Meetings are nothing without the participation of its attendees. No matter how incredible a facilitator may be, a meeting will not be successful without the input of its participants. You have power as a participant; here are some ways you can use it wisely.
Recognize Your Altitude: The whole forest vs a single tree
Before you even enter the meeting space, be sure you’re ready to operate at the same altitude as the facilitator and the other attendees. Find out how close to the ground everyone will be operating. Will you be discussing nuts and bolts or big ideas? Should you be ready to discuss the entire forest or focus on a single tree?
Understanding the objective of the meeting will help you get aligned with others. A meeting about tactics will require you to think a lot more granularly than a meeting about vision or strategy. A meeting focused on problem-solving requires a different approach than a meeting to decide how to completely undo a big decision from the past that isn’t working out. Entering the space with an understanding of what needs to get done will equip you with the right attitude to collaborate towards that goal. In a meeting about vision and the big picture, being caught up in small details and implementation tactics will slow the room and bog down everyone’s creativity. On the flip side, dreaming big in a meeting about gritty details will waste time and frustrate other attendees who are trying to drill in deeper.
Consider who called the meeting. Is this person a maker or a manager – an executive or a developer? Does this person’s role incline them to focus on the big picture or the finer details? The Creative Director might appreciate a sky-is-the-limit attitude, but The Head Engineer might be frustrated by a lack of realism. If you’re having trouble discerning how close to the ground or high in the air you should expect to operate, communicate this! Before the meeting, approach other attendees, your team lead, or even the facilitator, depending on your office culture and work relationships. If other attendees also feel unclear about expectations, find a chance to ask towards the beginning of the meeting – perhaps as people are gathering before the meeting starts or after directions are given for the first discussion or activity.
Always come prepared. Don’t just bounce from meeting to meeting; be ready to enter the space fully ready to align with other participants and work towards that meeting’s specific objective. Consider building a quick prototype – perhaps a rough draft, quick sketch, or outline – to bring in. If the room is struggling, you can introduce your prototype as a starting point for gathering everyone’s ideas and opinions. At the very least, it will help you prepare and start generating ideas about the meeting’s subject matter in the context of the altitude at which you should be working,
If you’re unable to get aligned, consider not attending the meeting. If you aren’t in the headspace to think strategy preparing for a meeting on strategy, the best thing you can do is bench yourself. If you decide the meeting would be best without you given your current circumstances, let the organizer know that you’ll be sitting this one out completely out of respect for them, the other participants and the project at hand. Thank them for considering you and, if appropriate, suggest someone else who might be of better use to the team this time.
Be a Friend to the Facilitator: Asking the right questions
Facilitators know how to ask the right questions because they’re on constant look-out for a lack of alignment – but even awesome facilitators have blind spots; some things escape the hawk eyes of even the best facilitators. When you see something that the facilitator is missing, help them see it by asking the right questions.
Sometimes it may seem that two people are aligned even when they are not; Person A and Person B may think that they are saying the same thing when they are not. On the flip side, two people may argue when they don’t understand that they’re saying the exact same thing. If this happens and the facilitator doesn’t catch it, ask provocative questions to help Person A and Person B uncover the lack of alignment for themselves. It can be helpful to repeat what Person A is saying in Person B’s language and vice versa. A good facilitator will catch on to what you’ve noticed and run with it.
If you have knowledge, insight, or perspective that no one else is dropping – especially if it’s related to a disagreement and/or focal point of the meeting – try sharing in the form of a question. Questions have two superpowers. The first: they avoid triggering defensiveness in others because they come across more gently than “telling it like it is.” The second: they give you room to be wrong. If you have a misunderstanding or are just plain wrong about something and you share in the form of a question, it is easy for someone to correct you and provide the room with better information. Incorrect, misinformed, or misunderstood information as a statement of fact requires much more courage to correct; if no one feels comfortable or confident enough to correct you, the room’s alignment could be negatively affected.
