Ten Tips for Facilitating Your Own Important Meetings
With declining budgets and federal agencies in the midst of sequestration constraints, many organizations find that they simply cannot engage external facilitation services for even their most important meetings. Last year, my partners and I conducted a large number of meeting facilitations involving a wide range of issues. Examples of the sorts of facilitations we conducted included, among others, facilitating environmental impact hearing sessions involving potential nuclear facilities, helping officials collect important input through tribal consultation sessions involving Indian and Alaska Native education issues, and facilitating non-profit organization planning sessions.
After a series of facilitations that my partner, Monique McKay, and I co-facilitated, we discussed some of the things that we had found most challenging during those sessions and others that we facilitated together and individually. A number of themes emerged during our dialogue and, given the reality that some organizations must facilitate their own sessions, we wanted to share some suggestions. We hope that you will find these suggestions helpful, should you be called on to facilitate your own meeting.
Suggestions for in-house facilitation:
- Whenever possible, use an advance registration system, so that you can develop an accurate sense of the number of participants. There are several inexpensive web-based services that allow you to do this. Without a system, it is almost impossible to accurately predict turnout. If you expect a higher turnout, than the number that actually show up, it can project the wrong message. It may appear wasteful to have gone to the additional expense for a larger facility than necessary and there may be awkward logistics and sound effects. Likewise, it never leaves a good impression on people who go to the trouble to turn out for a meeting to be turned away, or to be crowded into a facility that is too small. With sufficient lead time, by simply having a designated point of contact for interested participants to confirm their attendance, you can tailor your facility needs more accurately. Asking whether anyone has any special needs allows you to make the appropriate arrangements for proper seating. If someone has hearing or vision issues for example, appropriate accommodations can be made. Attention to these details show you are respectful and genuinely care that everyone has the opportunity to participate meaningfully. Everyone will be comfortable seated and otherwise accommodated and you will have a good start to a successful meeting.
- Public meetings tend to fall into two categories: those where the purpose is exclusively to provide information to the participants, and those where participant input is requested. There are some commonalities to planning both sorts of meetings and some issues that are more applicable to one sort of meeting or the other. Make sure your meeting objectives are clear and plan your agenda accordingly. For example, if you advertise the meeting as one seeking public input, time the agenda so that any necessary information coming from the organizers is sufficiently brief to allow adequate time for the participants to provide their input. Anticipate your audience’s interest levels. Is your audience a group of highly experience colleagues that will find the underlying data upon which your presentation is based as fascinating as you do, or are they less experienced with the topic so that they may get lost in the details of the science, or the specific regulations involved? It is important to design your presentation to meet the audience’s need for information, not your own need, as a presenter, to share everything you know. If your purpose is primarily to present information, how much detail will be appropriate for the time and the audience? If your goal is to seek input from the participants, be clear about what kind of input you seek and you will be more likely to receive that sort of input.
- Respect your participant’s time. Develop an agenda in advance and make sure that the agenda is reasonable and realistic. Whenever possible, conduct a dry run of the actual contents of your meeting. Even experienced presenters can have a difficult time estimating the time requirements for their presentation. This can be compounded when there are a number of presenters. If you simply run through topics you want to cover or bullet points or your presentation, you run the risk of short-changing some of the presenters or project disrespect of the audience by shortening the comment or question/answer sessions that typically follow a presentation. Without actually testing the time lengths for a presentation by conducting an actual dry run, you risk cutting off a speaker or cutting into audience feedback time.
