There is no foolproof way to make meetings successful. But there are a number of guidelines that will help groups have joyful and productive meetings. Most people can learn how to facilitate a good meeting; it just takes some time and attention. If many people in the group have group process skills, meetings will be better and easier to facilitate.
Some of the ingredients of good meetings are:
- Commonly understood goals
- A clear process for reaching those goals
- An awareness that people come with their personal thoughts, feelings and levels of interest in the topic of the meeting and each agenda item
- A sense of involvement and empowerment – people feeling that the decisions are their decisions, and that they are able to do what needs doing.
A facilitator is not quite the same as a leader or a chairperson. A facilitator accepts responsibility to help the group move through the agenda in the time available and to make necessary decisions and plans to get the work done.
A facilitator makes no decisions for the group, but instead suggests ways that will help the group to make plans and decisions. They work so that the people present at the meeting know that they are in charge, that work is getting done, and that each person has a role to play.
It is important to stress that the responsibility of the facilitator is to the group and its work rather than to the individuals within the group. Be aware that a person who cares a lot about the decisions being made, and has strong opinions about those decisions, will have a harder time facilitating. Sometimes it can be useful to have an outside facilitator.
If at all possible, plan the agenda before this meeting. It is easier to change it later than to start it at the beginning of the meeting. If very few agenda items are known before the meeting starts, try to guess what they might be by thinking about the people who will be there and what their needs will be.
In the agenda include:
- Something to gather people—to help them clear their minds and focus on this meeting, to make them feel connected and aware of each other. Some examples are: singing, silence, brief mention of good things that have happened to people lately, etc. (See some example songs.)
- Agenda review—it’s a good idea to have the agenda written on large sheets of paper or on a blackboard, where everybody can see it. By reviewing the agenda the facilitator can give the people a chance to change the proposed agenda and then agree to carry it out.
- Main items—if more than one item needs to be done in the meeting it is important to set priorities.
- If at all possible, start with something that can be dealt with reasonably easily. This will give the group a sense of accomplishment and energy.
- The harder, longer and more urgent items come next. If there are several, plan to have quick breaks between them to restore energy and attention (for example stretching, singing, a quick game or a bathroom break. See Games/Energizers/Dynamicas for ideas).
- A big item may be broken into several small items and discussed one at a time to make it easier. For example, a big decision may be several parts: what is the situation, what are some ideas we have, what are some criteria for the decision, and finally which of those ideas do we think we should choose? Or it may be helpful to try presenting the item with background information and clarification, breaking into small groups for idea sharing and making priorities, and then returning to the main group for discussion.
- Finish with something short and easy, to provide a sense of hope for next time.
- Evaluation—this serves several purposes: it provides a quick opportunity for people to express their feelings about the meeting and provides a sense of closure, and it helps you have better meetings in the future.
Estimate the time needed for each item. If your group struggles with time, you may want to put times on the agenda that everyone can see; this helps participants keep track of time and how long they speak.
The tone of a meeting is usually set in the beginning. It’s important to start on a note of positive energy and by recognizing people as whole people with thoughts and feelings. Sometimes singing will do this—especially in large gatherings—or a quick sharing of good things that have happened to people lately. The time it takes to do this can be worth it, because it creates a relaxed and upbeat atmosphere where participants can be real with each other.
As you move through agenda items, check them off so people can get a sense of the progress of the meeting and see that things are getting done.
- Go through the whole agenda outline, giving a brief idea of what is to be covered and how.
- Briefly explain the reason for the order of the proposed agenda items.
- Then (not before) ask for questions and comments.
- Don’t be defensive about the agenda you have proposed, but don’t make changes at the suggestion of one person—check it out with the group first.
- If big changes and additions are proposed, talk to the group about how that affects the timeline of the meeting and let them make changes like taking something out or postponing something until later.
- If people don’t agree that an item should be on the agenda, consider that there is no consensus (agreement) so it cannot be included at that time.
- Remember that your responsibility as facilitator is to the whole group and not to each individual.
- When the agenda has been changed, ask the participants if they are willing to accept it—and insist on a response. They need to be aware of having made a contract with you about what is happening—besides, it is their meeting!
- Arrange (before the meeting) to have somebody present each item.
