Facilitate effective meetings
IntroductionHow to plan and facilitate effective meetings.
Effective, enjoyable meetings don’t just happen by accident. They require planning and attention to meeting process. This section discusses the role of a meeting facilitator to guide meeting process and help ensure the meeting achieves the group’s purpose. It also provides tips for those making presentations at meetings.
On this page:
- What it means to facilitate
- Facilitating from the front
- Facilitating from the back
- Using an outside facilitator
- Making presentaitons
- Interpersonal communication
- Expressing concerns
To facilitate is to make easy or more convenient. A facilitator assists the group to make its work easier. A facilitator’s job is to manage the way the group works together, not to influence the outcome or results.
If you choose to take on the role of facilitator, make sure you:
- Pay attention 100 percent of the time.
- Get the job done – achieve the meeting’s purpose.
- Keep the discussion moving.
- Ensure everyone gets a say.
- Honour all responses.
- Don’t get involved personally in the discussion – stay neutral.
Be clear about purpose
It is essential that the facilitator is clear what the purpose is for any meeting and that the whole group agrees with this purpose. For a small meeting, this might simply require clarifying the items for discussion at the beginning. For a larger meeting, it may be necessary to negotiate and agree on the purpose with the group at the outset.
Ensure full participation
A key role of the facilitator is ensuring everyone can participate. Often agency representatives or more skilled local people may be quite vocal and articulate compared to others in the group. Power differences can also come into play – for example, the meeting and decisions may be dominated by the agency administering the land where the project is taking place.
It’s important to be aware of these dynamics within a group and to enhance the opportunities for everyone to contribute equally.
If you are the main person guiding the group’s process, the ideas below may help.
- Before the meeting, put the meeting purpose up somewhere clearly visible on the wall.
- If possible, organise someone to share your job – for example, to meet and greet people, make sure they have a drink. If there are any distractions during the meeting (e.g. a visitor from elsewhere), the second person can take care of them without affecting the meeting. Sharing the actual facilitation means that the group can benefit from different styles and a change of face, especially if group energy is waning. It also means you can check with each other about how it’s going.
- Begin and end the meeting on time. Be clear at the beginning about the finishing time and breaks, and stick to them. Check that people are okay with times and be prepared to be flexible.
- Welcome everyone, go through the purpose and agenda (asking for any additions or changes), make appropriate introductions, and go over ground rules (either get people to suggest some or use the ones later in this section). Check for understanding and agreement.
See organising meetings and events for more on introductions.
- Check that the meeting purpose actually covers what the group wants to achieve. Sometimes people will have moved a little from their original ideas – they may want to change things slightly or even completely! Whatever happens, the whole group needs to agree before the meeting continues.
During the meeting
- Your role includes keeping the agenda going, as well as looking out for the energy and comfort of the group. Check that people can hear and repeat any unclear questions from the floor. If energy is waning, use an icebreaker or have a break. Be alert to people’s body language at the same time as you keep the meeting moving – this takes 150 percent concentration!
See basic group techniques for icebreaker ideas.
- If you’re on a field day, there are additional considerations for comfort and safety. If you’re going into the bush with more than five people, count heads and appoint someone as ‘tail-end Charlie’. When you stop to talk to the group, allow time for people to gather and, if possible, stand on higher ground so you can be seen and heard. Avoid having the sun shining in people’s eyes.
- Keep trying to ensure that everyone is involved as much as they want to be. If two or three people are dominating the discussion, ask the others regularly for their input – ‘what do other people think about that point?’
- Record key discussion points and decisions accurately. Where actions are agreed, record who is responsible for getting it done.
See basic group techniques for more ideas about recording.
- Keep revisiting the purpose and summarising points – this helps people who have missed points and clarifies where you are up to.
At the end
- Check with the group that the purpose has been achieved. If not, another meeting may need to be arranged. Remember to thank everyone for their input.
See organising meetings and events for more ideas about thank-yous.
- You may wish to evaluate the meeting process.
Suggested ground rules for productive meetings
- Respect each other’s right to speak without interruption.
- Be aware of how long and often we speak so that everyone has a chance to contribute.
- Make every effort to listen to each other so we understand the various perspectives.
- Speak for ourselves – ‘I think ...’ or ‘I feel ...’ rather than ‘everyone knows...’
- No personal attacks or put-downs.
- Use inclusive language (not racist, sexist, ageist, etc.).
- Turn off cellphones.
- Everyone takes responsibility for keeping the meeting on track.
- One person speaks at a time – no side conversations.
- Be constructive, relevant and concise with comments.
It’s a good idea to write up agreed ground rules where everyone can see them.
Even when you’re not running the meeting, you can make subtle interventions that create a more effective meeting process. Check out the ideas below.
Make constructive suggestions without disrupting the flow of the meeting:
- ‘I’m not sure if we all know each other here, can we quickly introduce ourselves?’
- ‘Is it a good idea to take notes today, and if so who would like to?’
- ‘I feel that we’ve come up with some good points so far. How about we summarise them and see which ones we all agree with.’
