One of the most important skills for any organization to develop is meeting facilitation. Ever see an invitation pop up on your calendar without a clear statement as to what the meeting will be about? Ever walk into a meeting where discussions happen for an hour and the result is another meeting to try and understand more of what was talked about? What about a meeting where lots of small decisions were made, but the net result is everyone leaves with a different idea of what is going to happen?
These are the problems that a facilitator solves.
Here are a few tips to put meetings that aren’t your own back on track.
“What is this meeting about?”
Those are the words I use almost as soon as anyone else is about to start the meeting. Sometimes I’ll give a few minutes before I ask, but only if I suspect that someone will explicitly declare the purpose of the meeting.
There is a certain amount dominance required to pull this move off, but without a clear purpose in the room, the meeting is likely to be doomed to be a free-flowing discussion that is frustrating to everyone as it seems to have no point.
Attempts to guide the conversation will feel like being shut down or cut off because nobody knows why it’s happening. Why is what I’m talking about less or more important than what you want to talk about? A purpose helps give a direction to guide those things.
So, within the first five minutes find a way to ask the question, “What is this meeting about?”
Some variations that also are effective:
These last two can be used by themselves but often work well when paired with the primary question.
Too many meetings are an open discussion. Framing it around a single phrase or word helps guide and curate the discussion.
On a screen, wall, or anywhere you can write down the purpose of the discussion and put it somewhere visible.
Point at it.
That phrase becomes a focal point of the room at this point and you can then continue to write and guide the conversation.
Someone say something important or ask a large question? Write it down. If you are going to paraphrase, ask if what you’ve captured is alright.
Make it all visible.
By having all the information and discussion points out in the open the room has the chance to curate itself. By doing this you’ve also established yourself as someone the group is leaning on to keep them focused and organized. From now you can facilitate more fully.
Ten minutes before the time is over you’ll need to step in again. In all likely hood, the conversation will be interesting, but inconclusive. People will likely say this meeting was better than most.
Time to end it with what is almost always missing.
“Ok, we’ve talked about a lot of things, and we’re almost out of time. So let’s take a few minutes to figure out what the next steps are.”
Thats how I say it. I close the other conversations by bringing this up.
Because I’ve been writing things down publicly we have an idea of things that matter and don’t. We have an idea of small decisions that have been made throughout the conversation.
You can continue to guide the conversation around solidifying the next steps. As people put forward their ideas you’ll need to clarify them.
The primary details you’ll want the group to fill in for themselves are:
As you guide them to create these details there will likely be a temptation or pressure to manage these tasks for the group. Someone will likely ask for you to, “Send this out to the group.”
Be wary of such requests.
When facilitating we want the group to own their own content. These are their actions and their information, not yours.
The best case scenario is that you don’t wind up as the scribe. It is usually a waste of time to capture everything and report it out. Nobody will read it or act on it. Instead, I ask if there is any additional clarification needed for the people who have next steps. Then I will make a statement like this.
“Let me save us an email. Everyone knows what they’ve signed up for, so let’s let them check in with the group like they’ve agreed to do.”
Even when the meeting isn’t yours, you can step in without too much effort to help put them onto a productive path.
Start by clarifying the purpose in the room. Start writing things down as they are said and keep them highly visible. Close the meeting by identifying and refining the next step for the group. Those three things can turn a series of endless meetings into one that accomplishes something.