Meetings can serve as great opportunities to share ideas, solve problems, and make decisions with the collective intelligence of a group. However, managers are often the major contributors to meeting process dysfunction. Skills are needed to run meetings properly. Meetings can either be productive for teams that work well together, or they can be a frequent source of frustration for dysfunctional teams. Facilitation is the art of making things worth participating in and more effective. If your team has a trained facilitator, the decision-making process becomes more efficient and easier for everyone involved.
1. Plan Meetings
The cornerstone of facilitation is understanding what the meeting is about so you can work towards addressing the core goals your team sets out to achieve. For collaborative meetings invite attendees to tell you what problems the team needs to solve or what changes need to be made. Whatever topics you discuss should allow for group participation. Once you know the objectives of your meeting, design the right group process and apply the right facilitation techniques that will help you succeed. When meetings start, you will guide the group through the designed process. Make sure to establish an agenda to structure the meeting for effectiveness, so that everyone is on the same page before the meeting starts.
2. Utilize Quick Check-Ins
“Check-ins encourage everyone in the room to focus on the meeting and each other,” says Kristin Cobble, leader of the San Francisco based consulting firm Groupaya. If you begin meetings with a check-in process, be willing to ask basic questions like “Before we address today’s agenda, what’s on everyone’s mind?” or “What is the one word that best describes your current mood?” Check-ins require only a few minutes of everyone’s time and they can yield valuable rewards. Check-ins give people an opportunity to get to know more about each other and bring everyone’s attention to the room. When you have everyone in the room mentally checked in to what is about to unfold, you can proceed with the group conversation.
3. Set Context and Ground Rules
Before you dive deep into the topics you want to discuss, it is important to let everyone in the room know what the rules of the meeting are. Rules are created to set limitations on what is acceptable to your team. Rules include respecting the opinions of others, how questions will be answered, how everyone will be allowed to participate in conversations but not dominate them, and how everyone should disregard rank and status. Facilitation is best applied when you lead by example, so when you abide by the rules you create, your teammates will respect you. Communication between teammates flows better when everyone knows what the rules are and follows them.
4. Assign Meeting Roles
It is recommended that a facilitator asks teammates to take on different roles for a meeting. These roles include note-taker and time-keeper, which are important roles that maintain a meeting’s stability. When they are given a communal responsibility to make the meeting a success, meeting participants usually thrive with these opportunities to grow in your team. It is also recommended that everyone on the team gets assigned different roles for each meeting so that everyone can participate in different ways over a period of time. Especially when you facilitate a large group (20+ people), it helps to break that group into smaller subgroups of 2 to 5 people and assign specific roles for these subgroups as well.
5. Demonstrate Active Listening
Active listening allows you to know more about the person you are listening to in a meeting, and it enables you to come to a thoughtful understanding of each other’s positions. A basic condition for an effective conversation is that people feel they are being listened to and acknowledged. There are 4 steps to active listening according to facilitation expert Terrence Metz. These are contact, absorb, feedback, and confirm. Listening to each participant attentively, taking in what each person says as well as their body language without judgment or evaluation, paraphrasing and summarize what the speaker says back to the speaker, and getting confirmation from the speaker that you understand their points accurately make up these steps.
6. Ask Questions
Great discussions can be stimulated by a facilitator asking great questions. Any meeting needs to have a clearly defined goal, and you must ask questions to understand the underlying motivation behind a meeting. You will be able to develop a consensus with teammates about their goals. There are many reasons for asking questions. You ask questions to either gain additional information, to learn about different viewpoints, to note areas of agreement and disagreement, and to ascertain that you are sharing meaning with team members. Take note of which questions you ask your team. Examples include “What would you like to accomplish?”, “What do you want to change?”, and “What would the benefits be if you achieved this goal?”
7. Promote Participation
Facilitators should always be aware that some members of the group may be less vocal than others, but their voices should still matter. Facilitators need to give these members room to engage with everyone else in the meeting. As the meeting progresses, you will notice which members are the quietest, and when there is an opportunity to encourage others to speak up, you should ask the quiet members what their thoughts are on any given topic. Dividing participants into smaller subgroups also helps to bring quieter teammates to the forefront of participation, so that they won’t feel left out. Before the meeting ends bring everyone back to the full group and ask for conversation highlights.
8. Reframe the Conversation
There will be times during a meeting when several different themes will emerge simultaneously. When this happens, before even thinking about moving forward, the facilitator must get everyone on the same page. Participants should be asked to take a step back, and then you will name the various topics, and decide with the participants which topic is worth pursuing. Alternatively, if you feel like all of the proposed topics participants presented are not worth pursuing in the meeting, you can provide suggestions for narrowing the conversation or organizing themes so that the meeting stays on track to achieve the team’s desired goals. Also, ask the note-taker to record the remaining topics on the back burner for a later time.
9. Monitor Group Efficiency
One main focus of a facilitator is to keep up a good momentum of the group’s work. The facilitator has to ensure that all participants contribute to finding solutions during a meeting. If you notice that the group is lacking in cooperation or the process itself is getting too complicated for anyone to follow, as the facilitator you have to find the right techniques to adjust the plan. By monitoring the progress your group makes in a meeting you should be able to tell visually and verbally where the team is going. If too much time is being taken to reach a solution to a problem, call for everyone’s attention to this.
10. Brainstorming Sessions
Many meetings fail to have a period of time specifically designated for the team to brainstorm. There are many settings where the effectiveness of brainstorming is reduced by poor process management, strong social or political pressures, and poor facilitation skills. For example, if your meeting is 3 hours long, you can officially declare that 30 minutes of this meeting will be dedicated to the team brainstorming for new ideas. Provide all participants equal opportunity to speak and don’t immediately shun new ideas, even if they turn out to be unfruitful later on. Manage any competing conversations or conflicts that may arise, and devise a way to narrow down the brainstormed choices to a manageable number.
