Experiencing a well-designed and gracefully facilitated meeting is a gift. It demonstrates thoughtfulness, creativity, and clarity of purpose – as well as respect for diversity of thought and the use of people’s time. Intentional work sessions can feel like a road trip: excitement, uncomfortable, expanding, playful, and with a sense of relief and pride when you arrive… all guided by the facilitator.
While I didn’t intentionally set out to become a facilitator, it’s now one of my favorite work experiences. I grew into this role drawing on skills I honed over the course of my career: public speaking, storytelling, coaching, listening, planning, and creativity. I also took courses on facilitation, read books, and closely watched facilitators to learn from them in action – what resonated with me and the room, and what didn’t.
What I realized over time is that there is no single way to facilitate. Yes, there are commonalities to how you put an event together (e.g., intros, norms, breaks, rotational work groups). But in terms of how you facilitate, well, that’s entirely up to you. Each facilitator brings a piece of them to the DNA of the event. And that’s a powerful tool.
Periodically folks reach out to me about facilitation – how to do it, how to start, or how to think through and design an activity for a meeting. There are two parts to facilitation: design the session and deliver it. I’ll start with facilitation design.
Most importantly, design a meeting you’d like to attend – doing things, having discussions, and building solutions that can’t be done expect in community with others. Collaboration, inspiration, integration, and ideation come from interaction. Create a meeting where folks can connect. PowerPoints and lectures won’t cut it. You need to have folks sharing and working together in order to build new insights and solutions.
I never start planning a meeting without knowing the three goals of the meeting. Specifically, what needs to be physically in our hands (or minds) when the session is over. Or, asked another way, how will you know, what will you see, or what will you hear if the event is successful. This is essential so that you create activities in the time you have that will culminate in the right outcome or product. These goals are shared with the participants when I say, “At the end of the next two-days we will have 1, 2, and 3” so they are clear on what they need to bring into being as a group. I also coordinate with the client/event lead on where I have wiggle room and how to coordinate with them on changes in the agenda. There are times when conversations occur that change the course of a meeting and as a facilitator, we need to recognize that and make space for it. We cannot be so driven by the clock or preconceived goals that we miss the magic in the moment.
Understand time, and that you’ll never have enough. At the end of every strategy session I facilitate I hear the words, “we really need to do this more often.” Yet, intentional, facilitated meetings remain an annual event at best which results in a cram it all in experience of report the past, understand the now, and plan the future in under 8 hours event, sometimes half a day! As things get dumped in, always check them against the goals. I also found that 90% of the people I work with on a meeting do not understand how long it takes to do things, such as doing introductions of 20 people in 5-10 minutes, nope. I plan in 5-minute increments – never 2 or 7 minutes. By rounding up you typically get to a more accurate time, plus I generally add 5 or more minutes to what folks think it will take. Participants need to have breathing room and not feel like they are getting shoved through a gauntlet of exercises to complete. The time and space should foster a sense of relaxed thinking.
You need activities that help folks share who they are, both professionally and personally. You need quite time for introverts to process and frame their thinking before they share and for extroverts to take a strategic pause. You need small group thinking to build comfort with each other and big group validation discussions. You need visuals – from easel pad or notes on a screen to a graphic recorder – to help reach all the brains and enable participants to actually see what they are building together.
When I build a meeting agenda I use a column format:
- Time (9:00-9:10 / 10 minutes) so it have a clock view to help me quickly know how much time I have left in a session and a participant view – “I’ve been listening to X person for 20 minutes.”
- Activity name and description so my client and team understand what the participants will do together and the supplies needed to help them succeed
- Outcome or purpose of each activity so my client and team knows explicitly what the work will generate and how it connects to the 3 goals – from how introductions are done, to the food provided, or worksheet completed
Upon approval of the agenda, I convert it to my facilitation guide – keeping the time column and writing out my full “script” in place of the activity description. By writing it out word for word I check my time allocation (140 words = 1 minute speaking) and that I have the steps clear for participants. I also found that this helps me internalize the meeting so that I can be more present day of. I found that by writing it all down, I feel freer to make adjustments during the day because I intuitively know what needs to be done. Sometimes I rely heavily on the script when I want to say things precisely because certain words really matter, but mostly it’s a guide. Having it written out, also enables someone else to step in and facilitate if an emergency arises.
The location is another key consideration. Can the work be done in the space? Tables, and if so round tables or U-shape or just chairs in a circle? Windows? White boards, easel pads, or a screen? Technology? Accessibility? Parking? Meals? The place you put folks impacts their feeling and thinking.
Moving into day of tips, the most important is to understand and articulate your role as a facilitator. I typically see myself as a friendly guide or host with a side of timekeeper, cheerleader, and investigative reporter. I think it’s important for facilitators to know you need to:
- Hold folks accountable to the norms and purpose of the work – so they have the right kind of conversations to create what is needed in the time allocated
- Help all voices get heard … give folks actual quite time to think before a conversation starts or use “I’m going to call on a few folks I haven’t heard from lately”
- Stop/redirect a discussion and shut folks down (obviously nicely) when it’s toxic, unproductive, or irrelevant – how to do this gracefully is a whole other blog
- Make sure all the work is done — or get consensus in the room that X will come off so they can dig more into Y as something significant came up
- Be ok with long stents of silence and the unknown as you were not there to give answers but to create space for them to come to life
- Find the balance between how your personality/presence is needed and stepping back to the let the process work
- Listen to words that constantly arise that need to be explored or what is to being said or skirted around
- Read the energy and adjust accordingly with your voice, where you stand, or the activity
- Wear clothes so you move comfortably without drawing attention or causing a distraction
As a certified mindfulness facilitator, I want to wrap up with a focus on personal energy, being aware of how you are doing throughout a session. Consider being alone before participants arrive to center yourself – see how you’re feeling (frenetic energy or knot in the stomach nerves), take a few breaths for calmness, reflect on how you want to host, and mentally walk through the meeting to set your intention. As an introvert, I also (1) plan quiet time the day before the session to practice and visualize the day, (2) find a few moments of quite in a session (perhaps at lunch or on a break) to recenter, (3) selectively participate in evening events when I have multi-day session, and (4) have alone time the day after a session is over to process the experience and recharge my people battery.
Before you end your session, seek feedback in real time while the emotions are fresh, and ideally a few days later for more reflective input. Day of, I simply put a + or – on an easel page and ask what worked (+) and what needs improvement (-). In a post event survey, I aim for 5-10 questions, most on a 4-point Likert scale, to avoid the safe, middle of the road score of 3 on a 5-pointscale, with a few open-ended questions. The survey should seek insights on if goals were met, activities, was it an effective use of time, venue, and facilitator.
Finally, if you’re looking for ways to learn more about creating space to bring folks together for meaningful discussions, I offer up two books. First, Whole Mind Facilitation by Eric Meade. I recommend this book because I’ve seen him in action, so I know what he wrote works, and co-facilitated with him several times – each time learning so much. Priya Parker offers a broader take on how to bring people together in her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters. This book is about being a host and designing experiences with people in mind.