I recently found myself speaking with a potential client about running a big meeting for them. This conversation got me thinking about the value of running a well-run meeting, which in turn got me thinking about how much I once thought about what running a well-run meeting actually involved. I've run a lot of meetings since I first started thinking about this, but this moment of reflection did remind me that I once wrote an article for FORUM magazine, in March 2002 to be exact, about running meetings titled: The Art of Facilitation of How I Learned to Love Meetings. That piece is no longer available digitally, so I decided to reprint it here. Please let me know what you think, and if you want to talk facilitation with me, or if you need someone to run a meeting for you or provide some training on the art of facilitation, please do give me a shout.
The Art of Facilitation of How I Learned to Love Meetings: Redux.
People tell me all the time how much they hate meetings. And when they do, I ask them whether we're talking about all meetings or just the bad ones. While this distinction may seem subtle, it is an important one for those of us who work in associations.
There are times when people have to meet-during strategic planning, for example-and so the real question is not why we have to hold meetings, but why we have to attend meetings that are so poorly run.
I would argue that meetings are poorly run for any number of reasons, but that most of these reasons fall under the umbrella of poor facilitation. I would also argue that the person who assumes the role of facilitator is responsible for the meeting's success, and that the likelihood for success is enhanced if the facilitator focuses on two key areas: (1) preparation and (2) maintenance.
I would add that, for the sake of this article, I am defining the facilitator as the person who, by choice or request, is in charge of running a meeting. "Meeting" in this context is being defined as a workgroup type of meeting where people have been gathered to solve some sort of problem and/or work toward a goal or objective.
It has been suggested that facilitators should spend as much time preparing for a meeting as they will spend in that meeting.
Ask yourself whether you really need to hold the meeting
It is easy to call for a meeting any time something is pressing. But before you do, ask yourself whether holding that meeting is truly necessary or if you can do the work that needs to be done via phone, email, Skype (or Zoom), or office visit.
Identify and prepare the meeting room or place in advance
There are a series of questions you must ask yourself in advance about the meeting place. Do you know where you will meet? If so, is the space reserved? Do you have the tools you need to run the meeting-flipcharts, markers, etc.? If the meeting is off site, can people not only reach the site, but if necessary, park there conveniently?
Prepare an agenda in advance
This allows you to address two key needs: (1) it forces you to contemplate the meeting's direction, objectives, and topics prior to the start of the meeting and (2) it tells the participants not only what topics are going to be discussed but also how much time has been allotted for their discussion.
Some additional thoughts on agendas:
Confirm that the people who have been assigned various tasks between meetings have actually undertaken them before including them on the agenda.
If there are pre-read documents that accompany parts of the agenda, distribute them in a timely manner prior to the meeting along with the agenda.
As pace as the participants' energy level are important to consider when preparing an agenda, a good rule to keep in mind if the rule of thirds, i.e., think of the meeting in three sections, with the opening section loosely focused on information sharing, the middle section focused on thinking and action, hence when people are freshest, and the final section focused on next steps and winding down.
Prepare open-ended questions for each section of the agenda where there are topics you want to ensure are discussed.
Identify, invite, and engage key stakeholders in advance
When you invite prospective participants to attend a meeting, you need to be prepared to tell them why you have done so. People always want to know why you think they need to attend.
As facilitator it is also your job to make sure the participants get to the meeting, which may require follow-up phone calls or emails. The likelihood of attendance is substantially increased when you show participants how important this meeting is to you by following-up yourself.
Crucial to any meeting's success is engaging participants prior to the meeting and getting a sense of where they may stand on certain topics so you can be prepared to guide the conversation whether participants are in agreement or not.
Bring energy, humor, and enthusiasm
The tone and direction of any meeting not only takes its lead from the facilitator, but feeds of him or her as well. Given this, as facilitator you need to bring whatever energy, enthusiasm, and humor you can summon to meetings.
Of course, preparation is but the half the battle, for once the meeting starts you will face a whole new set of responsibilities.
Active listening entails not just seeking to follow the group's dialogue, but guiding that dialogue's flow, direction, and evolution as well. Three emans for accomplishing this are (a) clarifying and restating, (b) making connections, and (c) summarizing.
Clarifying and restating requires reiterating and reframing key discussion points so that you can ensure that not just you, but the entire group understands what a participant has just said. Making connections involves drawing together different participants' comments to show where the group is or may be in agreement. Summarizing calls for revisiting what you have heard discussed throughout the meeting so you can confirm that the group has heard the same things.
As facilitator you must be prepared to let the participants do the talking. This doesn't mean that you do not have good ideas or that you cannot share them. What it does mean, however, is that since you have invited the participants to work through a particular issue, it is now your responsibility to let them do so.
It is also your responsility to draw out, or at least acknowledge, the silent participants. While some participants do not want to speak, there are also those who have much to say, but who aren't sure how best to join the conversation.
Finally, there is your need to respect silence. While it is human nature to fill the moments of silence that appear during conversations, they don't need to be filled immediately. Sometimes people need a moment to think about what they have just heard. Let them; it is crucial to creativity.
Maintain control of time and the agenda even while remaining flexible
Meetings have to be well run, worth one's while, and respectful of the participant's limited time.
This also involves adhering to the topics that have been identified for discussion and the time they have been allotted on the agenda. As facilitator you must constantly guard against topic drift. At times you must follow a conversation as it veers in an entirely unplanned direction because you may have missed something when developing the agenda or the group may say they want or need to discuss something different. This is fine if it is a conscious decision and approved by the group. What's important to remember here, however, is that changing direction and slowly drifting without direction are two vastly different things.
Finally, topics may arise that you or the group do not feel should be addressed at that moment or in that particular meeting. At such a time you can offer to place the topic in a "parking lot," which is a place where important topics get parked until they can be discussed at a later date.
Maintaining control of the group and managing participants
Participants may impede the flow of group process in any number of ways, but regardless of how they do so you need to engage them and address the disruption head on. For example, if there is a person who tends to ramble on or dominate conversation you must intervene. Or, when there are sidebar conversations going on, you must draw attention back to the conversation at hand.
The catch here, of course, is not to engage such participants at the expense of group process. One way to approach this proactively is to discuss with the participants early on what the acceptable ground rules for discussion will be-behavior, decisionmaking processes, language-and after that revisit them as often as you need.
The participants' comfort level and their sense of safety, process, and productivity are important here. The likelihood of accomplishing these things is significantly greater when the few do not ruin it for a whole.
Ending the meeting
Summarize what has been discussed so that the whole group leaves the meeting with the same basic understanding of what has occurred. The discuss next steps-(a) what has to happen prior to the next meeting and beyond, (b) who has agreed to take on these tasks, or if needed who will volunteer to do so, and (c) when and where the next meeting will be if one is necessary.
Depending on the size and importance of the meeting, a means for both affirming and reminding the participants of all of the above is the development of minutes that capture who was present, what was discussed, who agreed to do what, and when you will next meet.
Consider taking a moment to assess the meeting before everyone departs. While this can be done informally, it is important because people need to feel respected, challenged, and supported if they are going to keep coming back.
Finally, as you learn which of the above strategies work best for you, you must always remember to be yourself and mold these strategies to your personality. While making the effort to be a good facilitator ensures that people will return for additional meetings, it is their sense of connection to the person standing behind the strategies that enhances the likelihood that they will buy into the process.
While ninety percent of life may be showing-uo, showing-up is but one step when it comes to successful facilitation. Given this, the first question you have to ask yourself is whether you understand the responsibilities that accompany this position. The second is whether you are willing to consciously embrace them.