Run a team meeting where everyone can engage

It may seem surprising, but your team meetings could be getting derailed by wounds that are decades old! 

70% of adults and 50% of kids have experienced trauma, which, even years later, can fire up the fear brain and shut down the thinking brain. When people’s thinking brain shuts down they have more difficulty with decision making, problem solving, learning, and thinking creatively — which are all things you need to have a great meeting. Good news though, making a little extra effort to ensure people feel safe helps quiet people’s fear brain so that their amazing thinking brains can wake up and participate.

1.  Send an agenda and/or a pre-read in advance.

I know, this is a pain, sometimes with busy schedules it’s hard enough just to get to all the meetings, but sending a few bullet points ahead of time can be powerful. Executive functioning, which happens in the prefrontal cortex, can be impacted by trauma making  it difficult for trauma-affected people to process things on the spot. Giving your team a chance to read through ideas in advance can give them more time to think through the issues and creates less pressure during the meeting to have an immediate answer. Even giving people a quick snapshot of the topics that will be covered, what you expect them to do in the meeting, and what you hope to achieve as a group helps take away any fear of surprises and will help people feel more confident to contribute.

2.  Allow for think time during the meeting.

As mentioned above, responding in real-time can be hard for people who have or are experiencing toxic stress or have a history of trauma. (Actually, about half of us don’t like responding in real-time anyways because of our temperaments!)  If you didn’t have time to send an agenda or pre-read, don’t panic, just give people a few minutes to think prior to open discussion. Saying something like “I want to present a few ideas and then I’ll give everyone a few minutes to think about it before we open the discussion” can really help people’s brain relax so they can think about the issue instead of worrying about needing to respond quickly.

3.  Start with hello and some eye contact. 

Often, in our time-restricted environments, we find ourselves rushing from one meeting to the next and just jump in full steam ahead to tackle our objectives. Taking even just a minute or two to say hello, smile at people, and ask how they are doing can help people feel seen, heard, and valued as a person. Take a mental note of the “emotional temperature” of the room before starting. If it seems people have not had a chance to fully discharge the emotion and pressure from a previous encounter, start with one minute of silence and some deep breaths to help people clear their heads and restore calm to their brain.  

4.  Check your space.

Feeling safe allows us to access more of our brain power to work hard, take ownership and think creatively. The more comfortable we are in an environment, the safer we feel. You don’t have to provide expensive leather office chairs or anything, but making sure people know where the conference room/meeting is, providing directions, making sure the room is well lit, having enough chairs, etc. can go a long way in helping people feel safe and welcome.

5.  Be aware of Sensory Triggers. 

85% of people who experienced trauma as a young child have sensory sensitivities – light, noise, movement, etc. Do a quick check of your meeting environment to think about what might affect people. Is it a glass conference room with lots of visual stimuli or is the room extremely cold? Are the chairs so tightly packed that personal space may be difficult to maintain?  It can be tough to predict sensitivities, so try to talk about it openly or ask questions in real time. “Is this light bothering anyone?” or “I’m distracted by too much movement, so I pulled the blinds, is everyone ok with that?“ or “Please feel welcome to stand in the back if you need to move or if it helps you concentrate.”

6.  Give people a voice. 

“Psychological safety” is the key to helping people activate their thinking brain. This means your team members need to actually be safe and feel safe. A big part of feeling safe is knowing that your voice counts. Be sure to remind your team often that their voice is important and that you’ll be taking their opinions into consideration. Tell them up front what you are going to do with their ideas and how you as a team or leader will come to a final decision so they can see that their input matters.

7.  Give people choices. 

Another key aspect of psychological safety is being able to exercise the power to choose. Often people from trauma did not get a chance to choose what happened to them, so having the ability to choose can help empower and strengthen them. You can do this in big or small ways. You could give people the choice to submit ideas to you in writing instead of attending the meeting. Or you could give people a choice when/where the meeting occurs. Sharing your power with others can help everyone feel more connected to the work or project.

8.  Help people regulate. 

Experiencing trauma often affects one’s ability to regulate emotions. When under pressure or tired people can either act out (anger, explosive emotions, etc.) or “act in” (shut down, withdraw, etc.). If you feel like your meeting is dragging a bit or getting tense, don’t be afraid to steer it in a different direction. Saying something to the group like “OK, I’m feeling like we’re all getting a little tired, let’s all stand up and take a lap around the room to get our energy flowing.” Or, “OK! Time out! I’m seeing we’ve got a lot of strong opinions and I want to hear everyone’s thoughts. Let’s take 2 minutes to take some deep breaths, stretch and regroup.”  For more ideas on how to help people regulate check out our Regulation Techniques webinar.

9.  Shut down culture-killers. 

As the leader of the meeting, showing you are trustworthy helps people feel safe and ready to engage. Demonstrate respect and insist that others show respect as well. Watch out for things like favoritism, gossip, discrimination, negative talk about someone who isn’t present, etc. These things can erode a team’s trust in you and in each other. Practice some scripts you can use if this comes up like “Hey, guys, it’s important to me that we’ve got a culture where everyone is welcome and valued, so I’m going to jump in here and ask that you stop that kind of talk now and in the future, ok?”

10.   Bring snacks. 

It may sound silly, but making sure people are hydrated and nourished helps signal safety and care. Moreover, when people’s physical needs are met, it can help reduce distraction and increase focus.

Business guru Patrick Lencioni says:

“If you could get all the people in the organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

We hope these tips help you get all of the people on your team rowing in the same direction!


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