The Art of Meeting Facilitation: Tips for Facilitating Productive Conversations

Meeting facilitation is no easy task, especially when working with a group of divergent stakeholders. And even within a group of closely aligned individuals, a meeting may be subject to a variety of challenges from the microphone hog to the participant who can’t seem to get off his or her phone – not to mention the challenges of managing the nuances of different personality types.

NST has been brought in to facilitate meetings of all types. While at times, we get last minute requests to help navigate especially difficult or challenging situations, the most successful meetings are ones in which we were brought in early on to develop a process and approach custom tailored to the group. So, what have we learned from decades of facilitating difficult meetings? Here are some tips from the trenches:

  1. Co-create and lay ground rules up front – Typically we start by laying out the rules of the road for discussion. “Rules” are created in concert with participants and are designed to help the group accomplish its goals. Ideally, these mimic the company values. Getting agreement to what is – and isn’t – allowed up front makes the rest of the process easier, as people have committed to an approach.
  2. Get people participating early on – We typically start by going around the room and posing a question of the group. Sometimes it’s as simple as “what are your expectations for today?” This question serves two purposes. First, it gets everyone participating, even those folks who may prefer to stay silent. Second, it allows us, as facilitators, to make sure we are addressing expectations. If a participant has different expectations for the day than what we set out to do, we are able point that out and manage those expectations early on.
  3. Define what we will (and will not) do together during the planning session – In addition to discussing participants’ expectations, we also clearly outline our goals for the day. Often times, work may need to happen outside of the meeting and letting participants know this up front will ensure clarity and gain support for the process. During this phase, we often outline work that may have led up to the meeting to increase transparency about the overall process for our effort.
  4. Do your homework – Walking in cold is not a good way to be successful. When facilitating strategic planning sessions, we often start with telephone interviews of each member of the planning team. These interviews allow us to develop themes that can be used as starting points for discussion, and ensures we have a good understanding of our client and any issues or opportunities they may be facing. Interviews also give us a window into different personality types and allow for candid input that some folks may be less comfortable sharing in a group setting.
  5. Agree to a common language – Ask ten people to define what a “mission” or “vision” statement is and you are likely to get several different answers. Our planning efforts typically include “purpose” statements, which can be even less familiar to some. Agreeing to common terminology and definitions is important to getting agreement on content for those items.
  6. Put things in the parking lot – but not too soon – One of the biggest challenges in facilitation is knowing when to let a discussion continue and knowing when it is time to wrap it up. It’s a skill that requires finesse and practice. One consideration is whether or not all opinions have been voiced. When redundancy runs rampant and agreements seem far off, it can be wise to put a discussion “in the parking lot” for a later time. Often – after giving a discussion some space even if for an hour or two while additional work continues – participants can have more productive conversations later. In addition, more research or information may be needed to inform decision making.
  7. Build on agreements – Some agreements may be obvious. Others may not be so clear. As facilitators, we are looking for agreements of all types including agreement of values, goals and more. Pointing out commonalities of agreement builds alignment between participants and fosters productive dialogue.
  8. Recap. Recap. Anyone who has sat through a two-day planning session knows that at times, your head can start to spin. Discussions sometimes go around and around before decisions are made. Recapping the discussion, with emphasis on decisions made, will ensure participants are on the same page about where discussions land.

Even with all these learnings, mastering the art of facilitation is a life-long journey of which I admit to always being a student. Do you have any tips to share? If so, we’d love to hear them!