Five Essentials of Meeting Facilitation

April 28, 2016

Sometimes seeing something done poorly makes me better appreciate why things should be done a certain way. This was the case when I witnessed a recent meeting facilitation.

I had an opportunity to learn from a committee meeting where I was merely a spectator—not the facilitator or a participant. It gave me a unique perspective to simply observe from afar. I was on the balcony rather than the dance floor. Watching the meeting evolve, I found myself continually second-guessing the facilitator’s methods.

The meeting itself had about 20 committee participants, a co-facilitator and a number of community members joining in at various times without clear distinction of who was and who was not on the committee. Discussions were often derailed into areas far off-topic and not drawn back to the area of concern. Several times the facilitator asked open-ended questions to the entire group as to what they wanted to do next. The group was mostly unresponsive.

When one committee participant voiced a concern over a conflict that had begun between him and another participant at a previous meeting, his comment was essentially dismissed and went unresolved.

Though the meeting lasted nearly three hours, I came away feeling like very little had been accomplished. The minutes distributed later confirmed my conclusion.

The definition of facilitate is “to make easy or less difficult.” To do this, a facilitator must have a number of qualities and skills to make progress on achieving objectives with a group of people. These include intuition, experience leading groups, keen power of observation, ability to pay attention to what’s said and—perhaps more importantly—what’s left unsaid.

And good facilitation should include these five essentials:

  1. Design & Plan
    Before the meeting, a facilitator must design and plan the structure for the meeting: what, why, where, when and how. This is not something that can come from a template, but is determined for the individual group and the specific issues they are working on. The agenda should be determined very carefully along with timeframes allotted to each item; the agenda should be distributed to participants well in advance of the meeting. And the layout of the chairs should be such that everyone can see and be seen by everyone else.
  1. Control & Guide
    While the meeting is taking place, the facilitator must be able to balance the needs of progressing through the agenda while making substantive progress on individual items. It is vital that everyone’s voice is heard and therefore the facilitator needs to monitor those who are talking too much and those talking too little or not at all. The facilitator should also keep conversations from straying too far off topic and ensure that important items are placed in the “parking lot” for later consideration. It’s also important to know when the group is at an impasse and needs to move on. Think traffic cop with an interest in the final destination.
  1. Ask Good Questions
    The art of asking good questions is perhaps the most important quality of a facilitator. A good question requires good listening and discernment for what is unclear or missing from the discussion. One question might be, after first summarizing all that has been said on a specific topic and then articulating a conclusion from it, ask the group if they agree with this conclusion. If yes, be sure to record it. If no, seek to gain further clarity and repeat.
  1. Cultivate Constructive Conflict
    In Bruce Tuchman’s model for team development (forming, storming, norming and performing), it is the storming phase where conflict shows up and it is essential to allow for and even encourage it. When conflict is discouraged or repressed, a group cannot expect to norm and perform. A facilitator must be courageous by leaning into conflict as it will ultimately strengthen the group and lead to better decision making. If the facilitator fails to do this, members of the group will not feel safe to disagree leading to groupthink and poorer decisions.
  1. Record & Make Actions
    It is vitally important for the facilitator to either take notes or appoint someone to do so, and distribute them well in advance of the next meeting. If important statements and decisions from the meeting aren’t recorded, very little action will be taken when it is completed. And participants are likely to take away very different impressions for what was said and what was decided. The facilitator must also ensure that those who were appointed action items are held accountable for completing them.

Another thing I like to do when facilitating larger groups is to break into small groups for brainstorming sessions. This enables those who may feel somewhat intimidated or less confident speaking up in front of an entire group to share their ideas and opinions. It also is less likely to lead to groupthink as multiple ideas can be gathered separately and then later debated on their merits against other ideas.

Good facilitation is all too rare, but when done well it can be tremendously fascinating to be a part of. A good facilitator can make accomplishing objectives easier. A good facilitator can lead to better group decision-making. And a good facilitator keeps track of time, conversations, conflict, emotions, and the facilitation includes the above five essentials.

photo credit: <a href=”″>Presenting on Adult Bullying in the Workplace</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>(license)</a>

Conducting Effective Virtual Meetings

May 4, 2012

More and more meetings are now and will continue to be conducted without the benefit of being in the same room together. People are working from home or the other side of the planet, and it’s important to make these virtual meetings effective.

Virtual meetings, which I define as anytime we discuss something with two or more people outside of the same room, can be done over the phone or on the web. And though there are many advantages to meeting with people in this way, there are also obstacles to making them work well.

For example, it is more difficult to fully understand each other because even the use of video can hide a great deal of non-verbal communication. We also interact differently when we’re not in close proximity to one another. Distractions abound and can easily be hidden from others. And the ability to build trust and camaraderie are especially difficult.

As I discussed in a previous post, effective virtual teamwork requires great communication, respect, trust and camaraderie. These are important for any team to be effective, but may be even more important when interacting face-to-face is not an option.

When conducting a virtual meeting, I believe you should be especially vigilante at following rules for any effective meeting and then include additional ones as well.

All Meetings Should Include:

  • Agenda. Nothing frustrates people more than attending a meeting where there is no clear reason for it and no logical progression of topics to be discussed.
  • Check–in time. Take five minutes or so in the beginning for everyone to say something about what’s going on with them—professionally or personally. This gets everyone talking right away and helps facilitate camaraderie.
  • Schedule. Start and end the meeting on time, and keep the agenda moving forward. Don’t meet any longer than necessary. If the meeting is scheduled to be an hour and you’ve finished everything on the agenda after 40 minutes, end the meeting.
  • Focus. Remember that the meeting is taking people away from tasks they would otherwise attend to and respect their time. Recognize early when certain discussions should be taken offline between fewer participants.
  • No multi-tasking. Nothing keeps a meeting from staying on track and remaining effective when individuals are reading and sending text messages or emails while trying to stay engaged. Even though technology enables it, we can’t be nearly as effective when doing more than one thing at a time.

Virtual Meetings Should Also:

  • Engage everyone. At the beginning of the meeting ask everyone to remove themselves from distractions. Keep each member involved in the discussion and call on those who are quiet to get them talking. Give each person a task such as timekeeper, minutes recorder, “parking lot” manager, and rotate these every meeting.
  • Avoid using mute button. The mute prohibits spontaneous contributions to discussions and often encourage multi-tasking as people can hide out. There are exceptions, for example, when someone is in an especially noisy environment that would only distract everyone.
  • Use video whenever possible. Video conferencing can definitely aid communication and make people more accountable for staying engaged. These web conferencing products are easily available and affordable so there should be no reason not to use them now.
  • Build trust and camaraderie. Check in before, during and after meetings to get to know each other better. This is especially important when you are unable to connect face-to-face with members of your team. It can be as simple as a short call or email to ask how it’s going.
  • Check in with the group. During meetings, check in with the entire group to ensure the meetings are an effective use of their time. It’s harder to read cues as to whether people are tuning out when you’re not in the same room together. Ask what could be done differently to make them more effective.

The reality of more virtual meetings means we need to find ways to make them work as effectively as possible. Following these rules can help.