Frequently Asked Questions About Check-ins

Should the check-in always be done first thing in a meeting?

Check-ins work well after any transition: At the start of the meeting (or day, week, etc.), when an activity requires a new grouping of people, after lunch, even at the end of your gathering. Typically check-ins occur near the start of a meeting, but you can schedule them any time that works in the context of your overall agenda.

Even when check-ins start a gathering, a few agenda items that often come before the check-in are a welcome from the meeting sponsor, and a review of the goals and agenda. For groups that meet regularly, however, check-ins usually occur first thing, right after a quick hello from the person convening the meeting.

Should group members always answer check-in questions sequentially?

No. When all meeting participants are physically present, it’s common to “go around the room” and have each person respond after the person next to them has responded. Especially when check-ins are new to a group, this helps people get their bearings.

But leaders sometimes encourage members to respond non-sequentially, with each person choosing to speak when they are ready. This approach builds more choice into the process, and it provides those who need it with a bit more time to think. Facilitators sometimes refer to this non-sequential method as the “popcorn” method: like corn kernels that each pop in their own time after they reach the necessary temperature, individuals respond when they feel ready. They pop.

When a meeting includes participants who are joining remotely, it’s a bit trickier to determine who should respond when. The meeting leader can either publish a list in advance to clarify the order, call on people spontaneously (“John, why don’t you go next!”), or ask each participant to select who should follow them. If no one takes charge, the gap between speakers can feel awkward.

What if there are too many people at my gathering to do a check-in?

Group size is one of a number of factors that make a standard check-in inadvisable or cumbersome. Sometimes it would simply expend too much valuable time for everyone to speak to the whole group. Though I have colleagues who regularly conduct check-ins with groups as large as 50, my feeling is that once you get much beyond 24 people, it’s preferable to use alternate approaches to gather your group.

One adjustment that sometimes works is to keep your check-in brief. Use a one-word question like “Please share one word that describes how you feel about the new regulations we are here to discuss?” It can help to model brevity for the group, to be disciplined about keeping people on track, and to write the question out on newsprint so people can prepare their response.

There are a couple of effective alternatives to check-ins. A “pair share,” in which participants have a brief one-on-one conversation with another group member, is perhaps the best. Also known as a “turn and talk,” this wonderful approach accommodates large groups, requires only a modest amount of time, and provides many of the benefits of a check-in. Pair shares also enable participants to offer more in-depth answers than they have time for in a check-in. The steps are simply:

  1. Select an effective question in advance.
  2. Gather your group together.
  3. Ask group members to find someone they don’t know well (alternatively, they can just “turn and talk” to the person next to them).
  4. Introduce the question (or set of questions) to the group.
  5. Give dyads time for each partner to respond to the question/s.
  6. Gather the whole group together again after the allotted time.
  7. Close by asking a few volunteers to share with the larger group something they discussed during the pair share. (Because some participants might not want their answers shared with the large group, ask volunteers to only share what they said during conversation, not what their partner said.)

A second check-in alternative is a process I know by the name of “connections.” Though it works in various situations, connections is best suited for groups that have met together recently (for example, at the start of the second or third day of a multi-day offsite, after lunch when you’ve been together during the morning, etc.).

“Connections” affords a few group members the opportunity to volunteer responses to a prompt or question that you provide. It’s a great way to get the temperature of a group, and to gather and align them through their own contributions.

Many check-in prompts, particularly from the “Questions for Working” list, work well for connections. The kinds of questions that I often use are:

  • What’s one way that our time together yesterday has affected you?
  • What are you thinking and feeling as we begin this day?
  • Based upon what we have learned, what is a hope that you are bringing to our meeting?

One of the distinguishing features of connections is silence: group members sits in silence between responses, waiting for the next volunteer to speak. Though slightly uncomfortable initially, groups get used to it quickly (and as mentioned elsewhere, silence is beneficial).

As in a check-in, speakers don’t have to reference the comments of people who speak before them. Connections is not a conversation, but a series of distinct reflections.

 The steps are:

  1. Select an effective prompt in advance.
  2. Gather your group together.
  3. Introduce how “connections” works, stressing that:
    1. People volunteer to speak when they are ready
    2. Periods of silence are a welcome part of the exercise
    3. People don’t have to reference the comments of those who precede them
  4. Introduce the question or prompt to the group.
  5. Open the floor to comments, initiating a silence that the first volunteer will fill.
  6. Intervene if group members break the form by starting a conversation.
  7. After the allotted time, or if an extended silence gives you the impression that no one else wants to speak, close the activity. Thank the group, and transition to the next part of your agenda.

Can people pass during a check-in?

Check-ins are voluntary; as such, people can always choose whether to participate or pass. The fact that most people like to be heard—combined with the tacit social pressure to participate—makes passing uncommon.

