Meetings are the most universally dreaded aspect of work, but as organizations increasingly rely on teamwork, meetings are likely to become even more pervasive. Think of all the time and energy wasted on inefficient meetings – not to mention the frustration they create.
Moreover, bad meetings don’t only lead to bad decisions (or a lack of results). Because meetings define an organization’s culture, bad ones can cause morale to plummet. Valuable employees may feel overlooked or undervalued, as certain voices tend to dominate when no one is working to ensure everyone is heard. A sense of teamwork will dwindle when the so-called team can’t even stay on topic, let along make a decision.
Fortunately, most bad meetings can be prevented with skilled facilitation.
A facilitator works to ensure a meeting stays on topic and decisions are made. By keeping meetings productive and ensuring everyone feels heard and valued, skilled facilitators keep morale high.
The group members themselves are the ones who discuss ideas and make decisions; the facilitator keeps them on task, as Ingrid Bens says in Facilitating with Ease!
The following are a facilitator’s primary responsibilities. Many of these skills are extremely useful outside of meetings as well.
If everyone walks into the meeting with no real idea of what’s to be discussed, it will probably take much longer than necessary. Everyone won’t be able to give their best input if they haven’t had a chance to ponder an idea beforehand. Many people need quiet reflection time before they develop a firm opinion about an issue or ideas to share. Giving everyone advance notice of meeting topics will help ensure they’re ready to dive into the conversation.
Giving people the opportunity to modify topics of discussion beforehand may remedy oversights in the meeting plan.
Considering topics carefully will also ensure there’s a reason for the meeting in the first place. Too often, people mindlessly accept a call for a meeting without understanding its purpose, says David Grady.
Watch Grady’s TED talk, “How to Save the World (or at Least Yourself) from Bad Meetings,” for more advice on deciding if there’s a need for a meeting.
A skilled facilitator doesn’t want to be the main person talking during a meeting. To avoid that scenario, they might give different group members particular topics to spearhead; that way, they can share leadership among themselves. Just make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them – for example, to facilitate discussion or to give a concept briefing.
Delegating responsibilities also ensures no person has to spend an inordinate amount of prep time on the meeting. The most successful Fortune 500 companies are masters of delegating meeting responsibilities to make sure everything goes smoothly.
Read Fast Company’s “Six Pointers for More Effective Delegation” for tips on sharing responsibilities successfully.
Describe the Decision-Making Process
Make sure all group members are familiar with the decision-making process in advance. Some groups use voting, in which the majority opinion rules; others opt for consensus, which requires buy-in from everyone. It’s awkward and unfair to clarify a decision-making process when the decision is already in progress, so make sure everyone fully understands it.
Intel specifies the decision-making process that will be used in a particular meeting when the agenda is articulated, say Glenn M. Parker and Robert Hoffman in Meeting Excellence. Some of Intel’s approaches include voting, consensus, and having group members provide input for a leader who makes the ultimate decision.
Survey employees to find out if they’re clear on how the decision-making process works.
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A facilitator should aim to keep their personal opinions out of the decision-making process. Their job is to distill, synthesize, and articulate the feelings of the group, not impose their own.
Similarly, facilitators should speak with a positive tone but refrain from voicing support for particular ideas, says the University of Wisconsin’s Facilitator Tool Kit. Learn to say “Okay” rather than “Good point,” suggests Bens.
New and even experienced facilitators may struggle with letting go of outcomes, especially when they’re invested in the project or issue being discussed. It’s an exercise in trust, but it will get easier as the facilitator witnesses the results.
However, if the facilitator occasionally has a relevant idea or information, they should introduce it, says Bens. Framing it as a question – “What do you think of __?” – can bring in the information in a more neutral way. The facilitator doesn’t need to watch the group make a bad decision when they have information that might help people make a wiser one.
Trading off facilitation responsibilities for each meeting can ensure no one is perpetually left out of the decision-making process just because they’re a skilled facilitator.
Third-party facilitators are sometimes contracted for company meetings, strategic retreats, and other decision-making events. This ensures a neutral person can focus on the process while everyone on the team gets to participate in the discussion.
Assemble a “facilitation dream team” who can trade off this responsibility, and plan a facilitation training for the team.
Set (and Stick to) a Clear Agenda with Defined Outcomes
Develop an agenda well in advance of the meeting. Consider whether certain topics need to come before others so that you don’t realize halfway through that you need to jump to a different order of business. Never add an agenda item during the meeting.
Make sure to also define clear outcomes for the meeting, says Kimberly Devlin in Facilitation Skills Training. This will help ensure a productive meeting that brings results.
Set a time limit as well – most meetings shouldn’t last more than 90 minutes. After that, productivity dwindles.
Read this Harvard Business Review article for more tips on setting a meeting agenda.
The facilitator should ask questions that invite dialogue. A question can serve as a subtle way to steer the conversation back to the topic at hand. Ask mainly open-ended questions to prompt discussion.
Additionally, if someone asks a relatively simple question that provides an opportunity to think more deeply about the topic, try responding with a more complex question, suggest Tammy Adams, Janet A. Means, and Michael Spivey in The Project Meeting Facilitator. Through a series of increasingly more complex questions, you can lead the group to challenge preconceptions and develop new insights, the authors assert.
The facilitator should also ask clarifying questions when a group member makes an ambiguous statement.
