By Gilly Weinstein, PCC

As a coach I’ll occasionally provide shadow coaching by observing the executive I’m working with in action, from a wallflower vantage point in a meeting room. In the context of a coaching engagement, I observe my client in this way for the sake of providing feedback on the impact—especially the unintended variety—she is having/not having on the people around the table. I take note of how her words, delivery, tone, manner, and body language affect what I call the emotional field of the meeting.

It’s a fact: when you lead a meeting of your team or any other group, all eyes are on you. How you speak, don’t speak, sit, behave, move or react will have an impact on how others contribute (or don’t), are empowered (or not) to be bold, or whether they’ll engage or check out. Even before we open our mouths, our non-verbal language and the energy we unwittingly broadcast can have an effect on the emotional field of a meeting. And when the emotional field is healthy and open, it is conducive to authenticity, courage and communication. And when participants are more engaged, great things can happen.

Here are five attitudes I encourage my clients to cultivate, for the sake of keeping people engaged, and the ideas flowing:

Ask open questions. Avoid asking questions that solicit a hard yes/no answer. It puts people on the spot (and sometimes on the defensive), narrows the conversation instantly, reduces potential for a richer exchange, and can actually shut down the space, as we say in team coaching. Used too often, yes/no questioning will also generate a counter-productive one-upmanship vibe that will, over time, deter others from contributing constructively. I once observed an extreme situation where everyone in the team only opened their mouth when spoken to.

Make eye contact with everyone. Not just with the person presenting or dialoguing with you across the table. While maintaining eye-contact with the person addressing you is important, too many laser-locked gazes with just one person will “loose the room” typically causing others to check out. Keep including everyone (even if it’s just you and one other person speaking) by holding on to everyone with your eyes. Practice moving your gaze (with intention) around the table, while speaking, to stay connected to everyone.

Resist the need to add value at all costs. I work on this with clients whose default of needing-to-be-right and adding that irresistible pearl of wisdom interferes with one of the imperatives of being a leader: empowering others! If someone who reports to you (or is hierarchically below you) makes an impressive or smart point, you really can leave it at that by just acknowledging the contribution (in a non-patronising, adult-to-adult fashion). Resist the urge to rush in and interject one more brilliant addendum to the point just made. For sure, that extra point or nuance you could readily sprinkle on top will remind others that you know your stuff (and yes, maybe you do know more) but sometimes there really is no need. Resist the urge to look SO good and let those who are doing a great job shine. Don’t flush the wind from their sails by systematically displaying more knowledge, refinement, caveats, rather: empower them by letting them fully own the value they’ve just added to the discussion or project.

Avoid sighing. No matter how tired or impatient you feel about a comment or topic, avoid demonstrating your moods. Catch yourself growing irritated and practice replacing exasperation with healthy, not cynical, curiosity. An earnest “Ok, that’s a new way to slice the bread, how would that work?” will yield more possibility and positivity than an “Oh yeah? Well give me one good reason why that would work?” Also, replace your eye rolling (it happens) or ceiling gazing with note taking, even if you only jot down random words. Whenever you feel triggered or annoyed, scribble.

Watch for dropouts. Not people walking out, people checking out. Steve may still be in his chair right now but everything about him indicates he has checked out so… notice that, and take it as a cue. This is not about calling people to order schoolteacher style; it’s about paying attention to the energy in the room. If people around the table are checking (or have checked) out, you may need to adjust your tone, topic or tenor. Or maybe your pace. Sure, people could have their own reasons for tuning out (they could be wrestling with a headache, harbouring worries or maybe starving) but as meeting leader you are at least 50% responsible for how engaged participants are in the meeting.

If the emotional field in the meeting is not conducive to people engaging or speaking up it’s your responsibility to do something about it. As a leader, you have a significant impact on the emotional field, so tuning into it and adjusting what you can in yourself—your attitude, reactions or postures—can go a long way towards empowering and engaging others.

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For help assessing the emotional field you create in your meetings, talk to Gilly about shadowing you!