11. Act as the Neutral Party
Even though your team has basic goals that must be reached, any views that differ from the general consensus cannot be ignored. Meetings are the appropriate events where different points of view can be presented on the same stage. Even if you have decided on which direction to take a team project, you have to remain neutral when opposing views emerge. It is possible that there are things your team has overlooked that will be brought up by the other side of the argument. There are some elements to ideas proposed by opposing parties that you can apply to your own. Otherwise, any biases that are maintained can prevent the team from growing together.
12. Pause and Reflect
Remember that sometimes the hardest thing to do in meetings is nothing. Once the main subject is being discussed, pause and provide time for silent reflection. Make sure to remind participants to write down their thoughts to help internalize what has been said and to identify any concerns. Pausing and reflecting take strong non-verbal communication skills. If you are cognizant of body language, you will have a better chance of experiencing the total communication voice of an individual or a team. Understanding non-verbal communication can help you see when there is real agreement versus verbal agreement. When you step back and reflect on what message is being sent, you can arrive at the proper conclusion.
13. Take a Break
When you feel as if things are taking a turn for the worse in the meeting, or when people are becoming restless, it always helps to take a break. A general rule you should have in meetings is that the longer it takes for your team to have a meeting, the longer your break times should be. If you happen to be an introvert, a mental break is especially helpful for you because at some point you will need to recharge from a lot of talking. When you observe your teammates, if anyone appears to be worn out, offer the whole team time to gather their thoughts for the rest of the meeting.
14. Consider the Physical Environment
Either before a meeting begins or during any breaks you take, you should be aware of the physical environment and how it can influence the behavior of your team. Consider arranging things in the meeting room in such a way that will provide for greater comfort in participation. The setup of the room, audiovisual needs, foods and drinks, and the spaces between chairs should all be things to think about. There are many patterns to use when arranging chairs, like positioning them in a U-shaped semicircle. The facilitator should be standing at the opening end of this semicircle. Facilitators must have the ability to adapt to the preferences of their teammates and should try to accommodate them.
15. Reach a Consensus
One of the most important things to do as a facilitator is to have your team reach a consensus. Once everybody in the meeting room has had an opportunity to share their perspectives and propose ideas, there will come a point where the team has to come to a conclusion. Consensus doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with the decision that is made, and it takes time for the whole team to get comfortable with a particular direction. Remember that an effective decision for the problem at hand is the most important issue. As it is at the beginning of the meeting, everybody should also stay on the same page towards the end of the meeting.
16. Close the Meeting
Providing closure at the end of the meeting is critical, and it serves as an official stamp on the period of time your team experienced together. Be sure that all decisions, tasks, and next steps are officially documented in detail so that everyone will know how to follow through. Verbally restating key outcomes reinforces the feeling that the team accomplished some of its goals. Asking participants to verbally check out enables closure because you will give them space express final questions or concerns. Use paraphrasing as a method of clarifying. For example, “Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Joe and Stacy’s comments summarized our last 10 minutes very well by stating…”.
17. Focus on Attention and Pacing
One of the primary responsibilities a facilitator has is to keep the team focused and on track. No meeting can be productive if the team jumps around from one topic to the next every few minutes. If you ask a teammate a question about a particular topic, you should expect a direct answer to that question. If your teammate responds by attempting to change the topic, call back to your question. It helps to have a note-taker in the room because he or she can remind you and the team which topics have already been discussed. Keep track of the time and make sure the meeting isn’t developing a feeling of dragging.
18. Team Management
If you are a newly appointed facilitator, how do you handle troublesome teammates? When would be an appropriate time to confront this troublesome participant? When a participant’s behavior is directly and negatively impacting the team’s productivity and cohesiveness in terms of openness, trust, commitment, and participation, it should be noted by the facilitator. If such behavior doesn’t subside in an appropriate time period, the facilitator should take action to address the troublesome participant’s conduct. When addressing this participant, the goal is to reduce, alter, or eliminate his or her undesirable behaviors without hurting their self-esteem or capability to contribute. Don’t resort to scolding or embarrassment, but the key is to be direct and tactful.
19. Response Rounds
All meetings need some type of structure that the entire team can work with. If your meeting has no structure, then you will have an abundance of problems. Aside from break periods, separating your meeting into multiple rounds of response provides the structure you need. A procedure you can use involves giving the group members a task or a question that they can work on individually. Ask your teammates to respond one at a time, and they are allowed to pass. Record responses and repeat this process until everybody runs out of responses. Summarize each round if it looks appropriate. This is helpful if you expect conflict to exist when discussing a particular topic.
20. Force Field Analysis
In the 1940s, social psychologist Kurt Lewin developed a technique called the Force Field Analysis. It involves identifying both the ‘helps’ and the ‘hindrances’ that play roles in the accomplishment of goals. When applying this procedure, group members will start by brainstorming or making lists of factors or forces that either help or hinder their desired goal. Supporting forces are meant to be promoted and reinforced by the team, whereas restraining forces are meant to be reduced, dealt with, or eliminated altogether. As the facilitator, you will offer your team to either focus on the supporting forces, the restraining forces, or both, as a way to move closer toward their goal.
It takes a wide variety of skills to be a legitimate facilitator for a team meeting. Facilitation in business involves strong observation, clear empathy for other people, and a calm demeanor. As long as you allow your team to progress towards their goals without holding them back, you will succeed.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.