By asking timely questions, a facilitator helps the group test its assumptions.
The next time someone asks you a question that doesn’t have one right answer, practice answering with a question. Do this as often as possible over the next week.
Ensure All Voices Are Heard
At the beginning of a meeting, the facilitator should articulate rules of conduct that all group members must follow. That way, expectations are clear.
Certain voices often come to dominate meetings, and part of the facilitator’s job is to make things more balanced. The facilitator should elicit responses from group members who haven’t spoken much, especially when they have expertise on the topic at hand.
If someone continues dominating a meeting, the appropriate response might be counterintuitive, says the University of Wisconsin. Make them feel listened to, giving them your total attention for a few moments – then move on.
Asking group members to wait for you to call on them before speaking can ensure meeting dominators don’t take over. Moreover, it allows the group to focus its full attention on one idea at a time rather than letting chaos prevail.
Before your next meeting, think of specific questions to ask quiet group members.
Allow Time for Reflection
When it’s clear that the group has a lot of information to process, give people the chance to reflect. This might be a good time to call for a short break or ask for a few moments of silence.
If it’s a large group, splitting people into pairs or smaller groups can allow them to process the information together. They may end up with new insights or relevant questions to pose to the whole team.
Read this Inc. article for more advice on using silence to increase productivity in meetings.
If people ramble for too long, a skilled facilitator will tactfully cut them off or ask that they wrap up their point. Likewise, if conflict occurs, a facilitator will either ensure it’s productive or help resolve it (which might mean tabling it for later).
If an individual displays a pattern of dysfunctional behavior, like discounting others’ ideas, the facilitator should either talk to that person during a break or address the behavior in front of the group, says the University of Wisconsin.
Review the Society for Human Resource Management’s guidelines for addressing each type of dysfunctional behavior that tends to crop up in meetings.
A facilitator should also aim to synthesize the group’s ideas, which involves listening for the interconnections that others might miss. When a group member makes a point, a facilitator often summarizes how it relates to the discussion at hand.
Likewise, facilitators sum up key ideas periodically and before any decision is made. Remember, the facilitator isn’t there to validate any ideas, say Adams, Means, and Spivey. Instead, they keep the group focused and ensure clarity so that others are prepared to form their own opinions.
Similarly, a facilitator models active listening skills throughout the meeting, often paraphrasing the points that people make so that they feel heard.
Read this Forbes article for more suggestions on developing your active listening skills.
Intuit When the Group is Ready to Make a Decision
Facilitators keep their finger on the pulse of the group’s feelings, as Ingrid Bens says in Facilitating with Ease. They know when the group is ready to make a decision, and when it still needs more time. To find out if the group is approaching agreement, a facilitator often takes a “temperature check,” asking people to raise their hands if they support or disagree with an idea. They often pose several options to discern the levels of support they receive.
Facilitators prompt the group to make a decision when it seems ready, and they also prompt further discussion when necessary. If a group member is resistant to an idea that others agree on, the facilitator may prompt that individual to articulate their opinion.
Review the Project Management Institute’s advice on facilitating group decision-making for more tips on helping the process go smoothly.
A visual reference will help people stay focused. Writing the agenda on a whiteboard or large piece of paper before the meeting will help keep it on point.
A facilitator should also take meeting notes on a whiteboard or sheet of paper that everyone can see. When ideas are flying around quickly, redundancy is reduced, and people are encouraged to build on each other’s ideas.
Another useful visual is a “parking lot” of ideas – a place to note off-topic ideas that might relate to a later topic, according to Parker and Hoffman. The parking lot makes people feel heard without digressing from the topic at hand while simultaneously jump-starting future discussions.
Prepare visual aids like markers and large paper to use in future meetings.
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Keep a Secret Stockpile of Activity Ideas
An experienced facilitator maintains a secret stash of ideas for getting the group energized or creating a more positive atmosphere. A carefully chosen icebreaker can rev up the energy in the room or prime people for thoughtful contemplation of a new idea.
For instance, with the activity “Five of Anything,” you break people into small groups and ask each group member to share, for example, their five favorite aspects of their organizational culture, or the five most important qualities of an employee. Choose a topic that relates to your meeting, and participants will get the creative juices flowing as they discuss it.
Give a fun prompt to loosen the group up, like “Describe your ideal imaginary friend.”
Alternatively, you could have people break into small teams and solve a problem – ideally one that relates to a real problem that they’ll be addressing in the meeting. This task will get them warmed up for the challenge, priming them to think as a team.
To help people understand each other’s roles better, have them pair up and tell each other three surprising things about their jobs.
Make up a box of index cards with activities described on them for quick reference.
Create Actionable Takeaways
If people don’t leave a meeting with tasks to complete, little has probably been accomplished. People should leave with a clear job to do and a strong understanding of where they fit into the project being discussed.
A facilitator should always wrap up by stating the decision the group has made and leading the creation of actionable takeaways, says Bens.
Afterward, the facilitator should give people a clear, written summary of meeting decisions, roles, and other key points. Otherwise, it’s too easy for misunderstandings to occur.
After your next meeting, ask for feedback on how it went so you’ll know what to improve.
Becoming skilled in all of these facilitation principles takes time, so don’t expect to master them all at once. Consider taking a class on leading meetings to get in-person guidance, and most importantly, keep practicing. Skills that demand conscious attention at first will one day become intuitive.