The most important rule of improv is to always say “yes, and.” It is critical to hear your scene partner, incorporate their contributions, and then give them more to work with. Good questions operate in meetings much the same way that “yes, and” operates in improv; it tells other participants that you hear them and understand them, then gives them more to work with rather than bringing the conversation to an end point.
In order to “yes, and” other participants using good questions, you need to first listen. What are most people thinking about during a meeting? The next thing that they’re about to say. There are a lot of reasons people do this, but most of them boil down to this: they don’t want to sound stupid. Rather than say something that others might judge them for, they sit nervously and perfectly prepare the best thing to say and the best way to say it. The irony is that this leads to worse responses rather than better responses; by not listening to what others are sharing, we’re limiting the value of the insight or feedback that we can share. Listen to the other participants. Your responses do not need to be fully rehearsed, Pulitzer Prize worthy prose. They do, however, need to consider or incorporate the insight shared by others in the room. Relax and listen.
Part of being a friend of the facilitator is allowing them to lead the flow of the meeting. If you want to ask a question about logistics or share something or introduce a new idea and you don’t know if it’s an appropriate time to do so – ask!
“Is this an appropriate time for me to ______” is a very simple and helpful question that will help keep the meeting on time and on task. It is likely that if the answer is no, the facilitator will return to you when the appropriate time comes.
If you notice that things are dragging or going completely off the rails, help the facilitator by giving this feedback in the form of a question: “I notice that we’re a little off task here. How can we get this back on track?” If the meeting is large, you do not know the facilitator or how they respond to feedback, or there isn’t enough trust in the room for you to feel comfortable providing this feedback publicly, you could ask for a break – “do you mind if we take a break? It feels like we could all use a moment to reset.” During the break (if it feels appropriate) approach the facilitator and ask how you can help keep the meeting on track. The goal is to be an ally rather than throw the facilitator under the bus.
Questions aren’t the only way to be a friend to the facilitator. Step up when you see tasks that may be falling through the cracks. If it feels that the room is having trouble capturing room intelligence and no one is scribing, offer to jump up to the white board. Tip when scribing: even if something seems obvious, restate it aloud to be sure that both you and the room are clear on the information you’re recording. If a meeting is coming to a close and the next steps aren’t clear, request a debrief. Have the facilitator or team leader lay out who is responsible for what and when/if there will be a follow-up meeting.
Find opportunities to assist before the meeting even begins. Are you nearing the date of the meeting yet haven’t received an agenda? Offer to make one. Is the organizer in the process of inviting participants? Offer to help get the word out. Just because you are a participant rather than a facilitator or the organizer doesn’t mean you have to sit back and be passive. Take the bull by the horns!
Silence Denotes Agreement: The impact of what you don’t say
Understand that silence has an impact. When you say nothing, you are telling the room that you are in agreement. Do not say nothing while a decision you disagree with is being made and then say ‘I never said I agreed’ later. Do not wait until after a meeting is over to approach the facilitator or organizer about your disagreement. If you disagree with a discussion or a decision being made during a meeting, speak up. That is what the meeting is for.
Speaking up during a meeting – especially to disagree with others – can take courage. Ideally, your place of work has developed a meeting culture that encourages openness and safety in sharing, but if it hasn’t then speaking up can be the first step in making that cultural shift.
Disagree and commit but know that just because you disagree doesn’t mean you have to shut the room down. Remember that great meetings come to a consensus, not necessarily unanimous agreement. Not everyone will love a decision and that’s okay; it is still important, however, to speak up. Perhaps you disagree because of a factor or perspective that others have not yet considered, or maybe others feel the same as you but are nervous to be the first to disagree.
Consider the blast radius of the decision you’re not in agreement with. How much pain or cost will be associated with reversing the decision, should that be necessary? How much damage could the decision do in and of itself? Is this a pebble being thrown into a pool or a full grown, 300-pound man doing a cannonball? If the decision is very minor, it is enough to voice your opinion and let the room move on. If the decision is major, it may be worth pushing back a little harder. Find the right balance between shutting the room down and sitting quietly while you aren’t in agreement with the room.
