How Effective Facilitation Makes Meetings Work


Several years ago, I was sitting in a team meeting when I noticed something. It was one of those recurring meetings, the kind that don’t have a lot of focus or urgency, and most people were sitting quietly on the sidelines…that is, until the topic arose of whether we should have cake or cupcakes at an upcoming client event. People debated bakeries, cost and client perception with intense emotion. As I got sucked into the debate along with everyone else, it struck me: “How is this a good use of our time?”

Clearly, the facilitation of the meeting had collapsed.

According to Merriam-Webster, to facilitate is to make something easier. In the case of meeting facilitation, the purpose is to make engagement in the meeting easier. It’s a critical function, because when people are engaged, they are focused and committed to the group and its objectives.

The problem is, there are plenty of barriers that keep people from being fully engaged in meetings, including:

  • Disconnection from the two key ingredients for engagement—the collective and individual goals. When the collective goals of the group aren’t explicitly connected to the content of the meeting, the meeting lacks alignment. When the individual goals of the participants aren’t explicitly connected to the meeting’s content, the meeting won’t keep their interest.
  • Distraction that comes from having no focused agenda around the most important subjects. The distraction can happen when the facilitator allows the entire group to derail onto an unproductive path (like cake vs. cupcakes) or when the facilitator allows individual participants to drift off on their own—which they’re likely to do if they find the meeting boring or irrelevant.
  • Danger, or a perceived lack of safety. In some meetings, people might feel the stakes are too high for them to contribute, while in others, people might feel judged for their participation. Either way, the result is that participants are guarded and defensive, and their contributions remain at surface level.
  • Divisions stemming from a lack of inclusivity. In these cases, the loudest voices, the strongest authority or the squeakiest wheels are the ones that carry the agenda. Other team dynamics can also contribute to a divided rather than united mentality—turf wars and politics can turn meetings into battlegrounds.

Whether it’s a school board meeting, a staff meeting or a family meeting, effective facilitation makes these barriers easier to overcome.

What can we learn from professional, trained facilitators?

Becoming a certified Dale Carnegie facilitator was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It challenged me to move beyond my own insecurities and inclinations in group communication for the good of the group’s engagement. Here are some of the key points that I took out of that process:

  1. Ask awesome questions, and don’t fill the silence. Good questions have no right or wrong answer. They provoke thought and generate dialogue. Good facilitators put out one good question, and then they wait and listen.
  2. Invite participation. Strong facilitation pulls diverse voices into the conversation, sets an expectation that people will have comments and questions, and keeps the atmosphere encouraging for all to engage.
  3. Reflect outward to expand individual contributions. Rather than getting locked into a specific person’s questions and comments, effective facilitators say, “Thanks for the idea, John. What do others think about John’s comment?”
  4. Make discussions safe. Engaging facilitators don’t rate questions by saying things like, “That’s a good question.” And they never make people feel like their contributions are being judged or criticized. Instead, they apply the 10th commandment of improv comedy: Say “Yes, and…”
  5. Create variety in experiences. Changing up the flow and approach to discussion keeps people on their toes. Excellent facilitators continuously adjust the agendas of recurring meetings, mix up the discussion approaches (e.g., large group, small group, one-to-one and individual reflection), and use a variety of feedback mechanisms (e.g., voting, debate, surveys and delegated authority).
  6. Keep pace and energy strong. My father used to tell me that good meetings keep people’s knees hopping. A meeting will rarely have more energy than the facilitator does, so an effective facilitator finds ways to keep things lively, whether by conducting a standing or walking meeting or just by being an energetic facilitator.

How high is the engagement in your meetings? Are you getting caught up in your own version of the cake vs. cupcake debate, time and time again? Try some of these facilitation tips to see if you can better engage people—and make better use of everyone’s time.

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