People having a meeting

This is it: the Big Meeting™. You’ve brought a conference room’s worth of people together to make an important decision, close that huge sale, or kick off a new strategic initiative. Trouble is, most of these people barely know each other. And some of them barely know you.

You’ll need to build trust in the room fast or risk this becoming a Massive Waste of Time™.

And you’ll have to do it while you’re running the meeting. (Unless you scheduled extra time to sing Kumbaya down by the campfire. No? Didn’t think so.)

Don’t panic. You got this. Use these techniques to boost attendees’ confidence in you – and in each other.

1. Close the lid

During the obligatory welcome and “thanks for taking the time today”, ask that everyone close their laptops and tuck their phones away. As many as 73% of people admit to doing other work during meetings, which severely limits how engaged they can be in the discussion.

Why it works: Shutting down devices lets our brains open up. We listen intently and share thoughts that are more fully-formed than if we’d been checking Facebook the entire time Marcus was talking. That, plus the common bond of suffering through an hour off the grid, builds rapport quickly.

2. Ask questions, even when you have the answer

In meetings oriented around solving a problem or making a decision, resist the temptation to offer up solutions. Instead, ask leading questions that prompt deeper discussion. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Why? What for?
  • How would we measure success?
  • Can you expand on that?
  • That’s an interesting point, but it feels counterintuitive – in what context would it apply?
  • How could we take this idea to the point where it scares us (like, in a good way)?
  • Will this scale? (Just kidding. That’s an incredibly annoying question in just about all circumstances. Forget I mentioned it.)
  • What would The Rock do?

Why it works: You’ll demonstrate humility and an interest in what others have to say. Both are instant trust-builders.

3. Manage the “celebrity” in the room

There’s often one person who a) has strong opinions; b) is keen to share them; and c) is highly respected by others in the room. This person can dominate or derail discussions, usually without intending to do so. Ask them to capture notes on the whiteboard (because laptops closed, please). I tried this once in a meeting where the celebrity was my boss. I got a stern look in the moment, but he thanked me afterward.

If you know this person is a strong detractor, share the purpose of the meeting with them beforehand so you can get their input. From there, figure out a way for them to make a constructive contribution. Designate them the official devil’s advocate, ask them to educate the group on a facet of the problem they’re especially knowledgeable in, or similar.

Why it works: Either tactic will immediately put the celebrity into listening mode and create space for the rest of the group to contribute.

4. Relentlessly focus on outcomes

Any effective meeting will drive toward a tangible result. (Death to all “status updates” and “weekly syncs”!) Make sure you convey this in your invite so people understand the job to be done and what it would take to end the meeting early.

During the meeting, remind people of the objective any time the discussion strays off-course or heads down a rabbit hole. And seriously: end the meeting as soon as you’ve got the outcome you came for.

Why it works: Showing respect for people’s time will earn you their respect in return.

5. Draw out the introverts

People who think more than they speak are often bulldozed in meetings, or mistaken for having no opinion on the matter, by those of us who tend to think out loud. Your job is to create space for them.

If possible, share relevant information and discussion points with them in advance so they can get a head start on thinking it through. Then during the meeting, look for opportunities to pull them into the conversation. Questions like “What’s stood out for you so far?” or “What else might we need to consider?” can be very effective.

Why it works: Having a chance to contribute helps us feel like we’ve been heard. People trust leaders who give everyone that chance more than leaders who grant it only to a blessed few.

6. Enforce zero-tolerance for “manterrupting” and “bropropriation”

We’ve all seen it happen. Men interrupt women far, far more than we interrupt other men. Some of us also have a bad habit of shooting down a woman’s idea, then later re-phrasing the same idea and claiming it as our own. Women of color and our non-cisgender peers are even more likely to be marginalized in these ways.

Whether done consciously or not, this has to stop. 

Making sure everyone can contribute fully is just good business.

So it’s up to all of us to mind our own manners and tactfully call out when other forget to mind theirs.

A blanket “no interrupting” policy is a good start. When someone slips up, a simple “Hold that thought – I want to make sure Shari has a chance to finish” from you serves as a gentle reminder and ensures nobody is silenced.

Why it works: Whether you identify as male, female, or neither, you’re setting the tone. When people see you’ve got someone else’s back, they’ll trust you’ve got theirs, too.

7. Bring a rubber chicken

Yes, it’s seriously weird. And yes, it works.

For those brave (or crazy) enough, use a squeaky rubber chicken to help facilitate the meeting. I’ve been in meetings where the chicken is placed in the middle of the table, and when the conversation starts going in circles or off on a tangent, anyone in the room can squawk it to signal it’s time to bring things back to center.

Why it works: People feel safer when they aren’t being singled out. A rubber chicken brings some levity into the room and saves anyone from being the kill-joy task master.

Special thanks to Sarah Goff-Dupont for her contribution to this article.

6 meeting hacks (and 1 weird tip) that build trust