The title of this post is called "How to start a meeting", but it's useful in the middle of a meeting too. And for this, anytime even two people meet, it's a meeting!
Of course it's most effective at the beginning, where it can do the most good. But I've forgotten more than once and "recovered" by stopping and going through the steps -- sometimes steps 3 and 4 alone are enough when mid-meeting.
Basically, you want to interact at a level of interaction that promotes sharing and the free exchange of ideas. This requires that you get out of the mode of "problems, survival, and head-elsewhere" and into the mode of "constructive interaction".
It's easy to do, really. While there are several methods, the most straightforward is to:
1) Notice something about the room. [Note: The act of noticing is a choice that you make!] You can also notice something or someone in room. This needs to be something that you genuinely notice.
2) Say something about it. Some examples are "Was that plant always over there?" "The view out the window is really amazing." "That new suit/shirt looks good on you." "Anyone smell coffee?" "Which one is the squeaky chair?" Generally make positive statements so you don't bring down the group. No complaining, which is a topic for a future blog post. And it's best if it's something everyone can generally agree on.
At this point you've gotten everyone mentally present in the room and out of their previous thoughts. Whatever they were thinking before, their attention is now focused on their surroundings, you, and the other people in the room.
3) Care about the other person/people enough to ask them how they are. "How are you?" works great at the beginning of the meeting. "How was your weekend?" works great too. If it's mid-meeting, stop and ask, "How are you, by the way?" as if you just remembered, which you did. The important thing is to be genuine.
4) Listen to the answer(s) without interrupting. The more self-directed the person, the more time needs to be devoted to this. Same with people that have a lot of autonomy. Same with people that are "higher" in the typical organization chart. Same with people that report into you. Listen. Listen more.
5) Bring up the topic(s) to be discussed. And discuss them. Remember step #4 as you proceed through the meeting.
Simple, right? Enjoy!