Present, Accounted for and Engaged: The Benefits of the Check-In

Try this simple trick. Often it is the simple work of art that we find the most beautiful. Skilled nonprofit group and team leaders use (apparently) simple techniques to promote high levels of engagement.

Try this simple trick. Often it is the simple work of art that we find the most beautiful. Skilled nonprofit group and team leaders use (apparently) simple techniques to promote high levels of engagement.

One technique that I use to begin virtually every meeting is a check-in. As the first agenda item, each person responds to a question designed to elicit sharing something on their mind or in their heart. Doing so creates more readiness for work while increasing understanding and awareness among all team members of one another’s status.

Checking in helps make the rest of meetings at your nonprofit more productive.

Benefits of Checking-in

The check-in is a flexible tool with multiple applications. Checking-in:

  • Helps a new group get started quickly and builds a sense of being “in it together.”
  • Promotes commitment and engagement by hearing everyone’s input from the beginning.
  • Provides a chance for each team member to feel understood and valued while also understanding and valuing others. Checking-in is a team-building must!
  • Helps make new connections. Often, we learn about other’s interests, experience and expertise. A common reaction to a check-in is, “I had no idea that you...”

And checking in may identify if there is an important concern that needs addressing, either immediately or at a later specified time.

Simple But Profound

Why is it that something as simple as a check-in can have profound value? A check-in at the start of every meeting helps ensure that everyone is fully present and ready to work.

Often people show up physically, but are not actually present intellectually or emotionally. They may be distracted for any number of reasons. They are worried about their sick child. They may be puzzling over an idea from yesterday’s training, or they could be struggling with a deadline. Perhaps a member of your team is excited about up an upcoming vacation, and so on. Starting with a check-in allows people the opportunity to catch their breath and focus on the here-and-now.

Checking-in helps people bring themselves more fully to the task at-hand, so they can share their wealth of skills, experience and insight. And they can bring their unique perspectives, which are, in part, a product of cultural background.

Acknowledging the rich life experience each person has can improve the work. That is a real departure from discouraging people from sharing what they are feeling and who they are, which limits what they offer to a particular task. In today’s diverse nonprofit workplace, appreciating the unique experiences and perspectives every team member brings is vital.

How-to Check-in Tips

Conducting a check-in is straightforward, but there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Choose an evocative question for everyone to respond to. The question is a bridge from whatever people have been doing to the current meeting. Sample questions include:
  • What excites you about this team’s work?
  • What did/do you have to do to be fully present physically and emotionally right now?
  • What is one thing you’ve been reflecting on since yesterday’s session?
  • The question can even be as simple as, “What’s going on for you right now?” or “How are you?”

Depending on the context, I sometimes use a fun question to get things started, such as “Share something that made you laugh recently,” or “Share something that you’re proud of.”

Specify a time limit for each person's sharing. For team building retreats, I often give each person a few minutes, but for everyday purposes, a minute or two is likely to be enough.

Hold discussion or comments until check-in is complete. Give everyone uninterrupted time to share. No one should speak twice until everyone has spoken once. This is vital.

There will be plenty of time for discussion as the meeting progresses. The check-in is all about offering each person the time and space to begin their engagement. It is possible that something that warrants further discussion will be shared during check-in. Or we may just want to know more about something someone said.

Ask people to hold their comments and questions until everyone has had their turn to share. Then review the agenda with the group to see if it makes sense to continue the conversation now or at a later time.  

Consistently start meetings with a check-in to make it a group “habit.” There’s a temptation to just jump into the agenda, but as I’ve suggested, the work will likely go more smoothly if everyone can first connect with each other and make the transition from whatever they have been doing to the task at-hand.

And Remember to Check-out

By the way, I almost always end each meeting with a quick check-out. Sometimes I simply ask for – literally – one word as to how each person is feeling at the end of the meeting. You might be surprised how much can be communicated so quickly.

Of course, it’s more common to ask people to share a few thoughts at the meeting’s conclusion. This helps close the session with each person’s voice in the room, therefore acknowledging the importance of their contributions and participation.

An earlier version of this article was written with Heather Berthoud.

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