A skilled meeting facilitator can get a group to discuss, debate, and, above all, decide a lot of stuff in not-a-lot of time. Trouble is, most teams don’t have dedicated program managers or agile coaches to step in and fill that role. So as the modern workplace becomes ever-more collaborative, it’s increasingly important for all team members to know how to run effective meetings.
But lack of experience with facilitation and a fear of being judged harshly can dissuade even the most confident person from managing meetings.
I’ve been facilitating meetings for years, and doubts still creep in. What if the pace is too fast, or too slow? Is the agenda pitched at the right level? How will the vibe in the room change if I “double-click” on an uncomfortable truth that surfaces? Will I be able to get the inevitable strong personality in the room to button up and listen to their peers? Sheesh. So many x-factors to keep track of!
The good news is that meeting facilitation is simply a skill you have to practice. To help build your chops and conquer your fears, here are some pointers and pro tips that will help you manage your next meeting with confidence.
✅ Tip: Bookmark this post so you can review it quickly the next time you’re about to facilitate a meeting.
1. Shut down to open up
People are far more engaged in discussions when they’re not firing off an email or checking Facebook. So take a hardline approach and ask for all laptops, tablets, and phones to be turned off. The only exception is the meeting’s scribe, who gets a pass to use their device of choice for taking notes. Don’t start the meeting until everyone is tuned in and ready to contribute.
A laptops-closed/phones-off policy is critical for sessions that revolve around active listening and flat-out, transparent sharing. Can you imagine someone working up the courage to share a dissenting opinion while their teammates pecked away on email? Not so much. For team retrospectives and similar types of meetings, it’s best if the facilitator takes notes so all participants are fully engaged in the discussion.
If someone insists they need to be working on something else during the meeting, then give them permission to leave the room and go do it. They’ll have an easier time of it and produce better work without the distraction of people talking around them anyway.
2. Use the power of the pen
Sometimes there’s a “celebrity” in the room: a strong personality with strong opinions who is highly respected by other people in the group. They can dominate the discussion (usually without intending to), or even disrupt it by advancing their own agenda.
Give them a pen, and ask them to take charge of capturing ideas on the whiteboard. Not only does this intrinsically task them with listening (i.e., creating space for others to speak), you also avoid the scenario where they sit in the back of the room trashing ideas that diverge from their own. No hecklers, please.
If they’re a strong detractor or feel particularly strongly about the session, share the agenda and purpose in advance so you can get their input before the meeting. Help them walk in ready to make a constructive contribution.
3. Operate in questions
Many meetings are essentially problem-solving workshops (5 Whys, Experience Canvas, Premortem, Empathy Mapping… the list goes on). As the meeting facilitator, it’s not your job to have all the answers. It is your job, however, to lead the group to answers. That means posing the right questions at the right time. When done well, pointed questions will challenge assumptions that may be preventing the group from getting to that “ah-ha!” moment.
Even if you think you have The Answer™, resist the temptation to offer it up. Instead, ask leading questions that guide the group to that answer (it’s more meaningful if they arrive at that conclusion themselves). Here are a few of my favorites that you can customise:
- Can you expand on that point?
- Is this conversation moving us in the direction we want?
- Your last point intrigues me, but it feels counterintuitive – in what context could you see that applying?
- How would you summarise that?
- What would that look like?
- How does that make you feel?
- How would you measure success in that instance?
- What would The Rock do?
Of course, asking the right questions requires you to bust out your active listening skills. Give the group space to burn through the ideas that come quickly, and pay attention to what they’re saying so you know which questions can get them to think deeper. But generally stay out of the discussion until it stalls out or starts going in circles.
4. Read the room
Tune into the energy of the room and look for visual cues like body language. Are people fidgeting in frustration? Do looks of discontent or disagreement abound? These are signs you need to intervene. It’s also ok to gauge sentiment in the room by simply asking people straight-up: Is this resonating? Do we feel comfortable with the progress we’re making?
Bringing focus to the group’s emotional state helps you understand whether they’re engaged or disconnected. And if the group is disconnected, it’s time for you to jump in and lead them down an alternate path.
Getting your energetic radar calibrated will take time, and you’ll get it wrong once or twice. Being mindful and observant are the first steps.
5. Focus on outcomes
Every meeting you facilitate needs to have a clear endpoint: an objective to achieve, or a decision to make. Make sure your agenda covers this so participants know why they’re there, and (importantly) what it would take to finish the meeting early.
It’s worth reiterating the objective at the start of the meeting, too. Heck, you could even write it on the whiteboard to serve as guardrails for the discussion – especially if you’re likely to have detractors in the room. If the conversation heads down a rabbit hole or veers off-course, you can get the group back on track by reminding them of the meeting’s purpose.
Speaking of off-topic ideas…
6. Create a parking lot
If an idea pops up that is valuable, but off-point, offer to create a “parking lot” and jot it down (usually on the whiteboard or in the meeting notes) so you can come back to it later. Because right now is all about nailing your objective for this meeting.
Knowing their thoughts aren’t lost forever to the aether helps people return their focus to the outcome you’re striving for.
7. Know your audience
If you’re facilitating a problem-solving meeting or a retrospective, be on high alert for people who need to be drawn into the discussion. Consider the personality types amongst your attendees, and try to get everyone to contribute to the discussion evenly (more or less). The quiet people in the group might not be shy, per se. In fact, they might have a lot to say, if given the opportunity. It’s your job as the facilitator to carve out space for them to speak.
A veteran facilitator might even observe people as they enter the room, mentally noting who they sit next to or who they avoid. It’s ok to use your judgment and re-arrange chairs (or who sits where) if that’ll help bring out the best in everyone.
Also, understand who has the final say on whatever decisions you’re making, and use them as a tie-breaker if the group can’t reach a consensus. That person can also come in handy when deciding who owns follow-up items.
8. Hit your feet
Don’t hit them physically – that’d hurt. I mean stand up, congregate around the whiteboard, and bring some dynamic energy to the room. This isn’t the UN General Assembly, after all. (Unless you actually work at the UN. In which case, good on ya.)
One dead-simple facilitation hack I like is having people write their thoughts on sticky notes, then walk up to the front of the room and post them a whiteboard or butcher’s paper. Once everyone is done posting up ideas, take turns coming up front to present those ideas to the group. Works great in problem-solving or brainstorming-flavored meetings like mindmapping and premortems.
Incidentally, when paired with coffee, a whiteboard is easily the most innovative tool in the knowledge worker’s tool kit. Seriously!
It’s not about you
Me, I’m a classic “talker”. So standing in front of a group to facilitate a meeting isn’t much of a stretch. (In fact, when I was learning how to manage meetings, the hardest part was getting myself to shut up so the rest of the group could speak.)
Being an effective meeting facilitator while simultaneously being a meeting participant is near impossible – you can’t be emcee and performer at the same time. Embrace the facilitator’s role of managing time, encouraging participation, and asking juicy questions. Let the other people in the group be the stars of the show.
Structure your agenda such that there are opportunities for different people to lead parts of the discussion. This lets you sink into the background, observe the group, and focus on driving the group toward that outcome or decision.
. . .
Running meetings and workshops will be clunky at first, and you’ll make some mistakes. That’s ok! You don’t have to be an ace facilitator to save your team weeks’ worth of time spinning their wheels.
Your skills will improve with practice. So you know what’s next, right? Get out there and start practicing! Browse the brainstorming and problem-solving meeting ideas in the Atlassian Team Playbook – our free, no-BS guide to working better together – and schedule a session with your team.