Meeting Facilitation Tips

By Deborah A. McGlauflin, President, Insights in Action, Inc.

My guiding philosophy for meeting facilitation is very straightforward. It can be summarized as: “Know the topic, know the room (the audience), and know yourself.” The following tips are drawn from my many years of experience with facilitating meetings – large and small, formal and informal – around the world.  I offer them in the hope that they might help you hone your own meeting facilitation skills, or help you talk to a potential meeting facilitator.

1. Treat the meeting agenda as a contract between the facilitator, presenters and participants. Like any contract, an agenda should be considered binding and should not be casually breached. Among other things, this means that the facilitator should move the proceedings along according to the times and sequences laid out in the agenda, which should have been very carefully planned in advance. The facilitator does not have the right to deviate without asking permission — for example, by asking the meeting organizers and members of the audience if they mind if a session runs over five minutes and eats into their coffee break, offering a real choice. Needless to say, the facilitator should set the tone by using time efficiently.

2. Never forget that the facilitator’s primary job is to create, and constantly re-create, an environment that brings the best out of those present with regard to the aim of the meeting. A facilitator cannot be wedded to a particular role or personal style, but must be prepared to adapt his/her style and approach, chameleon-like, to the needs of a constantly unfolding and changing situation. Sometimes humor is called for to lighten the mood, sometimes a very businesslike/no-nonsense approach to get a job done, sometimes a pause to note what the group has accomplished or to bring to light something the group seems to be struggling with. Comedian, taskmaster, guide — whatever helps the group most at the moment is what the facilitator should be, but always with the lightest touch possible. Good facilitation is subtle; it may hardly be noticed or remarked upon, so leave your ego at home! At the end of the day, the facilitator’s job is well done, if the purpose of the meeting is accomplished and everyone feels good about their participation.

Getting the most out of those present requires a facilitator to be highly attuned to the energy level and mood of the room. If people have been doing a lot of sitting and listening, have them stand up and stretch, reach for a snack, or take a minute to look around and smile at others in the room. Give an unscheduled in-room break, if a cool-down is needed in the middle of a difficult discussion.

3. Be familiar with and care about the topic. A good facilitator doesn’t need to be an expert on the meeting topic; in fact, being one can be an obstacle, because the roles of expert and facilitator are very different. However, the facilitator should know enough about the topic to understand the key challenges and dynamics. It will be hard to bring the best out of those present if you don’t know what “the best” is in that situation and what it is likely to take to arrive at it. It will also be much harder, if you don’t care about the issue. In the end, it’s the caring that gets one over the rough spots.

4. Never abuse the power of the gavel (or the bell). The facilitator must be kind, respectful, open and fair, thereby earning the trust and respect of the audience one stands in front of. The authority of the facilitator is a provisional trust, not an entitlement. It’s good to remember that it is a privilege to facilitate meetings of well-intentioned people who are trying to improve the world and to try to infuse one’s words and actions with that sense. The facilitator has a real opportunity to not only help people get through a meeting agenda, but to help them feel affirmed. The absolute bottom line should be to do no harm — to at least avoid exacerbating tensions and divisions in the room and to avoid draining people of energy and enthusiasm.

5. Facilitator, know thyself! The facilitator must know what situations he or she finds most difficult to handle and must have strategies for handling them that will work. For example, my mother taught me from a young age that it is not polite to interrupt people when they are talking. To this day, that makes it very difficult for me to verbally interrupt people, even a speaker who is droning on past his time limit. Knowing that, I avoid putting myself in a situation as facilitator where I need to verbally cut someone off. Instead, I use timers and/or bells. I make a point of alerting a speaker up front to a time limit and of giving them cues about time remaining. That way, I can feel I’ve been clear and fair and have no compunctions about ringing a bell. Then, when I do speak, it can be to graciously thank the person, rather than to interrupt them.

6. A good facilitator leaves plenty of room for the unexpected! The facilitator should have a “Plan B” for each session which takes into account that things may not go as planned. This is particularly important when working with tight timeframes. In such situations, it is easy for the best laid plans to go quickly astray, if time is lost because a speaker drops his/her notes, or is on crutches and takes a long time to get to the podium, or a Powerpoint presentation doesn’t cue up properly, or a projector light bulb burns out, or the electricity goes out, or a fire alarm goes off . Expect the unexpected and have a back-up plan — a way you’ve planned in advance where you can make a small change and gain back 5-10 lost minutes. For example, if you’re behind schedule going into small group discussions with planned report backs from each group, be ready to switch to either calling selectively on just one or two groups for report backs or to ask each reporter not to give a full report, but just to answer one question.

7. Keep the power dynamics of the room in mind and look for ways to level the playing field. The mere choice of meeting venue often gives some participants the psychological edge over others. It is the job of the facilitator to be aware of and counter-balance such inequities and imbalances. For example, at one meeting where NGOs and corporate staff were meeting at the company’s somewhat imposing headquarters, for an opening exercise I had everyone stand up and mingle with the task of learning how to say “good morning” in three languages from others in the room. It wasn’t just fun and interactive way to start the day, it was a leveler. Everyone could learn from each other, and corporate or NGO status didn’t have any bearing on one’s ability to either be a linguistic resource or to do the exercise.

8. Keep in mind what is special about the gathering and draw it out. Some of what is special, such as the participation of people from multiple countries and cultures, may be taken for granted or not formally addressed in the agenda. Mixing people from different countries in discussion groups, and doing the kind of mixer exercise described above are among the ways one can quickly and easily mine such richness.

9. When in doubt, ask the group. No facilitator knows how to handle every situation that may arise. When I feel stymied, I try hard to resist the urge to fake it or to railroad the process, since the risk that I’ll lead the group astray is too high. Instead, I try to do three things:

* First, reflect back the situation (e.g. “The group seems to be divided into two camps and seems unable to reach agreement.”);

* Second, present and/or flush out options (e.g. “We could continue to discuss this until we find common ground, or we could agree to disagree on this matter for the time being and move on to the next topic. Are there any other options?”);

* Third, ask what the group wants to do (e.g. “Let’s have a quick show of hands on each option.”)

10. Celebrate progress made. One of the facilitator’s key roles is to make sure the group gets a lift from progress made during the meeting. It’s all too easy to rush from one item on an agenda to the next, not taking time to celebrate group work that is well done or agreement that is reached. As facilitator, you can take a minute to make note of the progress and say “Well done!” or “You should feel very good about what you just accomplished.” Alternatively, you can have a little more fun with it and say: “Everyone, stand up….Raise your right hand in the air….Bend your elbow….Now pat yourself on the back for a job well done!”

I hope these tips help you facilitate meetings more effectively and enjoy the experience more.

__________________________

Copyright Insights in Action, Inc., 2006. All rights reserved. 

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