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Fostering Connection in Meetings

December 21, 2023

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About This Episode

(Season 4, Episode 17)

We know that relationships are important, but with so much focus on tasks we rarely take time to work on relationships in meetings. IN this episode, Jessica Beckendorf talks about why relationships are so important to collaboration and guides us through some activities we can use in meetings to help build those relationships.

“Practicasts” are shorter episodes of the podcast highlighting a specific practice to help empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness.



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Bob: We know that relationships are important, but with so much focus on tasks, we rarely take time to work on relationships in our meetings. Hi, everyone. This is Bob, and welcome to this week’s Practicing Connection practicast, where we highlight a specific practice you can use in your life and work. This week’s practice is a group activity to foster connections in meetings.

My Practicing Connection co-host, Jessica Beckendorf, will be guiding us through the practice in a few minutes, but first, let’s learn more about it. Jessica, why are relationships important in collaborations?

Jessica Beckendorf: Well, [chuckles] one of the things I say in some of the workshops I teach is that, we all seem to recognize that relationships are important, but we don’t take the time to build them effectively beyond coming together for a quick meeting to connect about, or to assign tasks. In fact, sometimes people actively push back against relationship-building components during meetings.

I think, especially, when they feel like the activity is trite, or strictly an icebreaker. I do think that there are a lot of icebreakers and activities that fall into these categories. There’s nothing wrong with them, but to some people, they can come off as really inauthentic. Some people love these activities, but many don’t. It goes beyond whether people like doing an icebreaker type of activity.

What I’ve actually seen happen is that, activities that are intended to connect people, are sometimes devalued as frivolous, when compared to the actual “work” that needs to be done. Don’t get me wrong. The outputs and the outcomes that we’re all trying to work toward, are central to why we’re in the same room to begin with. They’re really important.

In collaborative efforts, part of the work that needs to be done, is building trust in relationships among group members, who have committed to working together. You might say, so that they can commit to working together, even when they maybe don’t want to.

Charles Feltman in The Thin Book of Trust, defines trust as containing four elements. Our assessment of a person’s sincerity, their reliability, their competence, and care. Care is, perhaps, the most important– One of those elements, yet, we arrange our meetings around things that only touch on two of those, reliability, and competence. It’s really baked into our culture that if we’re not doing tasks, then we must not be doing anything useful at all.

Because trust is a key element in any collaboration, relationship-building is a useful outcome of our work together. I want you to get that in your head. Relationship-building is a useful outcome of our work together. It helps us understand new perspectives, and build empathy for how we each experience an issue. It can help us develop an appreciation for how each of us works, and how, the kinds of contributions we make to projects, which in the end, can help us utilize the strengths of each team member better.

It leaves room for innovative solutions, because we aren’t shutting ideas down right away, because we know that person, and we’re more willing to hear them out, or we’ve developed an understanding of that person or empathy for that person, or whatever that is, and we’re more willing to hear them out.

Bob: I’m curious to learn more about what goes into choosing a question for a check-in, or how we design these connecting activities.

Jessica: Yes, that’s a really good question. I think I just did it very automatically, until you asked this question. I had to think about it and break it down. I guess, first, I like to consider whether the group already knows each other, or whether they’re a more newly formed group. If the group is new to each other, they often actually expect some sort of activity that encourages connection at the beginning, at least at first.

If the group is not new to each other, maybe they’ve been getting together for a while. Then, I think you’d want to consider two things. First, what’s the current group culture? Think about things like who’s in the group? What are their communication styles and preferences? How well do they already know each other, and work together? Are there difficult power dynamics at play?

Then, the other thing to consider would be, what is the purpose that they’re coming together for? What are they there in the same room around? Whether it’s a new group or not, it’s always important to consider psychological safety. Things like encouraging participation, but making it absolutely okay to pass, or making sure your activity contains elements of anonymity along with the sharing, so that there are activities that, in fact, I would start with the activities that bring in a little bit of anonymity.

Sometimes, it just depends on the group, after considering all of that, the questions and activities I like to choose, for connecting people usually involve something that connects them to their humanity, something that connects them to each other. Then, a third, something that connects them to this moment, why they’re here in the room together.

Bob: I like that point about this moment. What’s the importance of this moment? Why are we here? What are we here to do? Connecting around that purpose as well. As a facilitator in a meeting, if we’re doing one of these activities, or asking a check-in question, what kinds of things do you think we need to be prepared for?

