How To Run A Meeting That Doesn’t Suck | Part 2: You Have To Know How To Set A Context

This is part two of a seven part series.
Read Part One Here.

Almost everyone I meet seems to think they know how to run a meeting. The startup founders I coach are convinced that their ability to guide a process is better than almost anyone else. The coaches I work with are no different, they feel their ability to listen and reflect makes them master facilitators. And yet consistently when I sit in on a meeting that one of my clients runs, I have to bite my tongue to hold back my suggestions and objections.


This is despite the fact that there are numerous guides, books, and outlines for how to run meetings. The real problem is that running a meeting is less about the mechanics (timing, agendas, talking sticks, conches, wands, etc) and more about the ability to be with people while also leading them with grace to a place THEY want to go.

So after running thousands of meetings and sitting through even more, here’s the skills you actually need to be successful.

You Have To Know How To Set A Context

A context is not an agenda or an outline of a meeting. It’s literally the space a meeting will happen in.

Setting a context is like laying out a field for a sport. In football you define the endzones and the yard lines. In soccer you define the goal box and the center point. These lines indicate something important about the game you’re about to play.

That’s what creating the right context is. Most facilitators draw a sort of vague box around the work that’s going to be done. And then hope people will play by the rules. But if the box is ill defined in structure, energy, and intent the game gets more and more messy over time.

Learning how to discover what the context is and then make sure you define it for everyone engaging is key. And you’ll probably have to learn to set it and then remind people about it as they go along.

Start by answering these questions: – What is this meeting for? – What is the desired outcome? – What is the current dynamic of the people involved? – Where do the current set of desires align and conflict? – What needs to be in the space in order for people to feel safe to engage and inspired to participate?

Some of these may be hard to answer. Ideally you can ask before the meeting but if not, take a guess. Having some idea of these questions will help you define how to move forward.

Once you have an idea of the baseline ask yourself: What am I committed to creating at this meeting?

This isn’t the outcome, it’s rather the space you want to create. Think like an interior designer might: How do I want people to feel in this bathroom?

And then work to set a context from that place. The context will include the purpose, but will also create a relational space. If you do a good job of this the experience will be both somewhat seamless (people don’t totally trip over what you’re saying) but it will also have an impact (they will pause for a moment and reflect or have a subtle reaction like a leaning back or taking a deep breath).

You can watch this happen in real time and it’s a worthy thing to see if you can create. A great context makes a great meeting and it like all the rest of these takes practice.