Improving Meeting Effectiveness with Exercises to Engage Presence and Creativity

Kirstin McGuire

Kirstin McGuire

Kirstin McGuire

Kirstin McGuire

Meeting. Say the word and you are likely to see a lot of eyes rolling and faces cringing. People think, “Ugh! Another unproductive hour of my life that I can never get back.” Like them or not, meetings are a necessity for getting business done, but sadly, the vast majority are a complete waste of time for most of the people in attendance. This article presents two ideas for leaders who are interested in changing this paradigm by creating an environment for greater engagement and creativity.

There are volumes of articles and books out there about how to run an effective meeting that espouse practical advice such as making sure you have an agenda and being mindful of the allotted time. While these things are important aspects to running a successful meeting, there are a couple of important things that aren’t so readily addressed in the advice columns – engagement and creativity.

When you bring people together for a meeting, there is an associated cost. Most people don’t think about it, but meetings are expensive endeavors. Imagine you are bringing together eight senior level executives for a strategic planning session that is scheduled to last all day; or perhaps, you are scheduling a staff working team of six to meet for an hour once a week for the next quarter. If you start working out the math on the hourly cost equivalent for each person, plus the cost of what they are not getting done while they are sitting in the meeting, it is an expensive proposition.

Thinking about the cost/value balance of meetings is an especially valid concern for high stakes meetings such as strategic planning sessions where the participants are typically high level, meaning expensive and valuable to the business, and the expectations are high with regard to meeting outcomes. It is not inconceivable that the costs of such meetings can run into the tens-of-thousands of dollars, based on the salaries, value and travel costs associated with getting people to the conference table.

With such a large investment, there is an equivalent expectation for a big return. In these strategic meetings, the return value is typically captured in the form of innovative new ideas, key decisions, or solutions to problems. With such significant costs and outcomes at stake, it is imperative that each and every individual in the meeting is primed to deliver their best. Unfortunately, all too many of these vitally important meetings are dominated by a couple of people and the rest of the participants do not fully engage. Some may not engage at all.

Without getting into a separate discussion about the importance of managing group dynamics, I propose a short and simple set of opening exercises to increase engagement and loosen up the creative juices. Many people are unable to fully engage in the tasks at hand during a meeting because they are distracted. Work, family and community demands are endless and if we do not consciously manage them, they will invade every waking moment. The challenge for a meeting leader is to get the attendees to set these distractions aside for the period of the meeting. This is no easy task with smart phones delivering distractions on a minute-by-minute basis.

Engagement: Begin with Centering Awareness

The astute meeting facilitator will require that phones, computers, iPads and all such devices be turned off during active meeting times. In addition, I recommend going one step beyond and taking the group through a centering exercise designed to bring their awareness into the meeting space. At the same time, this provides an opportunity for the leader to create a safe space for the open sharing of ideas, while also acknowledging each individual participant’s value to the process. The centering awareness process is done successfully on a regular basis in everything from yoga classes to weekend retreats, why not bring the wisdom of that tradition to business?

There are many centering exercise options available for meeting facilitators. I have included guidelines below for an exercise that is particularly effective with regard to setting the tone for mutual respect, connection to the group and personal value to the process. This exercise is based on one that I participated in while going through the Hoffman Quadrinity Process (Hoffman, 2012).

To begin, facilitators will ask everyone in the group to stand up, close their eyes and take a deep breath. Continuing to breathe deeply, after a few breaths, ask the participants to feel the full length of their bodies, from their feet which are firmly supported and grounded into the earth through the tops of their heads. Tell the group, in a calm and relaxing voice, that their length represents their dignity. Let them know that they are worthy of respect and, in this atmosphere of collaboration and creativity, everyone will respect each other today.

Then, have the participants breathe deeply into their width. Ask them to feel their width from shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, foot to foot. Explain that this represents their connection to community and that they are working shoulder to shoulder to do some very important work together today.

Finally, have them breathe into their depth. Ask them to fill their bodies from front to back with their breath, to feel the space they physically occupy. This represents their legacy; the skills and experience and all they have learned that they will bring to the table. It also represents the future they will build together here today.

To close, the facilitator should ask the group to bring their full awareness to the community and the work they have to do together. Ask them to put everything else that might still be distracting them in a safe place until after you are finished. Have them breathe deeply into this intention to be fully present throughout the process. After taking three deep breaths in this silent intention, ask the group to open their eyes and sit down.

This exercise should be done at the beginning of the meeting before jumping into any of the details about the agenda or other meeting information. It is important to bring people to awareness and provide them an opportunity to get centered and fully present before asking them to do any work. For a long meeting, such as an all day or multi-day meeting, this exercise should be done at the beginning of each day and if the group is scattered after a long break, such as lunch, conduct the exercise again before beginning.

