How to run inclusive meetings

4 min read
Aarron Walter
  •  Nov 25, 2019
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One of a kind. It sounds flattering—but also, isolating.

Jehad Affoneh, Head of Design at VMWare, knows what it feels like to be one of a kind in a meeting room. As a Palestinian living in Palo Alto, he rarely encounters anyone at work from his background.

That alienation is something that can significantly impact someone’s—anyone’s—work.

Farai Madzima, a UX designer at Shopify who grew up in Zimbabwe and now works in Canada, described that feeling in his talk entitled The Only One of Your Kind in the Room, delivered at the Leading Design Conference:

“It turns out that being the only one of a kind in a group of ten is really hard. Why? Because if the group isn’t inclusive, this one-of-a-kind person spends an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out ways to be included. And this takes away from the time and energy they should be devoting to their jobs. As a result, their performance suffers. In some cases, they quit or get let go.”

Designing inclusive meetings

As a team leader, Jehad works to find ways to bring those who feel isolated into the group, not only to promote inclusion but also to help retain top talent.

Meetings are the ground zero of isolating experiences. Voices of the minority can be suppressed or marginalized by the majority without an advocate or process to make space for them to be heard. Jehad has created a simple way to change the dynamic of meetings so everyone’s perspective can be shared.

Before every meeting, Jehad creates a detailed agenda document providing context for the discussion, goals, and shared assumptions of the group. This includes:

  • Overview and context: This is where you’d share context on what the meeting is about, which might include an executive summary and important details depending on the topic.
  • Assumptions: This is not always included but if you’re making a decision and you don’t have all the information, it’s best to talk about assumptions so people can offer corrections and greater transparency around the data being discussed.
  • Questions and next steps: Include a list of questions you have for the team and next steps that need to be taken after the meeting.

After creating this doc, Jehad shares it with everyone invited to the meeting and requests comments, corrections, and additions.

“Meetings are the ground zero of isolating experiences. Voices of the minority can be suppressed or marginalized by the majority without an advocate or process to make space for them to be heard.”

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This pre-meeting planning creates an opportunity for everyone to share dissenting views that they might otherwise suppress in a room full of peers, especially if they’re the only one of their kind represented. Introverts who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in groups can also benefit from this approach—allowing them to share their feedback without making them speak in front of a group.

[Use InVision Freehand to lay out your pre-meeting plan.]

The doc gives Jehad a guide for running the meeting. It shows him whose voice needs to be heard, even if they’re reluctant to speak up. It helps him use his leadership position to advocate for those who might otherwise feel left out of the discussion.

There’s an added bonus in this approach: meetings become more productive! Being clear about what’s going to be discussed and capturing your team’s perspectives ahead of time will make for shorter, more focused and worthwhile meetings.

For tips on making meetings more effective, check out Kevin Hoffman’s fantastic book Meeting Design.

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