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Meetings shouldn’t suck.

But they often do.

There’s a few reasons for sucky meetings: No agenda, no one knows why they are there, having the wrong people in the room.

But the easiest way to guarantee a meeting suck will suck is by poor facilitation.

Done right, facilitation makes for an easy and productive meeting, with deep discussion of ideas and all participants being heard rather than a just a few loud voices.

But achieving this is hard. And I’d argue is near impossible if the facilitator is also emotionally invested in the outcome of the meeting.

So I’d like to suggest that when we are facilitators that we become “Selfless Facilitators”.

Why selfless?

Facilitation is a a form of leadership. It’s also a form of power.

During meetings the facilitator is the leader. If the leader starts disagreeing with participants then they are subverting the authority of the group. Once this happens the meeting is doomed. Because there is no leader anymore.

What I recommend is that when we facilitate we focus of being the best facilitator we can be. We avoid the temptation of getting involved in the core of the discussion at all.

So what does the facilitator do instead?

Instead the selfless facilitator is focusing on guiding and making sure their is a balance to who is speaking while reacting to the behaviour of the group.

Getting everyone to speak and feel heard

Giving everyone the opportunity to contribute is important.

It’s how we create deep rather than shallow agreement by generating the most ideas and options and making sure we can pick our next action given the diverse experience in the room.

However, getting everyone to contribute can be hard.

A great trick is getting everyone to speak right at the start. Each person introduces themself and answers a short question. The question could be “what do you hope to learn here?” or something trivial like “What’s your favourite food?”. If someone has spoken already, they are far more likely to speak later.

Loud voices

Making sure a handful of loud voices don’t dominate the discussion can be difficult. One way around this is to ask everyone to help at the start.

During the opening remind everyone that we want to hear from all of those present, so we can learn and make the most informed decisions. To help with this, ask that they become aware that if they have already spoken, then they should leave a brief pause before speaking again.

It’s this brief pause that allows other folk to share their opinion.

Sometimes you see one person repeating the same point over and over. They are doing this because they don’t think they are being heard by the group. If you spot this it can be worthwhile as an organiser to look the person in the eye and repeat part of what they’ve said.

Encouraging discussion

Great. So we’ve got everyone to introduce themselves and asked the louder participants to become self-aware. So we’re done right?

Not a chance.

It tends to take a while before a group is openly discussing. We need to ask participants to talk about their ideas a bit more and encourage other to share their views.

We achieve this by using a combination of initial, probing and clarifying questions to allow participants ideas to shine.

Initial questions set the scene and depend upon your format and topic of discussion.

Probing questions ask for elaboration on a response, if you feel like someone has a bit more to say, or an idea intrigues you, ask them to speak a bit more.

Clarifying questions can be used if a participant brings up a topic you don’t think the group will know much about or that is ambiguous in meaning. Providing them with another chance to elaborate.

There’s two more practices that a facilitator can use.

The first is to revisit what’s already been said earlier and bring it into later discussions. This can help a theme be discovered. And encourage other participants to add their reactions to another comment. “How do you feel about X?”

Finally, learn to love silences. Don’t get worried that no one is speaking and feel like you have to fill the void. Just let it hang there. Someone will fill it.

Control and observe the environment

All of this advice is good and well. But if the place you’ve chosen to host the meeting isn’t amenable to creating discussion, then it’s all in vain.

So it’s important for the meeting environment to be set up for success.

Little things can distract participants. Make sure there’s little background noise and make sure it’s easy for people to get a drink. Thirsty folk don’t talk.

Setting the furniture up right is important too. Make sure everyone can see each other by having chairs in a circle. If the group is going to be shy then removing the table in the middle can help too.

Once the environment is ready it’s worth watching participants body language during the meeting.

Are people engaged?

You notice by watching them. They’ll either be paying attention when someone speaks or looking around the room. If only a few folk are making eye contact then it’s time to move the conversation forward.

If someone has a perplexed look on their face it can be worth calling them out on it. Folk can react non-verbally to what’s being said. So it’s worth studying facial expressions.

Lastly, remember to take a break. No one likes sitting for too long.

Take aways

  • Be selfless: do not get emotionally involved in the discussion
  • Set the room up for success
  • Ask loud voices to leave a pause before speaking again
  • Get everyone to talk at the start
  • Ask initial, probing and clarifying questions to keep the discussion going
  • Reiterate what’s been said earlier and ask for reactions
  • Observe body language and react to it