If you’re asked to facilitate a meeting, you may have one of two reactions:
Facilitating is a great opportunity to help bring many different viewpoints together so you can get clear and get moving forward.
Whether you’re the official “facilitator” or just a leader who wants to get the most out of your team meetings, bringing great facilitation skills to the room can make the difference between wasting people’s time and getting the important sh^t done.
So I’m in the YEAH camp.
But I wasn’t always.
I’ve learned, and experimented, failed and won. Now, I regularly get hired by teams and boards to facilitate their planning and project conversations, and while it’s not easy work, it works easier because I follow a few simple rules.
Now they’re yours, too.
Have to Facilitate a Meeting: My Best Rules
Rule 1: Always remember that you’re the guide, not the hero
Sure, you may have a stake in the meeting, especially if you’re the leader.
But the worst thing you can do is to put yourself first.
You need to step aside and really see yourself as the guide, not the hero.
Think of that classic hero/guide matchup of Luke Skywalker and Yoda.
Yoda’s there to find and enhance what Luke already has inside. Yoda’s the guide.
But Luke’s gotta do the work.
He has to make his own tough decisions and step into his own actions. And sometimes, he has to struggle and fail.
If you’re the leader who’s facilitating your own team, take a minute to think about how your team can be the hero.
If you can’t do it, then hire an outsider to facilitate and you can be part of the heroic team.
Rule 2: Be very, very prepared
What’s the secret to looking like you’re a natural?
Practice, practice, practice.
The reason why we have so many bad meetings is that too many facilitators wing it.
If it’s important enough to gather human beings in the same room (whether that room be in-person or online), it’s important enough to invest time in preparation.
The most important way to prepare is having an agenda.
Don’t get sucked in myth that says “agendas are old-school.” In a world moving faster than ever before, having a well-prepared agenda helps you get more done.
Personally, I always prepare two agendas: the public one and my own facilitation agenda.
- The public agenda helps people feel at ease with the topics to be discussed. It answers the question “why am I going and why should I care?”
- Our brains strive for clarity and hate surprises. Agendas are important tools to help people know what to expect and to show up ready to work.
- My facilitation agenda breaks down the day even further. It’s private just to me. It helps me map out the tools, exercises, and more precise timing.
- My facilitation agenda is also the place I map out “if this, then that” scenarios. That way,I’m not winging it if a conversation goes in a different direction than expected. I’m prepared with options to get back on track.
Here’s another secret: preparation is the antidote to fear. When you’re prepared, you stress less.
Rule 3: Get the room talking—early & often
I’ll never forget this meeting from my work as a leader at a large HR consulting firm.
The primary client of our multi-million dollar account came to our office with her entire staff. Our team of five had a specific goal–get her to say yes to something really, really big . . . details of which I’ve lost over time.
We’d practiced carefully, everyone knowing their part.
The client and her staff arrived; we fussed and fawned as appropriate and then began the meeting.
Our lead consultant dove into his pitch–for an hour. The next person went, on, then me, then another.
All the time, we’re the only ones talking.
Which at the time, we thought was fine.
I now know better.
Because when we finally shut up and asked the client for her thoughts, she shared news that had happened the day before that completely changed their needs for the idea we were sharing.
We’d basically wasted half a day because we hadn’t let her speak at the very beginning of the day.
We were breaking rule #1 and trying to be the hero.
And because of that, we broke rule #2 and weren’t prepared in advance.
So, today, in every meeting I facilitate as well as most of the workshops and conferences where I’m speaking, I typically find a way to get the audience talking (or chatting in the online platform) within the first five minutes.
How? Here are my three favorite strategies you can steal:
- Showing Appreciation: “It takes a lot to show up here today and invest in our work together. Pop into the chat and call out someone you’d like to say thank you to today.”
- Clarifying Expectations: “What’s the one thing you expect this team to walk away with today?
- Celebrating Talent. “As we get started today, let’s get a sense of what talents and abilities we have in the room. So, think of the one word that describes you at your best. When you’re ready, type your name and your word in the chat.”
When you’re implementing any of these, avoid the time-worn structure of going around the room in order. I don’t know about you, but I find that just creates anxiety and a “like she said” habit.
Rule #4: If you’re not sure what to do next, say so
Even the most prepared facilitator can’t plan out everything that might happen in a room of smart, able humans.
So there may be a point where you’re stumped.
Just say so.
And ask for help:
- “We have an hour left together. Given where we are right now, what seems to be the best use of the rest of our time?”
- “Wow–we’ve raised some interesting issues and we have a few different choices about where to go next. Here’s what I’d like to propose. Could I have two volunteers to join me to do a quick regroup on our agenda, and everyone else, let’s take a 10-minute break.”
Back to Rule #1–you don’t have to be the hero. Sometimes the best solutions break through after you break down.
Rule #5: Find some spots for fun.
I hate “icebreakers.”
Or games–yes, I really hate group games in the workplace, especially the kind that people use when they have to facilitate a meeting with busy, smart adults.
I mean, c’mon, who really enjoys building a paper tower? Or figuring out what we’ll need when we’re stranded on a desert island? Waste of my time.
Smart people see through the fake fun of those exercises and merely tolerate them.
Let’s create some real fun instead–fun that doesn’t waste people’s precious time.
So what is that?
In my experience, even the most introverted people find fun when you create a safe opportunity to get to know someone else better.
Create some opportunities in your facilitation agenda for people to talk one-on-one about specific issues related to the problems you’re trying to solve. Keep it tightly timed, like speed dating.
Because if we’re investing time in bringing human beings together to solve a problem, then why not let them enjoy being human at the same time?
That’s how to facilitate a meeting that works for you, and for your team.
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