By Le’alani S. Boykin, AICP
You and I, and everyone else on this planet, have needs. And those needs are begging to be fulfilled, anywhere, anytime, anyhow. We have a constant need to feel fed and nourished, well rested, protected, and emotionally supported. In our society we tend to assume that we must take care of most of this stuff in our personal lives. They are personal needs so they should only be fulfilled on our own time, in our private lives, right? Whatever you think is the right place to have your needs met, they are with you in EVERY setting of your life. And they show up big time in meetings.
Do you ever feel confused, tired, hungry, disrespected, afraid, lonely, or anxious in a meeting? These emotions reflect core human needs that are unmet and possibly challenged. Meetings have the potential to be extremely challenging psychological experiences for humans. They require us to meet with other people that we may or may not be familiar or jibe with, and actually accomplish something together. Meetings require us to communicate, collaborate, listen, assert, negotiate, and analyze, all while we are unconsciously working to fulfill needs that keep our bodies, minds, and self-esteem healthy.
Over the past seven decades, numerous theories and models have been developed to represent human needs and motivation (think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Among them, there is a general agreement that we all have the following core human needs:
We have physiological needs that keep our body and mind running, security & safety needs that protect our body and mind from injury, and psychological needs that ensure we feel good, satisfied, and ready to live our lives and contribute to society. Each one of these needs is important because they influence how we feel about our experiences and how we behave in settings. Whether or not they’ve been met dictates our emotion and behavior.
As facilitators, a large part of the group or community’s success depends on whether we are helping to meet participants’ core needs. Is the room keeping everyone at a comfortable temperature? Does everyone know why we’re meeting and how we’re accomplishing the desired outcomes? Does each person feel included in the discussion? If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, then you’re likely leading a meeting with distracted and irritable people. If they aren’t comfortable, certain of what’s going on, or feeling excluded, chances are y’all won’t get much done.
While all core human needs are critical to leading productive meetings, most of the needs associated with meetings are psychological. When any of us decides to devote our time to attend a meeting, we need to feel we are included, respected, seen, heard, recognized, validated, useful, and increasingly, we need to feel we are empowered. If any of these aren’t met, we can begin to see challenging behavior from anyone.
So how do we meet participants’ psychological needs? There are a few simple techniques that tend to serve me well: Make Room to Talk, Reflective Listening, and Co-Creating the Agenda.
Make Room to Talk
Simply making space to understand what’s really going on in a team or a community can meet most psychological needs. If you’re noticing unproductive behavior in your meetings, or that your teammates or participants look uncomfortable, try naming it (“I notice that folks are distracted and withdrawing from our discussion”) or empathizing (“If I were in your seat, I might feel that…”), check-in on your observation, and offer the opportunity to talk about what’s on peoples’ minds. If it’s a relatively simple matter, participants can find relief and get back to a collaborative and productive mindset. You just might complete what y’all needed to accomplish sooner than if you’d hurried through the agenda.
Setting aside time and space for discussion is just the first step to meeting psychological needs. Facilitators need to ensure they are actually sending the message to participants that they are seen, heard, and included. Reflective Listening is an effective way to do this. The goal is to ensure that what you heard is actually what was said or meant by the speaker. You can paraphrase, or say in your own words what you think they said. Or you can mirror, which is similar to paraphrasing, only you are using the speaker’s exact words. Mirroring is a useful technique when there is low trust in the meeting space, and paraphrasing can be viewed as veiled criticism. In both techniques, make sure you check-in with the speaker that your paraphrased or mirrored response is accurate (“Did I get that right?”).
Co-creating the Agenda
Facilitators carry significant power in a meeting space. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we usually decide the desired outcomes, agenda, how we’ll moderate discussion, who gets air time, and who doesn’t. This power differential between facilitator and participants can put people on the defensive, and create feelings of exclusion, frustration, and anger, especially if the topic is important or meaningful to them. Welcoming participants to create the agenda with you is a great way to meet the needs of inclusion, respect, validation, and empowerment. It’s also likely that you all will design a process that will work better than the one you’ve got in your own head. Co-creating the agenda primes participation for the actual meeting by building support for the process.
While we can’t possibly meet everyone’s needs in a matter of one or two hours in a room or on a Zoom call, there is still plenty we can do to put people at ease so they can better participate in our meetings. Next time you’re planning to facilitate, consider what your teammates, community members, or participants might be needing from the space or the process. Your proactive, needs-based meeting planning can help you to avoid unnecessary disruptions, build trust and understanding, and ultimately accomplish what everyone is at the table to do.
Before or at your next meeting, you can use this table as a guide to anticipate and identify needs of your participants with this free download: Meeting Participant Needs
If you would like planning and facilitation support on your organizational journey, call us. We can help. Schedule your free consultation today!