A couple of months ago, I had a great—and nerve-wracking—professional opportunity. I stood in front of a group of 40 people I’d never met and led them through a working session about diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The work and the topic were high-stakes, to say the least.
In that moment, I was tasked to bring all that I’d learned in the last six months to fruition. Plus, leading the development of those 40 professionals was key for my organization, Education Pioneers, as that is what we do. So I was particularly attuned to getting it right.
In that heightened state of attention, I learned a lot that has changed how I approach meetings in general—whether it’s a one-on-one with my manager, a team meeting, or a full-blown professional development session for dozens of people.
My experience leading a group has made my time in meetings more valuable for me professionally and personally. It can do the same for you. Here’s how.
1| Make meetings about you.
Meetings are an opportunity for you to present ideas and ask for feedback—which can help you grow as a professional.
After I facilitated my first session, I received great feedback from my manager about speaking up and projecting confidence. So for my next session, I built that feedback into my prep time and made it my top deliverable. I carry my manager’s advice with me in every meeting I attend, and ensure I’m raising my voice.
On the other hand, it’s also fine to not speak up. It’s more important to make sure that what you’re contributing is adding substance to the conversation, and not just speaking up for the sake of it.
Take time to prep for your meetings so you can ask thoughtful questions, share insightful ideas, and plan to ask for feedback. (Now, you may be great at speaking up, but chances are, there’s something you need to work on.)
And when you get that feedback, build it into your prep for your next meeting. Talk through it or, even better, write it down so that you can see what you’re trying to learn or accomplish and hold yourself accountable. Having a feedback or “later list” section where you can capture these notes has been helpful in making sure that I don’t miss any of said feedback. It may seem like I’m telling you to do twice as much work on top of the actual meeting, but trust me, it’s worth it.
Imagine what a powerful professional you’d become if you looked forward to every meeting as a growth and learning opportunity…instead of a time suck.
2| But don’t make them all about you.
Meetings are an excellent place to embrace listening and silence—both of which are critical to hear different perspectives from colleagues, reflect on new ideas, and make progress on work.
As a facilitator of a large meeting, I deliberately built silence into the session I led. We were talking about race, class, opportunity, and equity, which all demand time to reflect and process, so silence was as key to learning as anything else we did. I made notes for myself at the top of my documents in bold, red font to remember to make space for it.
In meetings of any size, the first time you implement this act of silence, it will more often than not be super awkward. In the session I led, there were times when the silence in the room was absolutely deafening, and confused faces looked to me for confirmation. But at the end, the results were true personal reflection and an engaging debrief from everyone.
Everyone wants to be heard, so it’s especially important to make time for silence and reflection, and help make others feel that silence is comfortable. You may have a question on the tip of your tongue, or a blossoming thought that you feel needs to be heard. But hold off.
It might seem counterintuitive, but allowing time between ideas can help meetings be more productive for everyone than if we never stop to take a breath. Listening is a way to broaden your perspective and ideas—if you make time for it.
3| Do your homework.
I don’t mean meeting prep here. Instead, I mean what my mentor calls “life homework.” We should each hold ourselves accountable to know what’s going on in our communities, our country, and our world—especially when it comes to social justice and education issues.
Make it a point to bring up and talk about relevant events and issues in your meetings so that you maintain the “big picture” perspective on your work.
Many people think that if they aren’t able to actively take part in on-the-ground work regarding these issues, that they can’t make a difference. But by reading an article or book, and sharing it with your colleagues, a friend, or mentor/mentee, you’re sharing the wealth of knowledge. (Plus, research shows that “slacktivism” works.)
Being involved and knowledgeable about social justice issues around the country means that those things are always in my mind when I approach my work. My work is 100% reflective of what I’m doing personally to feed my life knowledge. If we want our work to be more just and equitable, we all have to do our daily homework—because it affects how we approach everything in our lives.
A Twitter tip: take a look at who you’re following. If most of the people showing up in your feed look like you or think like you do, diversify your list. A great way to do that is to look at what top influencers in the subject you’re interested in are following, and with a simple click of the “follow” button, you have an entire new ideology and network at your fingertips. (Stumbling on the profiles of two social justice leaders last summer after the death of Mike Brown changed my entire online identity.)
Here are some recommendations for who to consider following (if you’re not already):
And Education Pioneers (of course!)
As I send you off to have great meetings the rest of this year to grow as a professional and as a person, here’s one final thought I want to leave you with. If you do nothing else, have the courage to treat every meeting as a “safe space” for you to raise your voice to make our world more just and equitable. (And yes, we throw the term “safe space” around loosely and probably too often.)
The children we serve don’t always have safe spaces to grow and thrive; they live that truth every day. So let’s not hide in conference rooms, or opt out in group discussions.
Put yourself into the mindset that no matter where you are, you’re in the space to step up and say something. Believe it and create it.
And when you do, that will make your meetings the best time you spend this year.
Tiffanie Woods is the Associate, Learning Programs for Education Pioneers, where she works on logistics and communications. Previously, Tiffanie served EP as a recruiting specialist, where she recruited top analytical talent for the Education Pioneers Fellowship. Tiffanie’s passion for education stems from both her parents and the strong support system of teachers and advisors she had surrounding her throughout her time in Buffalo Public Schools.