Make meetings count: Become an expert facilitator

Guest editorial
Melissa Bergkamp, Generation Next Governor at Large, Harper Industries Inc.

This article was published in the August 2020 edition of NTEA News.

Over the past weeks, I have witnessed, participated in, and even led several group meetings that felt stagnant and inefficient. And while I assumed these undesirable experiences likely increased in recent months as we turned to video conferencing to remain productive and engaged, I found little comfort in this understanding.

Now more than ever, the ability to be an effective facilitator is critical to generating momentum within your team and inspiring progress. It’s a big job and no easy task. While experts say it takes practice and self-awareness, I believe the skill of facilitation is a key characteristic of great leadership. In fact, Tom Wujec, founder of The Wujec Group, explains when you marry a specialized skill with facilitation skills, you are destined to reach success.

Eager to add facilitation as a resource, I quickly turned to professionals who have mastered this skill. After aggregating suggestions from colleagues, my business coach and other various resources, I began highlighting repetitive details. Acknowledging that one of the best ways to learn something new is to teach it to someone else, I bundled my findings into a few succinct categories to make the goal more easily attainable.

A facilitator is intended to be a moderator, not a mediator or even pacifier. In this role, the goal is to manage the process, not the content. This individual should always be the most prepared participant in the room — and most prepared does not mean most knowledgeable.

When planning for a group discussion, start by identifying the purpose of the gathering and what the goal should be. The goal does not necessarily mean the final decision at the end of the meeting. For the facilitator, the initial goal is to recruit the appropriate group of people and help guide the discussion until an agreed-upon decision is reached that will result in organizational success.

Set the tone
A successful moderator leads the most fruitful discussions when all participants are on the same page. Each contributor should understand the purpose of the meeting, participant expectations and what needs to be achieved or decided before the meeting begins. This information can be easily communicated by an agenda or in a prior briefing.

By offering these resources in advance, you are not only informing others of the discussion topics, but also disclosing how long the session will take. It allows the chance to assign specific portions of the meeting to participants and distribute responsibility for contributing.

Knowing the facilitator is not expected to be the topic expert, inviting relevant stakeholders to the meeting and offering advance notice is suggested. Providing adequate preparation time for the expert to compile thoughts and tailor delivery will ensure information is valuable and resonates with other participants.

Add value
Alignment is reinforced when people feel they have the opportunity to voice their opinion or concern and add value to the organization. Not everyone will speak up voluntarily, so it may be helpful to keep track of who is less vocal and provide direct encouragement to them.

  • Inviting others to contribute will create an inclusive environment. Discussion should be a balanced back-and-forth experience, avoiding any circumstance allowing one or more persons to dominate the conversation.
  • Calling on people directly and equally eliminates social pressure. This action no longer offers a choice to participate but demands a response and reiterates to each attendee you want to hear their voice. This tactic is only helpful if the facilitator understands that any response is acceptable, even the “I don’t have an opinion” answer.
  • Ask questions with the intent of accepting new and out-of-the-box ideas. Use what is contributed to keep building on the topic. Try not to disregard any input; offer acknowledgement with responses such as “great question” or “thank you for sharing.”

Read the room
The most productive facilitators seamlessly navigate the conversation within the designated time commitment, covering all points and holding to the set agenda. It’s important to stay on task out of respect for others’ schedules. If the meeting runs over the allotted time, survey the room and ask if an extension is possible or find a stopping point and schedule a followup.

In addition to staying on track, an attentive moderator uses emotional intelligence to read the room. Hone in on social cues and body language insinuating the group is ready for a change of pace. This may mean a five-minute break or that it’s time to start wrapping up.

Another tip is to steer away from presenting longer than five minutes without posing a question, requesting feedback or inviting opposing perspectives. When a topic requires a lengthy delivery, plan to pass the baton to another participant and pivot to the next subject to reengage group interaction.

The wrap-up
Before concluding a group discussion, the organizer should reflect briefly on the purpose of the gathering.

Was the objective met? If so, CEO of Magellan Executive Partners David Woods would say, “let’s wrap up and tie a bow around it.”

This concluding step is the most important component of the entire assembly. It requires that the facilitator actively listened and can briefly reiterate how the group’s time was utilized, what next steps will be taken and how the organization progresses.

At the end of the meeting, each participant should be able to clearly define how the group will move forward and why. Complementary to “tying a bow,” distributing a summary or meeting minutes also ensures the discussion is well documented. These final steps clearly state participant decisions and reaffirm next steps and responsibilities.

Can you wrap it up?

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