How to Facilitate a Fantastic Meeting

We’ve all been in a meeting that devolved into madness. Everyone started a group argument, someone went on a 10-minute tangent, or no one participated and the meeting awkwardly lasted much longer than necessary. None of us like an inefficient or ineffective meeting. Fortunately, that’s what facilitators are for.

Although my bachelor’s degree is in public speaking, meaning I’m adept at speaking when I have everyone’s undivided attention, I’ve also worked as a facilitator, meaning I can corral conversation when everyone’s attention is divided. Facilitation is a skill, but it’s a skill everyone can hone. If you find yourself in a position where you need to facilitate a meeting, have no fear; I’ve had enough wins and failures that I know how to lead you to facilitation success.

Meeting Facilitation Techniques

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about facilitation is, “If, in the end, the participants feel like they didn’t even need you, then you succeeded.” What these sage words mean is that, as a facilitator, your work is not to make easy conversation but to make conversation easier. In my experience, there are five techniques you can use to do that, regardless of the type of meeting you’re facilitating.

1. Create an agenda.

It seems obvious, but a meeting agenda is critical when it comes to keeping participants on track. I recommend writing out a really detailed agenda with main points, sub points and talking points and then dialing it back to only what the participants need to know. This process lets you think through each topic thoroughly so you’re ready for the meeting. At the top of the agenda where the date, time, location, etc. are, add the name of the facilitator (you!) so everyone knows who to look to for leadership. Nothing’s worse than entering a meeting and not knowing who’s in charge. Finally, include a goal on the agenda. It’s nice to refer back to it when things go off the rails.

2. Prepare the space.

When possible, get to the meeting space early. Make the room as distraction-free as you can. This includes setting the room temperature to a reasonable degree, removing any distracting decor and even testing the chairs to make sure they’re not squeaky or broken. If it’s a virtual meeting, there’s less you can do here, but you can still ensure your own background is clean. At the start of the call, you can even ask that each participant clear their desk or find a blank background.

3. Take detailed notes.

A meeting is not Vegas. What happens in a meeting shouldn’t stay in the meeting, so take notes. If you aren’t able to facilitate and take notes at the same time, appoint a notetaker or a co-facilitator. My recommendation is to take more notes than you think necessary. You can also edit the notes down to the important details before you share them with the rest of the team, but you never know if someone will ask, “What time did we start talking about budgets?” or, “I loved what Cody had to say about budgets; do you remember how he worded that?”

4. Ask quality questions.

Once a meeting is over, it’s over, so make sure you clarify what’s said before adjournment. To quote Mark Twain, “He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.” If you are concerned that questions will lengthen the meeting, well, that’s a very valid concern. However, quality questions don’t need to be long, they need to be action-oriented and attentive. Remember: a facilitator makes it easier for the participants to share and interact. Asking a question is the easier way to bring out that engagement.

5. Remember it’s about people.

What is a meeting but two or more people gathering to share ideas? In other words, a meeting is about two things: people and ideas. Don’t sacrifice the former for the latter. Recognize that everyone is coming to the meeting from somewhere different, so there’s a lot the participants may need to leave at the door to really be present. Start with stretches or deep breaths. Acknowledge people’s personal and professional lives and thank them for showing up. Allow people to take a break if the meeting is longer than an hour. And finally, feel free to remind everyone to speak with unconditional positive regard. If everyone is gathered around a shared purpose, then surely everyone can be kind along the way. A reminder of that never hurt.

Facilitation Phrases to Practice

As a facilitator, you need to be prepared to say what needs to be said in order to keep the team on task. As uncomfortable as it may seem, you will need to reign some participants in and cut their comments short. Here are some (kind) key phrases to practice. Don’t be afraid to use these verbatim or to put your own twist on them.

What do you mean by that? This phrase is a lifesaver if a participant says something problematic or derailing. As bad as it sounds, give someone an opportunity to dig their own hole a little deeper. It also allows you more time, and provides more data, to help you respond appropriately.

You make a great point, but let’s table that thought for later. Occasionally, someone will bring up a great idea or concern that is on topic but isn’t related to the task at hand. Validate their thoughts and then plan another meeting to discuss that topic, if possible.

Let’s revisit our meeting goals and get back on track. When someone gets off topic, it can be hard to lasso the conversation and bring it back to reality. This is where goal-setting (and adding goals to the agenda) comes in handy.

Does everyone feel comfortable moving on to the next agenda item? This phrase gives everyone an opportunity to share their questions or concerns. No one wants to feel left behind.

Would anyone like to respond? Again, as a facilitator, your primary role isn’t to contribute but to guide others’ contributions. Make space for participants to say what needs to be said first, and then if no one does, you can say it yourself.

Opportunities to Facilitate

As I said before, facilitation is a skill, but it’s a skill that requires special circumstances to hone. You can’t facilitate on your own in your room. You need other people in order to practice and improvise your way to fantastic facilitation skills. Try calling friends or family members and facilitating dialogue on a controversial but harmless topic, like “can you wear black with navy.” Or, better yet, ask your boss if you can lead a meeting at work. If not, at the very least, take notes of others’ successes and challenges as a facilitator in meetings you’re invited to. This way, you’re at least learning and getting better in theory.

Cody H. Owens, Account Executive
Elevate My Brand

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