No matter how great your team is, sometimes you’ll need to address them as a group on challenging, uncomfortable topics—which can stress out even experienced leaders. When one of my clients recently asked me for tips to help her lead a difficult meeting effectively, we considered these eight aspects of preparation and conduct:
Know what you want to cover. Will you focus on a single point or give a general update? Which content do you suspect may create discomfort, and are you fully knowledgeable in that particular area? Think through a variety of scenarios to debug your presentation: Are your comments written so that they will be perceived as kind and coming from a place of understanding, even when you have to communicate a difficult business decision? Are there opportunities for people to respond authentically to whatever you’re saying?
Anticipate how your team members may react. Will most people support your stance or be against it? Are there individuals who always need extra explanations, want to analyze things out loud, or will share their unhappiness publicly if they feel negatively affected? If reactions come during the meeting, you’ll have the advantage of being able to address them right away. But if reactions come after the meeting—for instance, if a team member brings their questions to you alone—you won’t have the opportunity to address the issue for the benefit of the entire team. Conversely, if team members share concerns with each other privately, you’ll avoid having to do damage control publicly but you’ll be less likely to know what issues you need to address. Make it clear that you understand people may have questions after the meeting; let them know how they can discuss the issue further—with you, their direct manager, HR, etc.
Neutralize your tone. When you’re nervous or unsure about something you need to say, your tone and body language may be affected. Your chest and throat may tighten from nerves, making your voice higher or halting, and you may clear your throat frequently. If you feel angry you may give a tight, quick delivery, which could sound snippy or cutting, as if you’re trying to shut people down. Plus, if you’re trying to control these tendencies, you may speak too forcefully or intensely in a way that people can read as anger, even if that’s not what you mean. Thoughtful advance preparation and rehearsal can help, as can the next point.
Let your body be your partner. Team members will perceive the way you stand, sit, or lean across the table or into the camera as explicit aspects of your communication. Your ability to stay calm and deliberate in your body—even when you want to show excitement—will be read as competence and strength. Tells like tapping your foot, your finger, or a pen can look like impatience or nervousness. Even nodding too forcefully when someone else speaks can appear aggressive, as if you’re saying, “Come on already, spit it out!” You’re there to hold the space, keep everyone in their appropriate roles, and share the information that must be shared. You can do this neutrally or with emotion—whether sadness, resolve, or frustration—so coordinate your body and your language once you choose the way you want to come across.
Be your authentic, professional self. It’s often inappropriate to share all the information you have or to respond the way you truly feel about an individual comment, but don’t worry, holding back doesn’t make you dishonest. Think of it this way: If you’re responsible for a child and you’re in a potentially dangerous situation, it’s not wise to tell the child, “We’re in a dangerous situation, I’m terrified, and I don’t know how we’re getting out of this.” Depending on the child’s age and temperament, you might say, “Honey, we’re in a bit of a tricky situation right now, so please pay attention to everything I tell you, and I’ll explain more afterwards.” Or you might act like everything’s fine. Your behavior should be geared to the best interests of the child. In the same way, your language and manner should be geared to the group’s best interests, while you maintain a calm, kind, energized demeanor.
Make it safe for everyone to speak. Don’t let some team members commandeer the floor or the screen by participating multiple times when other team members aren’t participating at all. Depending on the group’s size, you can ask everyone who’d like to comment to take a turn. If someone starts speaking a second time, tell them that if there’s time after everyone else has spoken, you’ll be happy to hear from them again. Sometimes you’ll want to encourage every individual to comment; otherwise, you can just let people know they’ll have additional opportunities to be heard and get more information later. If team members interrupt each other, ask them to pause until the speaker is finished. Amplify spoken remarks as well as chat comments during video meetings to ensure the entire group is aware of all salient contributions.
Know when to cut people off. It’s to let everyone speak as long as their input is productive. That doesn’t necessarily mean positive: their content can be negative or critical if it’s professional and for the good of the group. But when someone uses up all the airtime, disrupts and distresses everyone else, or takes the meeting off course with personal concerns, ask them to wrap it up or even to stop outright. Try saying, “Thank you for reminding us of that. Now we’re going to focus on X,” or “I know that’s important to you, Steve, so let’s talk about it later, when we can discuss your situation more thoroughly.” Rather than criticizing them for talking too much, acknowledge that they have something to say and shift back to the topic at hand. Or when an individual is digging too deeply in an area that doesn’t serve the entire group, you could say, “That’s a good point. The quick answer is X, but I’m going to move on to other questions now. HR will be ready to answer you in more depth.”
Build the sense of community by hosting. Think hard about how you want to open and close the meeting. Remember, you’re not responsible for everyone’s reactions, even though you’ll need to deal with them. Let all team members know that you care about them and you’re there on their behalf, trying to make everything work as smoothly as possible. Greet them as they enter the meeting, whether on screen or in person, and wish them well when they leave. Note where follow-up is needed and, wherever you can, maintain a sense of community and continuity from one meeting to another.
Onward and upward —