The ability facilitate collaborative meetings is a critical skill for leaders. When done well, the facilitator creates an engaging discussion that has high attendance and prevents boredom. Most importantly, it creates an advantage for the team by aligning the group on the meeting’s topics.
Accomplishing these goals with consistency as a facilitator takes time. Each discussion will put your decision making, time management, and leadership skills to the test.
You will mess up at times, but the experience will provide important skills. I’ve been doing this for years, and I still screw up. I recently forgot to introduce the leading questions for a large retrospective discussion! We lost a ton of time from this mistake.
The purpose of this post is to teach you six methods of facilitation I’ve learned over the years. I’ll also throw in a story or two where I’ve completely screwed everything up so you can avoid my mistakes.
Meetings have the stereotype of being a boring waste of time. Your goal as the facilitator is to make the discussion worthwhile for people to attend. To achieve this, you need to prepare.
At my first job, I gave a presentation to college students about my career path as a software engineer. I enjoy giving presentations, but I didn’t practice the story I would tell. It wasn’t a big deal – I knew the main details from telling friends. I didn’t even need to make a slide deck!
Fast forward to the day of the presentation. I walk up to the podium and start talking. What do you think happened?
I bombed the entire story.
I still knew the main beats of it, but without practice, I didn’t know how to connect them. I froze to think of the right words. Whenever I looked into the crowd, I saw…
After five agonizing minutes, I finished and went back to my seat. No questions, zero engagement.
I walked away from that day with an important lesson around public speaking. Regardless of whether I’m giving a presentation or facilitating a meeting, the same lesson applies:
Being prepared provides clarity on how to engage with the audience. It gives you confidence in how to guide the group. You will know your stuff and everyone will see that.
The first step towards preparation is understanding the goal of the meeting. The common goals I’ve seen are:
- Making a decision
- Gathering feedback
- Sharing information
- Group collaboration and interaction
- Depending on the goal, the content will vary.
Let’s look at a meeting where a group makes a decision. For this discussion, you will have to outline the questions to answer, acquire contextual information, and figure out who should attend.
For a discussion focused on gathering feedback, the goal is different. Your goal is to get attendees to talk and share information. You can do this with an activity that gets people talking to one another. You could also provide a list of questions for the group to answer over the session.
Once you understand the goal of the meeting, you can use the following checklist of questions to prepare:
- What do I want the group to walk away thinking about?
- What will the agenda be?
- Which questions need to be answered by the end of the discussion?
- How much time should I give each topic?
- How will I get attendees engaged with the content?
- Who needs to attend the discussion?
With preparation, you will facilitate meetings with confidence.
Recording the notes of a meeting is important for our future selves. They provide important context. Sure, some people will miss the meeting and use the notes to catch up. In my experience, the real value comes when you need to refer to the notes a year from now.
Meeting notes provide more than the details of the conversation. They capture why specific decisions are made.
Considering the value of meeting notes, you may think that it’s your job as the facilitator to write them down.
This is wrong.
Facilitating a meeting demands your full attention. You need to focus on sticking to the agenda and guide the discussion.
Having to record the meeting notes prevents you from doing all those tasks well. You’ll be too busy keeping up with what everyone is saying.
You should be focusing on how to guide the discussion.
In order to focus on creating collaborative meetings, an important method of facilitation is to find someone else to record the meeting notes.
Don’t have the same person take your meetings’ notes. The job comes with the cost of not being fully present in the meeting.
Also, this role often gets delegated to the women on the team. This is because we have been socialized to associate “supportive” work with women.
To create an inclusive environment, rotate the role of the scribe to different people. This will allow everyone to equally contribute to your discussions.
Earlier this year, I was facilitating an org-wide meeting of forty engineers. We had a bunch of topics to work through within an hour, so time management was critical.
During the meeting, everything was going great! Good questions from the audience, we presenters sticking to the time, and I had a great note-taker.
Then we got to the open discussion topic.
I knew this topic was going to take a lot of time, and I reserved twenty minutes for it. The presenter was handling questions with ease, and nothing was surprising us. People were staying engaged, but we weren’t coming to a decision.
At this point, I decided to have this conversation take over the rest of the meeting. This meant bumping the last topic off the agenda.
I made the wrong choice.
While the discussion worked out fine, the presenter of the topic I removed wasn’t happy. I could tell he spent a lot of time on his slides to make sure people understood the work his team was producing.
This peer of mine deserved the space to celebrate the progress his team was making. I instead allowed the larger group to talk in circles.
This wasn’t the first time I allowed a topic to go past its time. I’ve done it a bunch in retrospective meetings. It was the first time where I saw the negative impact of disrespecting the schedule of a meeting.