- Encourage the different opinion—the more important the decision, the more important it is to have all the information (facts, feelings, and opinions) available.
- Expect differences of opinion—when handled well, they can help the group find creative solutions.
- Be suspicious of agreements reached too easily—test to make sure that people really do agree on important points
- Don’t let a discussion continue between just two people; ask for comments by others. After all, it is the group that needs to make the decisions and carry them out.
- As much as possible, make people speak for themselves only and be specific when they refer to others. No saying “some people say,” “we all know,” “they would not listen.” This can feel scary if it is unfamiliar, but it gets easier with practice and helps build trust.
- Keep looking for minor points of agreement and say them—it helps people feel hope and move forward.
- Encourage people to think of new solutions and to look for ways compromise.
- In tense situations or when solutions are hard to reach, remember to use humor, affirmation, quick games for energy, change of places, small groups, silence, naming what is happening (for example: “wow—this feels tense” or “the group looks stuck at this moment”) etc.
- When you test for consensus, state in question form everything that you feel people agree on. Be specific: “Do we agree that we’ll meet on Tuesday evenings for the next two months and that a facilitator will be found at each meeting to function for the next one?” Do NOT merely refer to a previous statement: “Do you all agree that we should do it the way it was just suggested?”
- Insist on a response. Here again the participants need to know they are making a decision together—and know what they are agreeing to.
- If you find yourself drawn into the discussion in support of a particular position, it would be preferable to step aside as facilitator until the next agenda item. This can be arranged beforehand if you anticipate a conflict of interest.
- Almost any meeting will benefit from quick breaks in the proceedings—energy injections—provided by short-games/ songs, a common stretch, etc.
In small meetings (50 people or less) it is often wise to evaluate how things went (the meeting process, that is, not the content). A simple format: on top of a large sheet of paper or a blackboard put a “ +” on the left side, and an arrow on the right side. Under the + list things that worked. Under the arrow list specific suggestions for how things could have been better. Don’t argue about these; people have a right to their feelings and different people may give different responses for each category. A few minutes is usually all that is needed—don’t drag it out. Try to end with a positive comment. Meetings almost always get better after people get used to evaluating them (see “Evaluation“).
Try to end the meeting the way it started—with a sense of community. Don’t let it just end abruptly. A song, some silence, standing in a circle, shaking hands—anything which affirms the groups and gives a feeling of closure is good (See “Closing Circles“).
Sometimes groups can benefit from having an observer. During times of conflict or transition (talking about sexism, for example) a process observer may be of help.
While functioning as a process observer, be careful not to get involved in the groups work. A notepad for short notes will help you to be accurate. Remember to notice helpful suggestions or things that moved the group forward. Once a group has a sense of its strengths it is easier to look for ways to improve.
Here are some specific things you might look for:
- What was the general atmosphere in which the group worked? Relaxed? Tense?
- How were the decisions made?
- If there was any conflict, how was it handled?
- Did everybody participate? Were there things that encouraged participation?
- How well did the group members listen to each other?
- Were there recognized leaders within the group?
- How did the group interact with this facilitator?
- Were there differences between male and female participation?
In giving feedback to the group try to be clear and specific so that people do not get defensive and know exactly what you are talking about. Again, remember to mention the strengths you saw in the group. If you do process observations without letting the group know before the start of the meeting, people are likely to feel angry and defensive. Your contribution may be very valuable, but you need to present what you see very carefully—with a lot of tact and sensitivity.
It often helps to have two facilitators. Here are some reasons why:
- More information and ideas are available during the planning.
- More energy (physical and emotional) is available to the group—especially during times of conflict or when handling complicated matters.
- If a facilitator becomes personally involved in the discussion, it is easy to hand the job over to the co-facilitator for a period of time.
- Co-facilitation is a way for more people to gain experience and become skilled facilitators.
- It is less exhausting, demanding, and scary.
For people who are not used to working as a team, it is probably wise to clearly divide responsibility for the agenda before the meeting. However, co-facilitation means that the person who is not currently “on duty” is still responsible for paying attention watching the mood of the group, clarifying issues, testing for consensus, etc.
In evaluating their work together, co-facilitators can help each other by giving feedback and support, and helping each other to grow.
(Facilitating a meeting online? See additional tips for Facilitating Online Meetings.)