Being concise
- Staying present
- Raising your hand
- Listening to each other’s opinion
- Taking a five-minute break after 30 minutes
- Sticking to the agenda
- Bringing a positive mindset
- Staying open-minded
If the team come up with lots of ideas for commitments, I recommend prioritising the top three.
2. Do I have your permission to hold you to these commitments?
You might doubt whether this question is necessary. Why should you ask for permission? Won’t it undermine your leadership?
Asking for permission has a powerful impact on people. It demonstrates that the team has the power to say ‘no’, and it provides accountability for the commitments, which gives the team a sense of ownership.
Examples of permissions that you might ask for:
- Do I have your permission to interrupt if you go on too long?
- Do I have permission to call people out if no one answers questions?
- Will you give me permission to bring us back to our original agenda?
3. How would you like me to do that?
Your goal is to agree on the specific actions you’ll take to hold people to their commitments. By setting this expectation up-front, it becomes easier to follow through. For example, here are a few different ways to interrupt someone:
- An action, like raising a hand.
- Asking a question, like, ‘What’s the bottom line?’ or, ‘Can you sum it up in one sentence?’
- Repeating the commitment: ‘Just to remind you that we’re committed to being as concise as possible.’
By coming up with the protocol as a group, the team are managing themselves. Everybody is clear on what to look out for and how to behave.
Do you need more input from your investors during your board meetings? Do you need to keep your management teams on-topic? How about improving your one-on-ones with difficult employees?
Asking for commitments and permissions allows you to set early expectations, and to get the most out of your meetings. And, hopefully, it’ll make them a little more bearable.
Continue reading about facilitating meetings:
- Getting to know your new team? You can learn about your employees by asking the right questions.
- Trying to understand your customers? Here’s a handy guide on how to run effective customer interviews.
- Meeting with a CEO? Read my article to help you plan your meeting with senior leaders.
Originally published Oct 9, 2018, last updated Aug 20, 2021
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