I’ve always been a little obsessed with human contact.
Partly this is because of the work I do. For the past 30 years I’ve been a facilitator, trainer and mediator specializing in leadership development and conflict resolution.
I work with people—in corporations, government agencies, courts, nonprofits, and schools—who want to engage in the kind of honest, productive conversations that will move their lives and organizations forward.
It’s not unusual for me to assist groups after things have become especially challenging: when people see things very differently, feelings run hot, relationships are deteriorating, and the stakes are high.
But the truth is, even under normal circumstances, we tend to be at least a little afraid of one another: afraid we’ll say something stupid, afraid we’ll be excluded, afraid to be ourselves. This is true even in the best organizations, and even when we feel we know one another quite well.
And when we feel scared and disconnected, it’s simply harder to do what our organizations expect of us: adapt and learn, think creatively, resolve differences, and deliver excellent work.
But my interest in connection is also personal. My wonderful mother struggled with depression for her entire life. I wasn’t aware of it until I grew older, but my early childhood left me with a deep sense of isolation, and an equally powerful longing to make contact. For better and worse, my life schooled me in the pain of disconnection, and it motivated me to minimize that pain for others, as well as for myself.
Given all this, it makes sense that check-ins became part of my standard operating procedure at work.
I don’t remember when I was first introduced to the practice. That isn’t surprising given that it’s as old as humans, and, like most of you, I likely participated in my first check-in as a seven-year-old (“Can everyone go around and share their name and favorite animal?”). I’ve conducted them, or watched colleagues conduct them, countless times. We all know about check-ins, right?
Over the years, I’ve been confounded by how many leaders are unfamiliar with the practice of check-ins. More accurately, they are familiar with it—they attended elementary school too—but they just don’t incorporate it into their meetings.
I’m not talking about slackers here, either. I’m referring to seasoned, high-performing leaders in some of the most successful corporations and nonprofits in the world. Smart people to whom leading meetings are like at-bats to baseball players: they do it multiple times every day, hundreds of times a year. It’s a central part of their jobs.
These are the same leaders who express their frustration and disappointment with meetings, particularly the difficulty of engendering the kind of authentic and brave conversation that would make their gatherings most valuable. The same leaders who complain that a handful of the people who attend their meetings do most of the talking—and that many don’t talk at all.
Yet, more often than not, they were neglecting check-ins: one of the simplest, most efficient tools I know for increasing any group’s engagement, trust, and productivity.
But simple doesn’t mean easy. Most leaders know their business well, and they expect high performance, but they haven’t had much training in how to get people to work together. And they are even less comfortable with the social-emotional dimension of team performance.
As I paid more attention to check-ins, I noticed that even some of my colleagues take them for granted. They forget to apply best practice, and as a result, they don’t get the maximum benefit from their check-ins.
It became clear to me that people could use some help.
I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.Brene Brown
I searched for books and other resources about check-ins that could provide guidance to leaders. There wasn’t much—a page or two in one resource, a paragraph or two in another. That was it. Check-ins have apparently been hiding in plain sight.
I created this website to fill that gap.
Like many things that we think are simple—a raindrop falling, playing catch with a child, a leaf—when you look closely, the underlying structures and processes are more intricate than you would have guessed. The same is true here. Conducting an effective check-in is connected to profound and usually unspoken human needs, to how we communicate, to how we plan and run meetings, to how we show up in every aspect of our leadership.
I’ve tried to address these nuances here.
But zoom out, and check-ins are still quite simple: people gathered together, with each person taking a turn to say a few words to their fellows.
My greatest hope goes out to you and the people with whom you gather. May this site enable you to make your meetings more successful—and enjoyable.
Watertown, Massachusetts, USA
If you have suggestions on how to make this site more useful, or even just want to share one of your favorite check-in questions, please contact me. I’d be excited to hear from you.