Make space for stories.
Provide space for people to share what brought them to this work, their personal history and background, and what’s happening in their lives outside of work. People bring their whole self to meetings – whether we like it or not. Providing space for stories can help people feel seen, validated, and connected to each other. This is particularly important for people who have felt invisible or are not part of the dominant culture.
People need to feel a sense of belonging and connection, to each other and to their work, no matter who they are or how they’re positioned in your team or organization. Create a space where people’s story is validated and incorporated, not dismissed or ignored. Providing structured time for sharing can help your team get to the practical work faster.
One way to incorporate stories is to build space at the beginning of your agenda for a meaningful check-in. Ask people how they are, what they care about in their work, what’s inspiring them lately. We have an activity that we do to open many of our Institutes called Diversity Rounds (adapted from the National School Reform Faculty). It’s a quick and easy protocol to both break the ice and get people talking and reflecting on what brought them to their work together. We also do this as a staff from time to time – I always learn something new about my colleagues, even people I’ve worked with for years. Some sample questions:
1.) Where are you from? How do you think that has influenced who you are?
2.) What type of student were you in high school? How do you think that shapes you as an educator and leader?
3.) What college-going generation are you in your family? What opportunity did that afford you?
As with any check-in, it’s up to the individual as to how deep they want to go, but it is a powerful way to get people connected, fully present, and conscious of the diversity of experience and beliefs in the group.
Make space for emotion.
Discussing issues of equity will be accompanied by strong emotions. Plan for it. It’s important to access people’s passions and excitement, but also acknowledge and create a safe space for people to surface their emotions and feelings. We experience this regularly as we work with and for students and families that have been continually underserved by their schools and districts. People need the opportunity to release that distress to be able to do their best thinking and work with others.
Developing agreements at the outset about how you will work together when strong emotions come up is a valuable way to keep your group on track when strong emotions inevitably surface. Encourage people to stay open and explore their emotions, instead of suppressing or bottling them up. Structures like constructivist listening protocols can help people process powerful emotions in a productive and supportive manner. These structures give everyone the experience of being authentically listened to, and the opportunity to truly listen to someone else.
Use your imagination.
Try to open up new ways of thinking and operating, before you narrow your focus into what needs to be done. The challenges we’re facing today have never been solved, so we need to be open to new perspectives and ways of working together.
Use images, analogies, and metaphors that access your team’s hopes—what you hope to be true about your work together, and what you hope to accomplish. Ask open-ended questions that encourage alternate perspectives to the status quo. Try to activate positive emotions like authenticity, joy, power, and passion. But remember – the subconscious is at work and is shaped by individual experience. Metaphors are not universally positive or negative. Check out the Frameworks Institute for some great resources on using metaphors for education and social justice.
Make it an experience.
When you’re planning your meeting, think about how you want people to experience the meeting. Consider the physical space – does it have a cramped, institutional feel, or is it open and light? Even if you’re assigned a less-than-ideal meeting space, are there ways you could set up the room that encourage openness, reflection, and collaboration?
What time of day is it? Have people eaten? Have you built in ample break time in your agenda? It’s important for people to feel like their needs are being tended to so they can fully participate. Providing movement and breaks for people to check their email, use the bathroom, or just take a mental vacation helps them be more present in the time you’re working together.
But end on a practical note.
Make sure you end your meeting with some practical application, something that gives people a sense of accomplishment. Leaving with a sense of momentum helps people feel more productive about the work they’re doing together. Try and close the meeting with some clarity about where you are in relation to your objectives, what helped the team get there, and what’s next. Encourage reflection and appreciation for team member’s contributions to the collective work.
And seek feedback.
Ask people how they think the meeting went, what they’d like to see more of at the next meeting. This helps people take collective ownership of the work they are doing together, and hopefully makes them look forward to coming together again.
Designing effective and equitable meetings is both an art and a science. The National Equity Project offers a range of professional learning opportunities for helping you make the most of your meetings and agendas. Find out about upcoming learning events here.
This post was co-authored by National Equity Project Senior Coach Colm Davis. Colm is leading the development and facilitation of our learning seminar series.