- Having a set of ground rules for your meeting is very helpful. Ground rules can help you outline your expectations for audience participation and input and help to set the tone for the entire meeting. For meetings that involve a particularly controversial topic, ground rules addressing civility and time limits for audience input can be very useful. Be sure that your time limits correlate to the total time and to the size of the audience. If you impose short time limits and are left with significant time at the end of the meeting, it can appear that you intentionally constrained input. It is important to review your ground rules with the audience at the outset of the meeting and to seek their commitment to abide by them for the benefit of the entire group. Typically it is not difficult to gain that agreement at the outset because the ground rules normally project mutual respect and a democratic approach to gaining equal participation. Should issues surface later in the meeting, you can remind those involved that the audience agreed to a certain set of behavior commitments for the meeting. In cases where audience behavior may become a very serious issue (such as protest behaviors or intentional disruption), you may find it helpful to have a contingency plan for possibly ending the meeting. (I once facilitated a particularly challenging set of meetings involving the possibility of building a large nuclear facility in a community, It became clear that a certain segment of the audience hoped to use breaking the ground rules as a means of civil disobedience. Their hope was to use their detention, arrest, or physical removal from the meeting as leverage for their own publicity goals. Rather than accommodate this objective by forcible enforcement of the ground rules, the meeting organizers included in their ground rules a simple contingency to end the meeting and to leave the premises, should the participants fail to abide by the ground rules. This provision had the desired effect of securing civility, because the potential protesters simply lost the official presence at the meeting.)
- If the session is intended to garner public input, make certain that the meeting is structured to not only ensure that this actually occurs but that the audience also perceives an honest commitment for this to occur. To ensure participants feel that they are being heard be sure to:
- Have a reliable way to capture that input – flip charts, recording, or transcribers.
- This should go without saying (but must be said because, sadly frequently it occurs), the meeting presenters need to turn off cell phones and laptops and listen. Often, a presenter believes that they are discreetly checking messages or emails, but it is perceived by the audience that they are disengaged with the process. It is distracting and generally viewed as being incredibly disrespectful.
- Listening to audience input also means tempering one’s natural inclination to respond to input — even when not requested by the person giving feedback. If the goal is to hear the audience, then listen.
- If it is appropriate to give a response to the feedback, do so in a non-defensive manner. Try to look for the positive aspects of all feedback. For example, if someone is very angry, think how passionate they must feel about the issue they are raising. Respond to their feedback respecting their passion rather than responding to their anger.
- Design your meeting to project respect in every aspect of the meeting process. Begin the meeting on time. Try to know and understand your audience and what matters to them. Unless there are special reasons for flexibility, start the meeting on time and stick faithfully to the agenda. If there are certain participants who special standing in the community (by virtue of elected role or community recognition), it may be appropriate to have them speak early on in the meeting. Make sure all participants feel comfortable and are given a chance to participate. Watch for body language. Personal communication styles vary and some individuals may need additional support or encouragement to have their views heard.
- Test out your meeting logistics. Inspect the space in advance and give yourself plenty of time to set up. Check the sound system, projector, and other systems on location in advance of the meeting.
- If you are holding a series of meetings on the same topic, make sure that your materials packages are consistent. If you update materials, it may be appropriate to briefly explain improvements. If you are holding a running series on a topic, while it is always fair to make adjustments and improvements as you go along, try to stick to a familiar format for the meetings and familiar template for the meeting materials.
- Have a safety and logistics plan for all meetings. Know where the exits and facilities are and announce them to the audience at the outset of the meeting. As mentioned above, in discussing ground rules, if you expect that the meeting will be contentious, have a plan for dealing with hecklers or people who may want to hijack the meeting for their own purposes. Hecklers are disrespectful not only to the meeting organizers but to all participants who has spent time and money to attend the event and expect certain goals to be accomplished at the meeting. Your plan should include dealing with any overly disruptive people in a calm, direct manner. Discuss in advance what overly disruptive means. Not all input is going to be favorable so understand the difference between passionate input from different viewpoints and behaviors that are truly disruptive to the goals of the meeting.
- Follow through on promises and commitments made at meetings. For example, if you tell participants that the meeting will be transcribed for wider use, make sure to inform the audience how they can access the notes or other information and when they can expect to be able to access the transcripts. If there will be some decisions made as a result of the meeting, be sure to describe the process by which those decisions will be made and how they will be announced.
We hope that these tips will help ensure your meetings are successful and run smoothly. We welcome your questions about any aspect of meeting facilitation and encourage you to let us know if these suggestions are helpful or what difficulties you encountered if you would like suggestions for solutions. In addition to meeting facilitation services, we also provide conflict resolution and organizational training, mediation services, and a wide variety of other conflict resolution services.