How to set up your meetings for success

6 min read | Paul Axtell | Article | Leadership Managing a team

Team members having a meeting

What constitutes a successful meeting? One key factor is ensuring that everyone leaves feeling heard. Find out how you can set up your comments in a way that conveys your message softly but accurately.

Successful meeting set up: Key insights


  • Utilising permission gates helps to maintain a collaborative mood over a combative one. They allow you more time to formulate your thoughts into constructive sentences while helping the other person brace for what you’re about to say. Permission gates are especially useful for providing verbal feedback and if you disagree with someone’s perspective.
  • Introduce itemised responses into your meetings to further soften the delivery of disagreeing views. When a colleague presents an idea, you can apply itemised responses by first expressing the value in the idea. Then, you can bring up your concerns from a problem-solving angle.

Itemised responses may feel mechanical at first and require some practice to get used to. Ultimately it helps to slow the conversation down and make your comments more deliberate.

Keep reading to find out more detail and concrete examples of how to set up your business meetings for success.

Running successful team meetings: Background

I firmly believe that the impact of your words within a business meeting can be softened and enhanced with better set up. Set up is how you introduce your message. In other words, it’s what you say before you say what you want to say. Set up is important because it provides some context to your message and gives the other attendees a heads-up for what is coming. It causes you to slow down and take the time to check your choice of words and tone of voice, ensuring that your team interprets your message correctly. This consideration also lessens the chance of miscommunication or triggering defensive reactions.

Why don’t we set up our comments properly in meetings?

There are a number of reasons many of us neglect how well we set up our comments in meetings. Certainly our movement toward brief communications (instant messaging, responding to emails on our phones on the go) reduces the amount of setup we put into our conversations.

Also, our meetings are often booked back-to-back and they constantly run over. We might even have to fight our way into a conversation like it’s a parliamentary debate. When rushed, we don’t take the time to think before we speak and preface our comments with set up. This behaviour is contagious, and as soon as one meeting attendee begins to communicate in this way, the rest will often follow suit.

Successful meeting tips

The key to setting up: permission gates

There are a number of fundamental pieces of set up, but permission gates are my favourite. A simple request for permission to speak maintains a collaborative mood rather than prompting a combative mood.

Permission gates are critical when you are concerned about how someone might react to your comments. They encourage you to slow down and think about what you are going to say, whilst bracing the other person for your comments. I have found asking for permission to be extremely useful especially when entering into a difficult conversation or providing feedback to someone.

Here are three common meeting contexts in which permission gates can work wonders:

1. Providing feedback: Giving feedback to someone is always difficult because of our human tendencies to take things personally and defend our behaviour versus just listening. Using a permission gate tends to soften your words: “There is something that you do in meetings that doesn’t work for me, may I tell you?”

2. Disagreeing with someone’s perspective: I’m not a fan of the old set up, “I’m going to play devil’s advocate here”. Using that popular phrase means that too often the person isn’t responsible for what they say next, or for the impact of their words. I think it’s better to say: “I hear what you are suggesting, but I see things differently, may I tell you?” Obviously, you don’t need to use this permission gate every time you disagree with someone. Upon reflection, I think you’ll see the times, topics, and people where it might be the perfect approach.

3. Starting a meeting: Think of a specific meeting; what permissions would you like to have in place before you start? It could be permission to keep the conversation to a certain agenda, to call on people by name, or to ask the senior person in the meeting for comments at any time.

Giving an itemised response

I once attended a creativity workshop at the Synectics Group in Boston. Much of the focus was on maintaining a light, supportive, open environment for the development of ideas. They advocated strongly using a technique for disagreeing with an idea. They called it the “itemised response”.

In the beginning, like any new move in life, itemised responses may seem mechanical – almost inauthentic. That perception simply means that it’s a new technique and will take practice. Here are the steps to incorporating itemised responses in your meetings:

Person A: Presents an idea.

Person B: Responds with three ways the idea has value: “Your approach would certainly get more people involved. It would also probably lead to more alignment across the department. And it might lead to some unique ideas.”

Person B: Then expresses any concerns in problem-solving language: “I’m wondering how we can implement your suggestion without delaying the project in a significant way.”

Once again, the conversation slows, becomes more deliberate, and the tone is supportive and collaborative.

The itemised response requires some set up comments before a disagreeing view is expressed. Simply said, it’s about the difference between thoughtfully speaking versus reacting without thinking. It means being more concerned about how our words land on others than about being heard. There are many people in our lives who would appreciate a gentler approach, don’t you think?

Use my advice above to soften your comments during meetings. These tips will also help ensure your tone is constructive and supportive whilst conveying exactly what you want to convey and achieving the desired outcome.

About this author

Paul Axtell is an author, speaker, and corporate trainer. He is the author of two award-winning books: Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids and Meetings Matter. He has developed a training series, Being Remarkable, which is designed to be led by managers or HR specialists.

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