Effective facilitation skills to run healthy meetings

Trying to cure bad meetings is similar to taking medicine when you’re already sick. You try to fix the problems once they’ve spiraled out of control instead of taking measures to treat symptoms as they arise. Just like regularly taking supplements can help keep you healthy and prevent illness, addressing meeting symptoms as you experience them will help you maintain a healthy meeting culture. 

That’s the purpose of facilitation–to treat bad meeting symptoms as quickly and effectively as possible in real-time. Great facilitators have the keen ability to identify when a team is misaligned, not engaged, or not performing at its best. They then utilize expert methods to direct the team to a place of optimum focus and collaboration so that all participants are aligned and get the most out of the meeting. 

Meeting Pains

Good facilitators help to solve the following meeting pains:

  • Unfocused meetings with no clear purpose
  • Weak team collaboration
  • Participants are not engaged
  • The team has difficulty reaching a consensus
  • Little or no work is achieved during the meeting
  • People leave the meeting unclear on the next steps 

They do so by adequately preparing for meetings, as well as identifying these problems and solving them as they occur during the meeting. 

Facilitators execute the following 5 skills to heal bad meeting symptoms from spreading: 

1. Encourage an inclusive environment

Open communication is one of the most important aspects of having a successful meeting. Attendees need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and expressing their views. This requires the facilitator to read the group, both verbally and non-verbally, and adjust to its needs throughout the meeting while keeping everyone focused and on task. 

2. Build and foster relationships and group synergy

Trust and empathy are essential components of building healthy and successful relationships within a group. The ability to identify the common goals and interests of a group and then steer everyone to the completion of found goals is what facilitation is all about. Group synergy can be created by encouraging group members to share their ideas and points of view, and most importantly, respect the opinions and views of others. Doing so will help the group effectively brainstorm and later reach a consensus.

3. Active Listening

According to a study analyzed by the Harvard Business Review, a good listener does the following: conducts active conversations where they periodically ask questions to the speaker to promote exploration and observation, creates a safe environment where speakers feel supported and heard, holds a cooperative two-sided conversation that is uncompetitive, and provides feedback and constructive suggestions on alternative paths to consider. A good listener serves as a mirror; they reflect to the group what is said and provide clarity on the content discussed as well as the meeting’s focus.

4. Conflict Management

When conflict arises, it is important to immediately identify its cause or source to understand it before evaluating and discussing all possible solutions holistically. To healthily manage conflict, a facilitator must be able to empathize with other people’s viewpoints calmly and respectfully. A good facilitator always has an eye for compromise and faces conflict head-on to find common ground amongst all sides. They stimulate teamwork by encouraging shared goals of the group rather than highlighting disagreements, and they ensure each team member has a clearly defined role, outlining the distribution of responsibilities. The facilitator can defuse tensions by injecting a dose of humor to redirect the group’s energy, initiate a well-timed break, or calm the room by maintaining composure and exposing alternative points of view to foster understanding.

5. Build Consensus

Because the main objective of a facilitator is to help a group find common ground among varying opinions to reach a conclusion that everyone accepts, a consensus must be reached among all group members. This does not necessarily mean that everyone will agree with the final decision(s) made, instead it is making sure that all group members have the opportunity to voice their opinions and that everyone understands how the conclusions were made. When everyone feels heard and also follows the process of how a decision was made, an amicable consensus can be reached.

Pro-tip: learn and practice the art of facilitation at our weekly community Facilitation Lab

Monitoring the temperature of your meeting culture will help you identify its health or lack thereof. Use effective facilitation to heal meeting symptoms, before they become problems, to run better meetings. 

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Facilitation Advice

I’ve been thinking a lot about what good facilitation is best suited to solve for. I believe that facilitation is an essential leadership skill. It’s useful in so many contexts and situations especially ones that require tapping into our humanity. As the future becomes more robotic and automated we’ll find ourselves in more and more situations where facilitation is not a luxury but a staple. But what does that mean for the average worker today?

While this world of autonomous robots and facilitated creativity as humanity’s main contribution seems like a distant dream,  it’s important to constantly shift perspectives and anticipate change as best we can, this is what true agility is about. Luckily facilitation is an amazing tool for navigating and sustaining change. Regardless of the change you are embarking on–whether it’s adapting to the future of work or adopting the latest cloud infrastructure–listening, curiosity, safety, and all the principles of facilitation will serve you well. 