Prepare for Creative Innovation: Fire Up Both Sides of the Brain

Now that everyone is present and centered, it is time to spark the creative juices in preparation for a fruitful discussion. Creativity is typically categorized as a right-brain activity. There has been much discussion about the value of right-brain and left-brain thinking since Roger Sperry, M.D., demonstrated the lateralization of brain functioning back in the 1950’s (Pink, 2005). In 2005, author Daniel Pink wrote about the increasing value of right-brain thinking in the business world, which has historically valued left-brain thinking (Pink, 2005).

In reality, creativity takes both sides of the brain. It is a misconception that right-brain processing is more creative than left-brain thinking (Capacchione, 2001). Psychologist, Robert Ornstein, explained it well when he spoke of the power of the complementary workings of the intellect and the intuitive. He believed that it is the polarity and integration of these two modes of consciousness that underlies our highest achievement (Capacchione, 2001).

In the interest of achieving the most productive meeting outcomes, it is worth taking a few minutes with the group to engage both the right-brain and the left-brain prior to getting the meeting started. Facilitators should be forewarned that the mere mention of a creative exercise will strike panic into the hearts of the exceedingly left-brained people in the group. Seasoned business people are likely to raise an eyebrow as well. However, facilitators can ensure the group that it is all in the name of good business by getting both sides of their brains firing and primed for a productive session.

The exercise I propose is a very simple and brief drawing with the non-dominant hand. For the vast majority, that means working with their left hand. People should do this exercise with whichever hand they do not write with. Be prepared to appease the skeptics with data. Studies have shown that writing or drawing with the non-dominant hand engages both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously (Hoshiyama & Kakigi, 1999).

Create a very safe space for this activity by letting everyone know that this is not an art project and it will not be shared. It is simply a warm-up exercise to get their brains ready for the tasks at hand. Just like we would never expect an athlete to take the field without warming up, we also expect business people to do the same.

Facilitators should set out sheets of white, non-lined paper and baskets of crayons, colored pencils, colored markers, or oil pastels at each table. Do this before people get to the meeting room to avoid distraction once you are ready to start. Begin the exercise by asking the participants to take two minutes to think about something they love or love to do in nature, then take five more minutes to draw that on the paper however they choose as long as they use their non-dominant hand to do it. This includes writing words if they prefer that to drawing an image. It doesn’t matter whether it is words or images, the idea is simply to get both hemispheres of the brain engaged. Remind them it isn’t an art project and their work will not be shared and then let them work on the project for no more than ten minutes. When the time is up, simply ask them to put away their drawings and then continue on with the rest of the meeting.

Participants should be centered and energized at this point. Some may even be excited by what they just created. Be careful not to de-energize the team by moving on too quickly. Obviously, you will not be able to spend all of your meeting time on creative exploration, but gauge the energy in the room and proceed intuitively based on the group. Acknowledging their enthusiasm and channeling it into business ideation is a way to move forward. If the group is quiet, that is fine too. There are no right or wrong responses, as each group will be different. Just thank them for being willing to warm up their brains and move into the agenda.

There are many logistical ideas available to help people run more efficient meetings, such as creating a purposeful agenda and giving people time to think about things before the meeting. However, the two exercises outlined here – engagement and creativity – drive to the core of making meetings more effective by tapping into the innovative potential of each individual and the synergy that results from respectful and creative group interaction. When people are fully present and engaged in the process, they are much better prepared to contribute their ideas. Add to that the power of creating a respectful meeting environment and the likelihood increases that not only are people prepared to participate, but that they will feel secure enough to share their ideas openly.

When we also, then, prime the pump of creativity by engaging both sides of the brain, we open the channels for people to integrate both their analytical (left-brain) and synthesizing (right-brain) functions. The result is more open access to the powerful creative forces that exist in all of us to come up with the innovative thoughts and ideas that deliver on the promise of why we are meeting in the first place.


Capacchione, L. (2001) The power of your other hand: a course in channeling the inner wisdom of the right brain.[Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from

Hoffman, B. (March, 2012). Centering exercise. Unpublished workshop exercise presented at the Hoffman Quadrinity Process, White Sulphur Springs, CA.

Hoshiyama, M. M., & Kakigi, R. R. (1999). Changes of somatosensory evoked potentials during writing with the dominant and non-dominant hands. Brain Research, 833(1), 10-19. Retrieved from

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: why right-brainers will rule the future. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

About the Author

Kirstin McGuire is a catalyst for the fulfillment of human creative potential. She has over 20 years of experience writing, collaborating with leaders, creating strategic communications, and facilitating workshops to ignite the potential for new levels of creativity and engagement in business.