Time management is one of the methods of facilitation to focus on. It’s also one of the most difficult tasks to oversee.
To effectively manage time, you will need to cut people off. This feels so rude. It feels like you’re not creating a collaborative meeting whenever you do it.
You must overcome this feeling.
To get past this internal hurdle, remember two things:
- The goal of the meeting
- Your job as the facilitator
Understanding the meeting’s goal will provide the resolve needed to interrupt others. If you want the discussion to achieve the goal of the meeting, it’s up to you to ensure that happens.
Regarding your job as the facilitator, your primary role in the meeting is to move the discussion forward. It is not to take part in the conversation.
No one cares about the goal of the meeting as much as you do. No one else is paying attention to the clock as much as you. It’s your job to make the time productive for everyone.
Getting over this feeling will be hard at first. I hope that remembering your goal and job will give you the resolve you need. People will respect you for respecting their time.
Have you ever been in a meeting where someone said nothing for an hour, only to come to the group later with plenty to say?
Every time this happens to me, I always wish they spoke up sooner.
Then there are the people that talk to process their thoughts. They always mean well, but can often fail to listen to others.
As a facilitator, you’re going to need to figure out how to engage with these communication styles. Understanding these styles will make it easier to create collaborative meetings. Every meeting will have a mixture of extroverted and introverted communicators.
Extroverted communicators often process information in the meeting on the fly. Their primary model of communication is “talking to think”. These people will often be the most active members of the meeting.
Depending on the meeting type, they are great additions to the group. They will get others to talk and engage. For these situations, you won’t need to do anything to get these people to engage.
In other meetings, this communication style may be a detriment. Frequent interruptions. No space is given to others to speak. A lack of listening. This is where you need to manage the situation as the facilitator.
I recommend paying attention to how everyone else in the room is responding to how the person is talking. Look for people that are failing to get their word in on the conversation. When you see this, take the step to interrupt the current speaker and create that space.
You’ll also need to pay attention to when people interrupt others. Introverted communicators put a lot of thought into their words. It sucks if they get interrupted after a couple of words. Pay the most attention to this group in a meeting. If they get interrupted, stop the interrupter, and give the space back to the original person.
The “quieter”, or introverted, communicators in the room need a different management style. I focus on making sure they come prepared for the meeting.
Introverted communicators spend a lot of their mental energy in deep thought. They want to make sure they have a full understanding of a topic before responding.
This is why they are often quiet in meetings – they are processing the information.
They want their words to be meaningful and clear when they speak.
To support this communication type, share preparation materials before the meeting. This will provide others time to understand the topics of the meeting. When they come to the meeting, they will be more focused on contributing to decisions.
The result will be a more engaging conversation from the most thoughtful members of the team.
To learn more about navigating different communication styles, I highly recommend the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
As an extroverted communicator, I often struggled to talk with introverted communicators. This book helped me in understanding how to engage with my teammates.
Depending on the meeting type, the method of facilitation you will need to use defining action items. While it’s easy to collect these items, the real challenge is following through.
To process action items, use this checklist when preparing for the meeting:
- Work with your note-taker to record action items throughout the meeting.
- Reserve 3 to 5 minutes at the end of the meeting to review existing action items and ideate on others.
- Ensure there is an owner for each action item. This step is critical. If no one owns an action item, they won’t do it.
- Decide how you wish to follow up on the action items. Will it be a week later at the team meeting, through email, or something else?
Depending on your relationship with the team, some action items will be assigned to you. If you are a leader of the team, this is normal. Your job is to support the team.
These tasks will often be things focused on the people of the team. Configure Jira, get in touch with a stakeholder, make sure that Dale’s birthday cake is delivered, etc.
How you tackle these action items on top of everything else is a post for another day. Remember that you can ask for help from the team. Maybe people didn’t feel like speaking up in the group to own an action item. They may be more amiable to own it after a one-on-one conversation.
For tasks that are assigned to others, your best bet is to check in with the owner about a week later. Often, people forget they had to look into the work and you asking about it will remind them.
A fundamental skill you need on the journey to become a great leader is the ability to facilitate collaborative meetings.
Putting the work into preparation will give you the confidence to hold the group accountable to an agenda.
Finding a partner to record notes will provide you the space to pay attention to the dynamics of the conversation.
In the meeting itself, it’s up to you to be focused on the goal of the meeting, the time left, and how the group interacts. Do the work to understand the communication styles of the group beforehand. Look to create space for different types of communicators.
Collaborative meetings are worth the time if you make them engaging for the audience. Your teammates will feel productive if they walk away feeling aligned with the decisions made from the discussion.
I’m always interested in learning new ways to improve my facilitation skills. What other methods do you use that I didn’t cover here?
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