Jessica: I would say be prepared for mixed responses, [chuckles] be prepared for groaning, eye rolls, and reluctance from some. Be prepared for some to just go through the motions, and comply with what you’re asking them to do, and be prepared for some of them to be enthusiastic about it, and to want more of it. I think you’ll also want to recognize that you’re asking for a lot from some of the group members.

Not everyone loves sharing about themselves, and sometimes you can even voice that. You can say, “Hey, guys, I know I’m asking for a lot here. I completely get that.” Then, sometimes if you just model it a little bit, and show a little bit of vulnerability to start with, it makes it a little bit easier for others.

It’s also important to read the room a little bit, and always, always, always have other activities or check-in questions ready in the background, if the mood of the room isn’t a match for the activity, or questions you planned. This works in virtual rooms also. Be willing to adapt your plan.

Then last, I would be prepared to include connection activities more often, because groups will expect it a little at the beginning, but nobody expects to be given a connection activity once the group’s been going for a while. I would recommend thinking about including connection activities more often, and ramp them up a bit when a new person joins the group, right?

You want to onboard them. You want to make them feel connected to the group. You want to make the group feel connected to them. Make connection part of the group rituals and culture.

Bob: Can you guide us through how this might work? Walk us through a couple of practices.

Jessica: Yes, I have two that I’ll walk you through, since one of them is a simple check-in question for when you’re really short on time. I think it’s a question that gives everyone a peek into who we are as humans, while preserving a tight schedule. I would caution you to try to, at least occasionally, leave time for longer connecting activities. I wouldn’t always go for the short question at the beginning.

Try to, at least occasionally, leave time for longer activities like the second one that I’ll tell you about. The first activity is a simple check-in question. If possible, have your group get into a circle, if you’re not already. You’re going to have each person share their name, and ask them to add one to two words your friends would use to describe you. That’s it.

If it’s a really large group, you can have them split up into smaller groups, but I think it’s really beneficial to have everyone to be able to hear what everyone is saying. The second activity is called the story of your name, and it comes from one of my favorite books for activities like this, Training to Imagine by Kat Koppett. It will take about one to two minutes per participant.

This activity is really powerful when everyone can hear everyone else’s story, but if you have a larger group, you can split them up into smaller groups if you need to. If possible, again, get everyone into a circle. Have each participant share the story of their name. Let them know that they can tell the story of their first name, their last name, a nickname, their middle name, whatever they like.

Model the process by going first, giving them an example. As a facilitator, it’s sometimes helpful, because you might be a little nervous, sometimes helpful just to have prepared it ahead of time. Then, they’re going to go around the circle, and you’ll help to facilitate, making sure that they’re passing it on to the next person. Allow people to pass, if they’re not yet ready.

Make sure that you’re asking them, “Hey, it’s okay if you’re not ready, we can come back to you.” If someone says they have no story about their name, then prompt them to share about that, or how they feel about their name. It’s okay if their story is short. I’ve had plenty of people say, “I don’t really have a story. My parents gave me this name.” That’s totally fine

actually. Make them feel comfortable that, that’s totally fine. I recommend, at least, debriefing with one or two questions, and here’s a couple to get you started. How did that feel? What’s the value of learning personal information about each other? Did you discover anything about yourself that you didn’t know? What did you learn about the group in general? Then finally, in what ways do you feel different from before we began the exercise? That’s it.

Bob: Thanks for guiding us through that, Jessica. I love the check-in question, and yes, this activity, I think is going to be really great. I’m anxious to use it.

Jessica: Thank you. I’ve seen that story of your name. I’ve seen both of those activities actually yield some really interesting results and connections. I really love helping people to connect differently beyond the, “How was your weekend?” Or, “What do you do?” Questions. I hope that this has been helpful.

Bob: That’s it for this episode. Thanks for joining us. We hope you’ll give this practice a try, and share your experience in the Practicing Connection LinkedIn group, where people supporting military families, practice the skills that empower us to work together, so that we can positively impact our communities, and help families thrive. You’ll find the link to the group on our website at We’ll be back next week with another practice to help you be a better collaborator called Share Your Work. Until then, keep practicing.

Kalin Goble: The Practicing Connection podcast is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture, and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense under award numbers 2019-48770-30366, and 2023-48770-41333.


[00:12:09] [END OF AUDIO]


December 21, 2023
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