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>