I’ve been attending many community meetings again recently, and it has reminded me that meeting facilitation is a skill to be learned, practiced, and perfected, like any other. Here are some guidelines for how to facilitate an effective meeting, gleaned from my own experiences and training during 10+ years in community organizing, spiritual service, and non-profit work.
You need a facilitator. No really.Many community based groups are non-hierarchal and function with shared power, and rightly so. Unfortunately I have seen meetings devolve into counter-productive chaos in an effort to avoid appearances of any one person being in charge. The purpose of skilled facilitator(s) is to help create and hold the space for the work of the group, so that the group can achieve its goal. It is a position of care, not authority.
Select a facilitator. This may be the person who organized the meeting, or the group could agree on a facilitator. You could also share the role – for example, having one person as a time keeper, one as a discussion guide, one who is responsible for keeping the group focused.
These are the essential responsibilities of the facilitator. A facilitator should have an understanding of group dynamics and feel comfortable pulling quieter individuals into conversation while also keeping the more talkative people in check so that they do not overrun the meeting. (How many meetings have you been to where one person took up the majority of the meeting and never really said anything of relevant importance? Yeah. We’ve all been there. That is an example of poor meeting facilitation.)
Set the goal of the meeting. Even if the purpose of the meeting is to socialize with the goal of networking, setting an intention is essential to a successful meeting. Not everyone will have the same goal in mind when coming to a meeting; even if it has been discussed prior, perspectives will differ. Establishing the goal at the beginning of the meeting will help make sure everyone is focused on the same thing. You can state the goal verbally or write it on a piece of paper and display it. Displaying the goal also gives the facilitator something to bring the group back to when the group begins to lose focus.
Create the framework. Once the goal is set, you want to establish how that goal will be accomplished within the context of the meeting. This includes setting an end time, discussing the activities that will occur, and reviewing the points of discussion. This process will help alleviate any lingering confusion. Depending upon your group, this may also be written down and displayed, or it can be a verbal process.
These steps are a part of building the container for the work, of establishing the focus and boundaries for the meeting so that participants are able to comfortably explore during discussion, feel valued, and leave with a sense of accomplishment. This does not have to take more than the first few minutes of the meeting. Think of the beginning of many wedding ceremonies “we are gathered here today to…” Gather everyone together, state the intended goal, go over what will happen, remind everyone what time the meeting should wrap, and then (if appropriate) ask if anyone has any brief points or questions to add. Then move into the meat of the meeting.
Check in/Introductions.Depending upon the size of the group and the familiarity of the individuals with each other, it is often helpful to do a brief check in and round of introductions. If the group is new, or if there are new people in attendance, doing brief introductions will lift comfort levels and give everyone a better idea of who is present and what perspectives they bring. The facilitator should give an example of what should be shared during the introduction, such as their name, what brought them to the meeting, what experience they have with the subject, and what they hope to accomplish, and reinforce that this is a brief introduction and should not take more than a minute per person.
If the group is familiar with one another, a brief check in will help everyone get settled, enhance group cohesion, and improve flow. Allow each person no more than a minute to say how they are feeling, what they want to accomplish during the meeting, and any questions they may have.
This period of the meeting does have the potential to go off-track rather quickly, so it takes a skilled facilitator to manage. Setting the guidelines and sticking to them, by reminding people to stay on track and within time limits will help. It is up to you whether to do this before the goal and framework is set or after, and will depend on your group. I have found it is more helpful for the flow of the meeting if it is done afterwards.
Some groups will pass around a stick, rock, or even a small hourglass (the minute kind from board games, for example) to facilitate the process. Whoever holds the item has the floor to speak and cannot be interrupted except to bring them on track and remind them of time limits.
Facilitate discussion.Now that the container has been created and everyone has been brought into the meeting during check in, the hard part of facilitation starts. In any group there will be a variety of personalities, experience, and comfort levels; managing that so that the meeting is effective and everyone feels like their time was well spent can be a challenge.
The role of the facilitator is to guide and encourage discussion, help people stay focused, and reign in tangents. A variety of skills will help you as a facilitator. A basic understanding of group dynamics, power dynamics, and individual psychology particularly as it relates to intro- and extra-version will go a long way. This will help you pick up on subtle energy shifts and notice when someone is on their way to dominating the discussion. Introverts are not necessarily shy, but they do take more time to process information, and thus are slower to respond. Extraverts are not always domineering, but they do like to process information out loud, and thus are often the big talkers.
A solid grounding in active listening is a great benefit to a meeting facilitator and will help to balance the needs of introverts and extraverts, who will both benefit from the practice. The facilitator can also help the talkative individual get to their point quickly, and then summarize their main point succinctly, thus giving the less talkative people an opportunity to process the main point and respond. It may be necessary to actively engage the quieter individuals. Putting people on the spot doesn’t always work, and I have had success with saying “I would like to give us a minute or two of quiet to reflect on what has been said. Then let’s hear from some people who haven’t spoken as much.” This brings some air into the conversation, puts the breaks on the overly talkative and allows space for the quiet individuals to be heard. (I am an introvert myself, can you tell?)
Some groups will pass around a stick, rock, or even a small hourglass (the minute kind from board games, for example) to facilitate the discussion. Whoever holds the item has the floor to speak and cannot be interrupted except to bring them on track and remind them of time limits. This can help balance out power dynamics, and give everyone an opportunity to speak, but it can also be a bit cumbersome. Try it out in your group and see if it works.
It may also be helpful to have someone who is not the facilitator take notes of key points brought up in discussion, so that they do not get lost. To wrap up the meeting, review the key points, give a few more minutes for discussion, and then decide on next steps. You should always end the meeting with a synthesis and “what’s next” so that people don’t leave wondering what was accomplished and what happens next. And of course, a big dose of appreciation all around for getting through the meeting, which hopefully was much more enjoyable for everyone with proper facilitation!
If you have any questions or would like some individualized help with developing your facilitation skills, or would like to discuss a group dynamic you are trying to manage, please do contact me!
Here is a great tip sheet from AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance)
Some thoughts on evaluation and roles from Training for Change