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Mindful meetings: How to bring your best leadership brain to work

October 11, 2016
Did you leave your last work meeting smiling? Knowing that you’d brought your best thinking to the table? Did you take away insights from interaction with your colleagues? Meetings are a microcosm of corporate life and a barometer of an organisation’s vitality.
Debbie Jeremiah, Mindful Leader Program manager at GE specialises in enhancing team intelligence, employee engagement and insight creation through brain science and mindfulness techniques. She teaches people how to manage their workloads in less stressful ways—by working with their brains instead of against them—and also how to run more successful meetings.

GE’s Debbie Jeremiah connects brain science and mindfulness with generating brilliant ideas, at the 2016 Mindful Leadership Forum in Sydney.

Jeremiah estimates it costs GE alone billions of dollars each year to have employees attend meetings, and says, “Research across companies suggests that 20-50% of the time spent in meetings is wasted. That has a massive impact, on our motivation, our engagement, our wellbeing and also on our desire to stay with an organisation.”

Meetings, says Jeremiah, “can be psychologically unsafe places for a lot of people: there’s pressure on them, and they feel judged. When the brain is threatened in that way, the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that does all the clever deciding, the planning and also assists with creativity, it goes off-line and it’s really difficult to come up with good ideas."

She says that in order to generate our finest thinking in meetings, we need to feel less threatened and become more attentive. At GE she introduced the practise of talking in rounds, and of listening, a concept she’d adapted from the work of Time To Think author, Nancy Kline.

A meeting held in rounds works like this: “As a leader, once you’ve worked out what the question is you want to address, you put that to the group, and ask each person to speak in turn. They don’t have to speak at that point, they can pass, and just listen, but each person gets to speak if they want to, uninterrupted. We might do one round and come up with some reasonably good thinking. On our second and third rounds we tend to get our best thinking and moments of insight,” says Jeremiah.

The science behind this technique is that people’s minds are calmed by the act of listening, she explains: “It gives the brain a break, takes it to a still place and those are the conditions we need to create moments of insight.”

In most meetings, she says, “We are literally waiting for someone to take a breath so we can jump in and be heard. We listen to interrupt, so we’re not really listening. And once we’ve fought our way to the front, to speak and be heard, we fight to protect our space, we want to get to the end of our sentence, to make our point; but of course people aren’t listening, so it can be very frustrating.”

Where such meetings fuel a sense of irrelevance in participants, and a vicious cycle in terms of their attitude to the next meeting, the meeting held in rounds ensures everyone a safe environment in which to have their uninterrupted say.

It may seem unlikely, says Jeremiah, but even though you’re giving everyone the opportunity to speak at least once, meetings held in rounds tend to run much shorter than conventional meetings, “because we don’t have people interrupting with ‘Yes, but …’ ‘Yes, but …’, and they more often reach consensus.

The outcomes of a pilot study Jeremiah ran to test the use of rounds in company meetings spurred her on: “You would think that in a really driven, fast-moving organisation like GE people wouldn’t be interested—they’re interrupting each other all the time. But they loved it—being acknowledged and listened to.”

Mindfulness itself, Jeremiah says, already has a body of research 4,000 studies deep, testifying to the benefits of practices that help you stay in the moment, calm the self-critical voices in your head, and resist a tide of demands and distractions to focus on the most important task at hand.

How to round out that successful meeting? “Wrap up with a reflection round: ‘What was the best part of this meeting for you? What is the key thought you’re taking away?’ It seals the meeting in a positive way, allows people to have that final experience of being heard, and often they’ll leave with a smile on their face. Next time they come to a meeting they come with a positive attitude, and it just moves the bar up a little.”