- ‘I’m just aware we haven’t heard from everyone yet. Could we quickly check what each of us thinks about that last suggestion?’
- ‘Just looking at our agenda, we only have half an hour left and six items still on the list. Which are the most important ones to deal with?’
- Be supportive of ideas and comments that are taking the meeting in the right direction.
- Watch that you don’t dominate the conversation and that other people contribute evenly
- If you’re being paid to attend and other people are there voluntarily, this can affect the dynamics. People sometimes resent this or look to you as the ‘expert’. You can downplay this by using ‘bounce’ questions when you are asked for your opinion on something which it is not appropriate for you to answer – for example, ‘ That’s an interesting question, has anyone here had experience in a similar situation?’
If the meeting runs badly and your suggestions for improvement aren’t working, it could be time to propose that an outside facilitator is used or that someone else in the group runs the next meeting. It’s a good idea to call in an outside facilitator when:
- It’s a big meeting with a long agenda and a wide range of people attending, possibly with conflicting views.
- The group is stuck and not getting through its work efficiently.
- Everyone in the group wants to take part in the meeting and doesn’t want the responsibility of keeping the meeting running.
Outside facilitators can be:
- Someone known to the group.
- A recommended independent facilitator.
- Someone within an agency with facilitation skills, who is not involved in the project.
Whoever you choose to use, make sure the whole group is okay with the process and the person – if one or two people aren’t happy, they could sabotage the meeting.
If you have to make a presentation at a meeting, the following ideas may help.
- Find out how much time you have and prepare realistically. Practise to see how long it really takes. Don’t talk for more than 20 minutes as a rule and allow time for questions.
- Use examples that make sense to your audience – for example, if you’re talking about water quality to farmers, talk about the amount of urea equivalent in waterways rather than the concentration of nitrogen. Check your language with a non-expert to avoid jargon.
- Consider your key take-home messages and make sure you state them clearly at the end of your talk. Try to end on a practical ‘what you can do’ note.
- Consider appropriate handouts or written information to reinforce your messages.
During your presentation
- Introduce yourself and your field of expertise and experience.
- Clarify whether you will take questions as you go or have them at the end.
- Speak clearly and not too fast. Check that people at the back can hear you.
- Don’t speak with your back turned to the audience and don’t stand in front of your screen.
- Always try to use visuals as well as words. For overheads, use at least 18-pt print.
- Put your ideas into bullet points and aim for no more than five points per overhead.
- Get there early to check equipment works and if you’re using Powerpoint, bring your presentation on overheads as well.
To be most effective in a group, it’s important to be a good clear speaker and listener. A good communicator:
- Listens with interest, attention and without interrupting.
- Uses appropriate body language – eye contact and facial expressions.
- Uses and remembers names.
- Encourages people by nodding and using other responses.
- Follows up with open-ended questions – for example, ‘What do you think?’ rather than ‘Do you agree that...’.
- Listens for feelings and what’s behind a person’s words.
- Checks with the speaker that they’ve understood their meaning by asking questions of clarification.
You can improve your communication skills by:
- Doing a course on interpersonal communication.
- Getting some help when you are preparing for and debriefing situations. Ask for suggestions from people that you know well and trust, about both your strengths and areas to improve on.
- Making sure you honour everyone in a group and accept they have something to offer, even when this is not obvious. When you give people respect, they often behave respectfully!
- Avoiding blaming language – for example, try ‘Thanks for your input, it’s been good to hear your points. What do other people think of this?’ rather than ‘You’re being a know-it-all.’
One of the hardest parts of interpersonal communication is expressing things that you’re concerned about, when you feel it may create bad feelings or conflict.
Using ‘I’ statements is a constructive way to express your feelings and concerns without blaming. It may not come naturally at first but you can begin by monitoring your speech for words like ‘You should...’ or ‘You are...’, which will often leave people feeling defensive.
Tips for using ‘I’ statements include:
- Be specific – for example, ‘I feel that this point has been raised a number of times without being resolved ’ rather than ‘I’m sick of conversations that go round in circles.’
- Avoid generalisations like ‘never’ and ‘always.’ Try things like ‘Three times in the last month I haven’t heard about things coming up ’ rather than ‘I always get left out of the loop.’
- Watch for false ‘I’ statements like ‘I wish you would...’
One way to structure your ‘I’ statements is to think of them as having four parts:
- The situation that affects you – ‘When such and such happens…’
- How it affects you – ‘I feel…’
- What you would prefer to happen – ‘It would be better for me if…’
- How it would improve things – ‘That way, …’
For example, try ‘When I get interrupted, I find it distracting and I would prefer if I could finish. That way, my ideas for the project could be considered’, rather than ‘You always interrupt and it’s very distracting’.
When other people give you feedback, there are also some things to keep in mind:
- Choose what to keep and what to leave – you may not agree with all the feedback you get. However, if you hear the same piece of feedback from several different people, you may need to reconsider!
- Don’t say anything in response unless you are asking for clarity. It can be hard not to react defensively, but it’s better to let the comment sit and think about it later.
- When you are ready to respond, try using ‘I’ statements to express your own feelings.