Effective meetings are one of the cornerstones of a successful team, but it can be a challenge to keep discussions on track, engage all participants, and ensure constructive outcomes. Previously, we’ve looked at some aspects of the ‘how’ or meeting process that you might consider in advance, as well as setting ground rules for interactions and creating a psychologically safe environment where participants can speak freely.
In this blog post, we will explore the ‘Step In/Step Out’ approach — a dynamic method of meeting management that strikes a balance between active engagement with the content and intervention in the process. We will look at this approach in detail, outlining strategies to encourage broader perspectives, progress discussions, and manage diverse viewpoints. We will also highlight some practical process management techniques for more efficient and constructive meetings.
What is the ‘Step In/Step Out’ approach?
The ‘Step In/Step Out’ approach is a dynamic method in meeting management that encourages a balance between active engagement and process intervention.
‘Stepping in’ involves immersing oneself in the content — listening, responding, sharing ideas and opinions, and generally contributing to the meat of the discussion.
Conversely, ‘stepping out’ calls for a shift into a ‘facilitator’ mode, observing and supporting the process of the meeting. This could mean ensuring that everyone contributes, maintaining focus on the topic, distilling key themes from the discussion, or summarising points to help move towards a conclusion. This oscillation between content and process can help create a more effective and inclusive meeting environment.
Strategies for stepping out effectively
There are many ‘stepping out’ interventions and moves that one can make to support an effective meeting process. Here are a few strategies that can help to maximise participation and engagement from all meeting participants.
Let’s suppose there is a topic for discussion and you want to engage everyone in the discussion. Behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point out that when leaders share their opinions first, they often inadvertently “anchor” the discussion, causing others to sway to the opinion of the leader and bias the decision-making. This typically happens where the leader starts the discussion by asking a closed question and then tries to engage everyone else with the rather vague question ‘Does anyone have any thoughts or comments on that?’ These closed interventions do not really invite or encourage participants to comment or contribute further.
Instead, it is much more effective to say something like ‘The first topic is X; could we take some time to explore this and hear views and perspectives so we get a broader perspective before we move into decision-making?’ Always strive to encourage diverse viewpoints by framing open-ended questions and allowing silent reflection before group discussions.
Tips for encouraging effective dialogue and discussion
If you’re managing a large group, breaking into smaller teams can allow participants to discuss and bring back collated viewpoints to the wider group. Another option is to preface the discussion by asking people to take 3 minutes for silent reflection and note down 3 points that come to mind in relation to the issue to share in the full group discussion. So you are giving people the chance to gather their thoughts and share their viewpoints with the rest of the group to tease out further. When thoughts are shared, it’s important they’re expressed constructively and concisely to keep the discussion focused and efficient.
As the conversation evolves, use the ‘acknowledge, summarise, and build on it’ approach to keep the discussion moving forward. This means you acknowledge the contributions so far, summarise key points, and then ask a question that takes the discussion to the next level. Here’s an example of how you could phrase this: “So far in our discussion about the project, two ideas about how to progress have come up — X and Y — as well as some pros and cons for each. Could we build on these now… what other options come to mind?”
Another example of this is where you listen for common threads in what people are contributing and then summarise these and ask a question to build on this. Here is an example of how you could phrase this: “This has been a really rich discussion and some of the common themes I’m hearing are X, Y and Z. What would be most important about these points to focus on now?” or ‘What else have we not yet considered?’ or ‘Let’s explore each of these further and see how they might best help achieve our goal’.
By asking open-ended questions such as these, you can really drill into the content and enable participants to think more deeply, draw out foundational relevant points and pull these together so that the discussion can move forward into a decision-making phase.
One final point to note is that group discussions very often yield diverse and sometimes conflicting views and opinions. It’s important to handle these differences with grace, normalising the multiplicity of perspectives rather than viewing them as roadblocks. Encourage participants to explore each viewpoint more deeply and try to identify some common ground between them. This approach can lead to a healthy and more inclusive discussion where everyone feels heard and respected.
Practical process management techniques
Managing meeting processes effectively involves much more than facilitating discussions. You also have to be able to:
- Manage the discussion so that you progress through agenda items in a timely manner
- Signpost transitions between different phases of the meeting
- Keep the discussion on topic
Another tip is to remind participants of their commitments to the agreed-upon process of interaction (listening actively, speaking succinctly etc.), which is a helpful way to maintain focus and engagement.
In your next meeting, I encourage you to embrace the idea of stepping in and stepping out, moving from engagement in content as a meeting participant to reflecting on and making interventions around the process (switching over to ‘facilitator mode’). Active listening plays a pivotal role here — by listening attentively, acknowledging contributions, and asking insightful questions, you can encourage broader engagement and more focused discussions.
The fifth and final instalment in this series will focus on coming up with a set of working agreements that will help to ensure your meetings are as efficient and effective as possible on a consistent basis.
If you believe your team could benefit from coaching or facilitation to enhance meeting effectiveness and overall teamwork,please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call on +353 (0) 86 825 2423.