Still, people do choose to pass for a variety of reasons. They may pass to assert self-control, or to assess whether it’s safe to speak honestly. Sometimes they are shy and simply don’t know what to say. Or they may be truly unable to participate: At the start of an elementary-school staff meeting, teachers were asked to check in by sharing the first name of a student with whom they were enjoying working. One teacher, who had had a particularly overwhelming day, said “I just can’t do it” and passed.

I’ve observed people pass during one check-in, and then contribute with passion and depth during subsequent check-ins.

When check-ins are designed and facilitated well, passing will be rare. When it does occur, invite people who pass to add their input after others have spoken. If people pass regularly during your check-ins, it is likely an indication of other issues—with your check-in design, within the group, even with your leadership—that you’d benefit from exploring.

What is the difference between an “ice-breaker” and a check-in?

An icebreaker is an activity used to help members of a new group cohere into a working team. Utilized when a group is first forming, icebreakers range from conversation-based activities to games to physical challenges. A few examples are below.

Check-ins, by contrast, are a methodical approach to encourage each member of a group to speak to their peers. One by one, group members address those gathered by responding to a selected question or prompt. Though check-ins can be used to help groups initially cohere, they are employed throughout the life of a group.

Check-ins are used for a range of purposes, and they focus on the concrete work of the gathering as often as they do on helping group members form stronger relationships. The questions used for check-ins can be light and fun, or they can concern the most serious and pressing issues a group faces. Regardless, they are chosen deliberately to further a group’s development and ultimately, to enable it to perform at the highest level.

Leaders who use check-ins strive to make them the right combination of useful, interesting, and enjoyable, depending upon the specific needs of each group.

Though check-ins are sometimes used as an icebreaker, they are much more than that. Check-ins are part of the ongoing work of group leadership, and often become a valued practice in a group’s life.

A FEW ICEBREAKERS:

Two truths and a lie: One at a time, each participant shares with the entire group two things that are true about them, and one that is not true. After each person finishes, the group tries to guess which are the truths, and which is the lie.

All My Neighbors: Participants arrange their chairs in a circle with empty space in the middle, and then sit down. One person stands in the middle of the circle without a chair (ie, there is one less chair in the circle than there are people in the group). The standing person creates a prompt by finishing the sentence stem: “All my neighbors who… (for example, “All my neighbors who have a standing desk, …who have worked here for less than 3 years, …who have been to Hawaii, …who like eggs, etc.). The person in the center shares their prompt, and anyone for whom that prompt is true has to stand up and find a new chair. The person standing also sits down. After everyone is seated, the one person who remains standing goes to the center of the circle and makes up the next prompt. And so on.

Maitre D: Ask participants to imagine that they are at a restaurant, and you are the maître D. Participants are to walk around the room. You call out “4 top!” (“4 top” is restaurant slang for a table that seats 4). Upon hearing that, participants form a group of 4 (ideally with people that they don’t know well). You then provide a question that the groups of 4 discuss among themselves. After enough time passes for small group members to share their answers, gather the whole group together and ask for a few volunteers to share something said in their small group. Then ask them to mingle again before calling out another imaginary table (3 top, 5 top, 2 top, etc.). Participants form a new group corresponding to the number called, you provide a new question, and the icebreaker continues.

What if sensitive issues are raised during a check-in?

Some leaders express concern that check-ins will open a Pandora’s box. Perhaps group members are upset with a colleague’s recent behavior, or there are rumors of restructuring or of a division closing. You may fear that, because check-ins give everyone an opportunity to speak to the group, a participant will choose to raise an issue that you would rather avoid, or one that you don’t feel you have the information or skill to address.

Because check-ins are quite structured—with each member answering a specific question in an allotted time frame—this is relatively rare in my experience. Still, it is always possible that group members will broach unexpected concerns.

Of course, no group can perform optimally when members are choosing to not talk about what is on their minds. If there are impediments to your team working collaboratively, it’s usually best for you to find a way to address them. Managing such issues is a central responsibility of group leadership. (For you can be certain that if their concerns are not discussed in the group, they are surely being discussed outside of it.)

Effectively addressing such looming concerns does not always require discussing them as a group, however. Depending upon the issue, you can:

  1. Take actions in advance of the meeting to try to remedy the concern, including talking to key group members privately.
  2. Organize smaller gatherings of group members who are most affected by, or invested in, the issue (sometimes reporting back the results of those separate meetings to the entire group).
  3. Proactively raise the issue yourself during the meeting if you’re aware of it.
  4. Wait to see if someone raises the issue and then:
    1. pause the check-in and immediately explore it
    2. postpone discussion until conditions are right (perhaps when information is forthcoming)
    3. put the issue on the agenda for exploration later in the meeting or at a future meeting

One last note: Group members’ willingness to raise difficult issues might indicate that you’ve created an environment in which they feel safe enough to do so. If that’s true, it actually bodes well for their performance.

What is the ideal physical space for a check-in?

Space matters!

