June 19, 2024

time for introductions

the top three tiers of the japanese peace pagoda in san francisco, california
the top three tiers of the japanese peace pagoda in san francisco, california. the stupa is a five-tiered structure inspired by the round pagodas in Nara, an ancient Japanese capital. i just think it looks neat!

Every month I join an affinity group for BIPOC folks that’s hosted by my faves SeattleWorks. My pal Clara told me about them a couple years ago. This year, with my business secure and time less frantic, I started attending more often. They’re still virtual, for the most part, though they’ve had a few in-person meetings I wasn’t able to attend. Each meeting runs about two casual hours. There are new folks every time, mixing with folks I recognize from meetings past. People drop in or leave early as needed.

Every meeting this year has revolved around a specific theme. June’s meeting centered on people’s religious or spiritual practices, if they have any. It’s clear the facilitators put thought into the meeting agendas. We don’t always get to them! We start with introductions.

In most meetings, the introduction section of an agenda is more like a ritual than anything else. People rattle off their names and something about the entity they came from. Usually that’s where you live, where you work, or the name of your team. Five minutes in and you’re moving to the next item on a very long agenda. But how good of a job are these doing to welcome people? Do short introductions help prepare them to meet?

In these affinity groups, introductions are not short. Most meetings, we spend 90 minutes together just introducing ourselves to each other. The introductions follow a pattern that’s familiar to outsiders. What’s your name and pronouns? Where are you zooming in from? What’s your answer to the icebreaker question related to our theme? Familiar, right?

After the first few people go, I can feel the virtual room start to relax. People who have done this before don’t rush. Nobody’s looking at the time. If your answer needs context, you can give it. When I answered the icebreaker about my spiritual practice, I had to give the whole backstory. I couldn’t have done it justice in the thirty seconds we usually allow in meetings. The same is true for everyone’s stories, too. Most of my introductions echo or call back something I heard somebody else say in theirs. We formed a connection without talking about anything more serious than ourselves.

not for everyone

Is a meeting like this for everyone? Probably not. Some meetings I start out wondering if it’s even for me. It feels so unlike any of the meetings I facilitate, much less ones I attend. Some days I sense a little pang of doubt asking if I could be doing something more productive. But by the end of those 90 minutes, I’ve gotten to know people as something more than little boxes. The 30 minutes we do spend on a topic breezes by in comparison.

What we discuss in those two hours is confidential: we take the lessons and leave the stories. But I always leave with a positive, warm feeling in my heart.

in most meetings

I recently facilitated two meetings in a month: same topic but different people. I designed an icebreaker to get folks talking about something close to them. There was just enough connection to the topic that I could tie it back to the agenda when we finished. But the question went beyond the familiar and perfunctory “name, title, organization.” We had a great discussion in the first meeting and were talking right to the end of our time.

My client, hoping for more discussion next time, asked me to cut the introductions down. I wavered but decided to go ahead with the request. I reduced the introductions to the familiar spiel and we got through them in record time. But even though the room was about as full as the time before, the conversation never got off the ground in the same way. It could’ve been for a variety of reasons, but the biggest change to the day was how I structured the introductions. People breezed through their talking-point introductions with no room for the personal. Fewer people spoke up throughout the hour. By the end of the meeting, our time together had felt less rich.

the case for longer introductions

Online meetings have taken up more meeting time than we may have ever thought possible. Virtual spaces are everywhere, especially since the start of the pandemic. There is a clear disability and access case for making all meetings virtual (or at least hybrid). People with mobility, hearing, or visual disabilities can access them. People who don’t speak or read the dominant language spoken can now connect to an interpreter. Even people who can’t (or don’t want to!) travel to a meeting can still take part.

But in that justification, we have to acknowledge what we lose. Our colleagues are boxes on a screen. They appear as soon as the meeting starts and disappear as soon as it’s over. It’s hard, but not impossible, to build trust and camaraderie like that.

I built most of my workplace relationships in the off-hours, in non-meeting time. Those relationships didn’t form as fast for people who had to get to the next meeting or leave to take care of family. Spending time, or more time, on introductions during work hours may help us bridge that divide.

some advice

Choose a meeting where guests won’t have to solve an urgent problem. Instead, focus on learning about each other. I like icebreaker questions that people don’t have to think too hard to answer but are related to the work we do. Fakequity offers relationship-building questions that I’ve relied on too many times to count (here, here, and here). If you want to ask questions that need deeper thought, give people time to think of a response by sending the question in advance.

Whatever the question is, be sensitive to how people will answer it. Be mindful of differences among the participants, especially related to class and experiences. My friend Jamie told me recently that he’s heard questions like, “where’s your favorite place to ski?” and “where in Europe would you want to visit next?” These questions alienate participants or magnify differences in ways that people can’t help.

if you can’t spare the time

Let people leave their report-out brain at home. Spend the meeting collaborating on a problem together. For larger groups, run lightning rounds where participants pair up to discuss a topic and move on. Or convert your weekly “meeting business” into another form. Solve that problem offline or send weekly updates by email.

the nature of productivity

The affinity groups reminded me that meetings don’t have to be productive to be effective. Most people spend a third of their adult lives working with people they might not otherwise know. In my experience, those teams work better when they’re more than their assignments. People are more than their output. They’re someone worth knowing.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space