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Facilitating the Meeting

This lesson is a part of an audio course Facilitating High Performing Meetings by Ross Maynard

I believe that there are three elements to successfully facilitating a meeting – whether it is in person or online: The elements are:

  • The Agenda.

  • The discussion.

  • And the outcome.

We've covered the agenda in previous lessons. Your agenda should be a set of topics that you can realistically hope to cover in the time available. It is good practice to make the agenda for the meeting available to the participants before the meeting and to outline at the start of the meeting.

The discussion is where the magic happens. We have covered the principles of good facilitation in previous lessons. You need to keep everyone engaged, and make sure that each participant can say their piece without interruption. You also need to make sure that dominant individuals don't have too much influence over the other participants. And finally, you need to keep the meeting moving forward, covering the points in your agenda. Don't let it get bogged down.

And the ultimate purpose of the meeting is to achieve an outcome. Usually, that outcome will be a clear action plan and an agreed date for a follow-up meeting to review progress. Leave time at the end of your meeting – at least 15 minutes – to summarise the actions and to agree the people responsible for each and the timescale for action.

As a facilitator, what should I be looking for?

As I have said, the facilitator is not the teacher or the subject matter expert. The facilitator is the conductor of the orchestra; the catalyst of good ideas and well-thought-through plans.

As a facilitator, you are looking for engagement and commitment to the agreed goals. You want everyone's ideas and involvement, and you want to keep the discussion broadly on track.

Here are some tips:

Observe the body language of everyone in the group. Who looks like they have something to say but are reticent about speaking? Who is silently disagreeing with the current discussion? Who hasn't made a contribution for a while, or is looking disengaged? Your job is to get everyone involved. This is harder if you are facilitating an online session, but you can still pick up a lot from the faces of the participants on the screen, so do try to make sure everyone has their camera switched on.

Listen to the language being used. Sometimes the language used by some participants can have a powerful negative effect on others. Listen to what is being said and how it is being said, and intercede where necessary. Make sure you (gently) correct sexist language – constant use of "he," for example – because this can subconsciously frame mindsets and put female members of the group off from participating. Likewise, listen for language that comes across as accusatory or more aggressive than necessary. Throwing blame about helps no-one. In almost all cases, the fault lies with an inadequate process, not an inadequate person!

Gauge the mood of the group. Once you attune to the body language and the tone of the discussion, you will start to get a sense of how the session is progressing. When the arguments begin to go round in circles, or the body-language begins to close up, it is time to move on to the next point or topic. When the energy is sparking, you should stay with the topic under review, but perhaps throw in some additional questions or viewpoints to open it up even further.

Manage dominant individuals. Sometimes, in a group, you get someone whose personality, or interest in the issue is so strong that they start to dominate the group – either intimidating others into silence by the force of their opinions; or just drowning out others by the scale of their intervention. Engagement and energy are good, but dominance must be controlled. That requires tact. Usually, a reminder that there are other people and other views in the group will suffice – bring other people into the discussion and ask the dominant person to listen to the other points of view without interrupting. Sometimes you may have to speak to the dominant person privately and ask them to tone it down. But don't worry, in nearly 30 years of facilitation, I have never had a serious problem with an overly dominant person!

Ask questions. In my view, the facilitator is rarely there to add knowledge. The team you have assembled should have all the knowledge needed about performance. That is not to say the facilitator can be ignorant, but rather that the facilitator's role is to guide the discussion towards clear actions, but not to excessively influence it. Pointed questions can really help fuel the discussion and open up new ideas for examination. The questions to ask will depend on the situation and the issues. However, three of my favourite general questions to stimulate thinking are:

  • "What is it about the process, situation, or activity that allows errors or mistakes to happen? At what points do those errors arise?"

  • "What do you think the people working in the process (or any other involved group – customers, senior managers, auditors, inspectors, etc.) think about this problem or issue?"

  • "Why do you think this problem or situation is tolerated?

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we'll cover some ideas to engage the participants in your meeting in generating ideas for improvement.

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Written by

Ross Maynard