As with any gathering, the amount of natural light, the view (or lack thereof), the seating arrangement, the level of ambient noise, even the distance between chairs can all have at least some effect upon the way people feel, their ability to connect with one another, and the results they produce. Check-ins of course are no different. Though these factors all have an impact, a committed group of people can overcome limitations and make most any space a warm and productive environment.

Apart from the seating and sightline concerns already mentioned, one additional consideration that is particularly important for check-ins is sound.

Check-ins ask group members to speak and listen to one another, not only to a “presenter.” Many people are soft-spoken, and the need to project their voice can be an impediment to honest, intimate conversation. You want people to feel relaxed and connected during a check-in, not like they’re on stage.

The noise from heating and air conditioning systems may not be problematic for keynote speakers with microphones, but it can overpower people with soft voices and prevent others from hearing them during check-ins. Plan accordingly.

Should I use a “talking piece”?

Talking pieces are physical objects that group members pass around the room as they speak. Only the person holding the “talking piece” is permitted to talk; all others are asked to give their best attention to the speaker. When that person finishes, he or she passes the talking piece to the person next to them, signaling that it is their turn to speak.

I have on occasion used talking pieces for meetings designed to address contentious issues. But I haven’t found talking pieces necessary for check-ins, which by their nature are tightly structured, shorter and benign.

Still, some leaders do use talking pieces during check-ins and feel that they are important. Talking pieces concretely delineate speaker from listener, and may encourage self-control and deeper listening. By providing structure, symbolism, and pacing to the conversation, they can also help create a sense of safety and significance in groups. In 2018, US Senator Susan Collins made headlines by using a talking piece at a contentious bi-partisan meeting to discuss ending a government shutdown.

Like check-ins themselves, using a talking piece initially can seem strange to participants. If you do want to use one, any accessible object will suffice: a marker, an eraser, a pen, or a set of keys. (Not appearing to make a big deal about the object itself can make talking pieces more palatable to skeptics.)

Some leaders choose an object that might have meaning to group members. This might be a corporate mascot, a symbol, something the group creates, or anything that can be connected to the values (courage, honesty, beauty, patience) that your group is striving to embody.

What should I do if my check-ins aren’t going well?

Check-ins are designed to increase your group’s performance and pleasure. All things being equal, most groups not only find them valuable, they enjoy them.

If your people don’t like your check-ins, it may be a sign of other issues that could prevent your group from meeting its goals. Finding out why your check-ins aren’t working could therefore be a worthwhile investment.

Check-ins hold a mirror to a group, providing information about how members feel about being together, and how they feel about its leadership.

The most common reasons why check-ins disappoint include:

  • People are not yet comfortable with the new practice
  • You are selecting inappropriate questions, perhaps too superficial or uninteresting, or more revealing than participants are ready for?
  • You are not managing the process effectively by stopping side conversations, preventing people from talking for too long, etc.
  • You are doing check-ins so often that they have become perfunctory.
  • Participants are shy (NOTE: Don’t let this scare you. Though talking to the entire group is the last thing some introverts want to do, most truly enjoy this practice once they get accustomed to it. And their fellows appreciate hearing from them.)
  • A separate concern—a disagreement among group members, another unrelated but pressing issue—is distracting or inhibiting participants
  • Participants are uncomfortable with you, the leader

Treat underperforming check-ins as an opportunity for learning. Get curious: Are there outside issues that might be distracting the group? Concerns with your leadership? Are the questions you’ve selected too mundane? Or are they generating too much anxiety?

Resist the normal tendency to become defensive. Instead, solicit feedback from the group, or in private from people that you trust.

One class of underperforming check-ins that warrant special mention are those that are mandated in large organizations. As of this writing, increasing numbers of corporations—often on the advice of big consulting firms—direct their leaders to begin meetings with something like a check-in.

Good intentions aside, you’d think vampires were in charge by the time these directives are “rolled out” across the organization. Unskillful initiatives manage to suck the soul out of check-ins; the results are often hollow and sometimes even destructive. 

In one sadly typical example, team members are required at the start of huddles to select a picture from a face scale—seven cartoon faces that range from distraught to beaming—that describes their current mood. And if it wasn’t bad enough that this approach fails to meet even a single criterion of effective check-in questions (except perhaps eliciting responses of the desired length!), the pictures are often ignored by meeting leaders who summarily proceed to the next agenda item. 

I’ve also heard of children’s hospitals that require surgical teams, a la Johns Hopkins’ “activation phenomenon,” to introduce themselves to one another before working together. But without buy-in from team leaders, participants find this to be just an annoying addition to their long preoperative to-do list.

In these cases, leaders conduct check-ins because they are directed to—yet without appreciating their benefit, without personal commitment, and certainly without following (or even understanding) best practice.

But even these corporate mandates can be fixed. It takes only a bit of dedication and creativity to free this tool from its bureaucratic headlock and revive it. I’ve known many leaders who have done it. Hopefully this site can help.