Conducting The Check-in

Here are the steps for conducting a check-in:

First, manage your own fear

Many leaders hesitate to initiate check-ins. You may be anxious to get to the content of the meeting, or feel uncertain about how the check-in will work. When check-ins are a new practice, you might even fear that someone in your group will think (or worse, say): “Why are we doing this silly thing when we have so much important work to do!?”

But as explored elsewhere, the many benefits of check-ins make it well worth trying. Feeling some anxiety about check-ins is normal. Like many other aspects of leadership, all you can do is prepare well and then take a leap and try it. Chances are very high that you and your group will be glad you did.

Arrange participants so they can see each other

When meeting participants are in the same room, make sure group members can all see one another. Though a circular arrangement is ideal, gathering around rectangular tables is often unavoidable and can still work. For remote meetings, of course, this is moot. (NOTE: Tables themselves are unnecessary for this purpose; under the right circumstances, conducting check-ins—and entire meetings for that matter—in a circle of chairs can create a deeper sense of intimacy.)

Introduce the check-in to the group

It’s usually unnecessary to provide much explanation regarding why you are doing a check-in.

You might offer a “bridge” sentence that puts your check-in in context, such as: “The focus of our meeting today is to explore how to make best use of this new building, so I thought we’d begin with a check-in related to that.”

Otherwise, give the basic instructions, and dive in and do the simple practice. Don’t overthink it. The check-in will be finished before you know it, and group members can begin to experience its benefits firsthand. Though there may be some resistance, chances are high that people will happily follow your lead.

Some leaders choose to explain their rationale for trying a check-in, perhaps even sharing a bit of their own anxiety if it’s a new practice for them. Done skillfully, demonstrating vulnerability like this can be a powerful move that models that it’s ok to take risks and be oneself.

Remember that you participate too

The leader participates in check-ins like every other group member. Initially, you typically answer the selected question first in order to model how it works. Group members will follow your lead in regards to the length, as well as the degree of vulnerability, of your answer.

After your group becomes familiar with the practice, you can start the check-in with whomever volunteers to begin. Often the person who speaks first is then asked to choose which direction around the room the question will move.

When doing a check-out, often the leader closes the gathering by answering the question last.

Note that on occasion, leaders do not participate in the check-ins or check-outs they lead. If the check-in question concerns the impact of a pre-work assignment on group members, for example, the leaders may not respond simply because they themselves haven’t done the assignment.

Encourage participation

When groups are new to check-ins, leaders should encourage group members. Some leaders say a quiet “thank you” to each person after they speak, but such “thank you’s” can quickly feel perfunctory. I prefer a silent, welcoming smile, and a pause that ends with the next group member’s remarks. Encouragement becomes unnecessary once groups are more comfortable with the practice.

Actively manage the process

Check-ins are not a conversation. Each person’s comments need not relate to those who speak before them, and people are discouraged from asking questions of one another.

Beyond an occasional encouraging remark, even leaders should refrain from responding to group members. One group member speaks, and after they finish, the person next to them begins when they are ready. Check-ins unfold, person by person; they aren’t forced in a particular direction.

This includes leaving room for silence. The more comfortable groups become, the more easily they can tolerate periods when no one is talking. The gap between when one person finishes speaking and the next person begins, known as “exchange time,” provides participants with an opportunity to reflect, to manage emotions, to arrive at new insights. Often a “gift”—in the form of a deeper level of openness and honesty—follows a pause. As Mozart allegedly wrote, sometimes “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence in between.”

Check-ins do require active guidance to stay on track, however, usually in the form of light, crisp facilitative comments. Common circumstances that warrant intervention include when participants:

  • talk for too long
  • veer off topic
  • interrupt one another
  • make comments that turn the check-in into a conversation

Provide gentle nudges along the way, saying things like:

  • “Ok, let’s get back on track here”
  • “We can dive deeper into this issue later if you like, but for now let’s continue with the check-in”
  • Really great to hear from you, Jeanine. We all need to keep our check-in a bit briefer, however, or else we aren’t going to have time for the rest of our agenda.”

You don’t have to be a hawk in this regard; it’s fine to let an errant remark or two pass. But beware: When one person doesn’t follow the norms, others are likely and unwittingly to follow. Left unchecked, the result can be an underperforming check-in that is boring, frustrating, or simply eats up too much of your meeting time. As Priya Parker writes in her wonderful The Art of Gathering, “an essential step along the path of gathering better is making peace with the necessity and virtue of using your power.”

Consider the example of a team of far-flung consultants that did a check-in upon gathering to work together for a week. The team had collaborated for years and knew one another well. But because the first few check-in participants spoke for too long, group members were tired and anxious to get to work by the time the latter members spoke. And so they abandoned the check-in. A gentle reminder to be brief to those who spoke first—from a leader or even a participant—could have prevented this issue. Use your authority as leader to ensure that the check-in works for everyone in the group.

I have found a timer to be a useful tool to manage check-in prompts that elicit longer responses. I tell group members that when they hear the alarm, they should wrap up their remarks. I use the timer on my phone. Interestingly, after timing about 8 people, I often don’t even need it anymore because group members have a felt sense of how long they should speak.

Practice makes perfect with check-ins; the more your group does them, the more skilled group members will become at contributing meaningfully within the form’s constraints.

Close the check-in

After everyone has spoken, a few things you might do before transitioning into the next activity include:

  1. Ask anyone who passed whether they’d now like to contribute. For example: “Kim, you said you wanted to think about it earlier. Do you want to say something now? It’s up to you.” Don’t feel compelled to do this, however.
  2. Briefly highlight a theme you’ve noticed in people’s responses. For example:
    1. “It’s exciting that many of you found the last meeting so useful.”
    2.  “Wow, lots of people are distracted today by the events in Washington.”
    3. “There sure seems to be a ton of interest in the new tracking system.”
  3. Help participants become aware of the value of check-ins. After a powerful check-in, pause to ask participants to reflect upon how they feel in the moment and what benefits check-ins might be providing to the group. For example:
    1.  “I know that check-ins were new to many of you, and they can feel a little strange at first. I’m curious about the impact you think they might be having on us. Before we move on, does anyone notice anything different about our team since we’ve been doing check-ins?”

After hearing from participants, underscore the value of investing a few minutes in this way in order to make meetings more productive and enjoyable.

Follow-up on issues that arise during the check-in

Sometimes concerns are mentioned during a check-in that warrant further exploration and attention—a shared frustration with a policy change, gossip that’s reducing confidence in the team or organization, an interpersonal conflict within the group, a participant’s personal struggle.

Leaders need to be responsive and arrange to address these issues. As a highly structured and relatively inflexible practice, check-ins are not the best place to address such issues.

On occasion you can pause the check-in, immediately resolve an issue, and effectively resume. It’s more likely, however, that attending to such concerns requires setting aside time later in the meeting, putting it on the agenda of a future meeting, or reaching out to someone after the meeting is over. But be sure to do this; otherwise you send a message that you aren’t interested in the group’s legitimate concerns.