I wanted to hear what the Voltage Control team thought about the role of facilitation, as they too are experts in facilitation. Here’s what they had to say: 

Erik, VP of Learning Experience

Facilitation is an essential skill for learning, growth, and transformation. Effective facilitators are able to design the conditions through which people are able to grow, change, and realize their best outcomes. So much of it is about tapping into the individual and team potential waiting to be released. Facilitators guide this process and design the space to release that awesome energy. So, facilitation is best suited to solve for problems where you want solutions to stick and people to grow through the process.

Dawn, Lead Designer

Facilitation is best suited to help teams solve whatever problem feels most pressing. What’s ideal is having an unbiased, neutral facilitator that can come in and mediate a group that will not subconsciously lean one way or another. That keeps the process honest!

Kierra, Community Manager

Facilitation, I believe, is best solved for brainstorming in different areas & ways as teams navigate project ideation to remain innovative and relevant to stay ahead of the curve as companies organically evolve.  I also think it can be utilized to pinpoint areas of opportunity and unique challenges organizations face, whether it be culture changes in the organization or tactical changes, it identifies and seeks solutions to uncover ways to ultimately move forward as an organization and thrive together. Ultimately, I think it’s a tool to keep everyone highly accountable in the organization. 

Annie, Workshop Facilitator

Facilitation is best suited to all groups who are learning together and/or undergoing a collaborative process (like problem-solving, decision-making, and gaining clarity on strategic goals). In essence, facilitation makes all group work more effective and ensures the group invests in the relational dynamics.

I helped a network called the DC Civic Innovation Council launch a steering committee of leadership gathered from across Washington D.C. The aim was to have leaders across D.C. better coordinate and align on resource distribution. We invited leaders from across industry and sector, including nonprofit executives (direct-service providers), real-estate development firms, social investors, education leaders, government officials, and local industry. We had many hairy problems entangled with each other, but the most important and difficult to arrive at was the scope of the work conducted by the Steering Committee, and to build a decision-making structure. 

Effective Meeting Facilitation in the World

I am so fascinated with how facilitation can heal horrible meetings that I started a series called Magical Meeting Stories. I meet with facilitators and meeting professionals across industries to discuss exceptional meetings they’ve run. All of these meetings were created because each person identified a bad meeting symptom that needed to be healed, and they solved for it. 

Do you have your own Magical Meeting to share? I’d love to hear it!

Here are a few Magical Meeting Stories examples:

Taylor Cone’s Collaboration Design Kickoff

Taylor noticed that people were not talking together or making decisions in productive ways during their regular meetings. He identified there was clearly a better way to do things. He created the Collaboration Design Kickoff with the focus to place intention on the role of collaboration design. The purpose of the meeting is “making collaboration design an explicit emphasis as opposed to just something we either don’t even think about, or just hope will magically happen.”

Jonathan Berger’s “Responsible Recipe”

Jonathon created the recipe when he recognized, over and over, that a team would try to figure out problems that other teams already figured out. He explained he comes from a place of “the realist ideology of Convention over Configuration.” He identified that many teams were trying to reinvent the wheel, and individuals would bring their own personal experience from working on teams and attempt to reach compromised democracy. Instead of wasting all this time, he saw an opportunity to minimize trivial decisions and avoid expensive negotiations and put a productive structure in place in order to save valuable time and resources (and keep projects moving). “We see this kind of existential threat to developers of being pulled away for other stuff because they’re smart and interesting and have answers to a lot of things, and they don’t have natural defenses around protecting their time,” Jonathan explained.

Cam Houser’s Instant Community-Building Workshop

Cam created the Instant Community-Building Workshop to help people break down walls and connect on a deeper level to work better together. He was first inspired by researcher and psychologist Arthur Aron and his ‘36 Questions That Lead To Love’ experiment. The theory behind the experiment was that taking human beings, sitting them down, and asking them 36 intimate questions would lead to a deep connection. Aron found that questions escalating in intimacy indeed gradually led to a greater closeness between people. He and his wife found that people felt very bonded after answering three sets of 12 questions at the end of their sessions. A couple in one of their cohort experiments even ended up getting married. That’s when they knew they had something really powerful.

Arm yourself with facilitation skills and practices so that you can combat bad meeting symptoms. Correcting these indicators in real-time will prevent a bigger meeting problem from evolving. The key to maintaining a healthy meeting culture is the ability to identify and quickly heal unhealthy ones. 

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