Perhaps you’re not in disagreement at all – rather you have an alternative idea or you’re just straight-up confused. Just as good meeting culture empowers people to disagree, it also should empower people to introduce new ideas or express confusion. A good facilitator will read the room and help everyone stay on the same page, but it is your responsibility as a participant to speak up if you’re behind or need help. Silence implies agreement, and agreement implies understanding. Speak up and help the facilitator help you.
Feedback: Why you need it & how to get it
The value and importance of receiving feedback cannot be overstated. Facilitation is not an exact science but rather an art form. The skills are flexible; they can be expanded, explored, and experimented with. As with any art form, it can be impossible to view your own work from an unbiased perspective. In order to strengthen your weaknesses or adapt to group needs that you may be blinded to, you’ll need to receive feedback from others. It is crucial that you receive feedback from your team members/attendees; facilitation is an art form centered around communication, therefore who better to give perspective on your performance than those you’ve been communicating with?
Seeking out and incorporating feedback – both positive and negative – is a skill in and of itself that can be difficult to learn, but once you do your leadership and facilitation skills will reach new heights. Growth will happen when you move your ego out of the way.
Don’t be afraid to admit when your ego does get in the way. We are all guilty of lacking sufficient self-awareness from time to time. If you are able to acknowledge when your ego is getting in the way of your growth, you will be able to move forward; you will also likely gain further respect from your team members, co-workers, and higher-ups.
Don’t just stop at asking what you can do better – involve your team members in the conversation on how to make those improvements. Let them put you on the right track. Show them that the feedback is not about you, but how you can better lead them in the future.
In almost all cases, it is better to ask for feedback at the end of your meeting than to wait any amount of time after.
Your team will have more specific and thorough thoughts about the meeting before they leave the room and their thoughts and feelings move on to other things. This is not to say that you shouldn’t welcome feedback at other times should team members have some for you, just that it’s best to end your meeting with an activity for generating thoughtful feedback before the gathering disperses.
The following exercises are excellent for capturing feedback during meetings:
1) Rose, Thorn, Bud
Rose, Thorn, Bud is a great activity option for gathering feedback at the end of a meeting. After a minute or less of silent reflection, participants will share their rose, thorn, and bud of the session. Their rose is the highlight of the day – a success, highlight, or any other positive, specific experience. Their thorn is a challenge or other negative experience from the day. Finally, their bud is something new – an idea, skill, or project – that they’re excited about moving forward with. This activity will give you a good idea of what the room is walking away with – both the positive and the negative – and what they may be leaving in the room after the meeting is over. Of course, it cannot be expected that all participants will leave a meeting being impacted the same by every key point, but you will be able to get a sense for whether your objective was reached and why/why not.
Plus/Delta (sometimes called Plus/Change) is a useful tool for gathering anonymous feedback, especially from a group you’ll be working with again. Give participants 5-10 minutes to write out – on paper or via virtual form – several “pluses” and several “deltas.” A plus is a positive; it’s something about the process that went well and should be kept. Deltas are changes that can be made; they are not grievances but specific suggestions for how to do better in the future. Keep this feedback and reference it when planning your next meeting. If you’d like, you can bring this feedback into the room the next time the group gathers for a meeting and incorporate into your closing activities feedback on how well the deltas that you worked on were implemented.
3) It Made Me Think
It Made Me Think is a useful feedback activity for meetings that are largely discussion-based. At the end of the meeting, participants will go around in a circle sharing an insight, discovery, question, or challenge that really struck them following the format: “_________; it made me think.” The idea is to boil down their biggest takeaway into a single, brief sentence. This activity will give you valuable feedback on how (and if!) the discussions of the day succeeded in getting participants to think differently or more deeply about the topics or questions posed. If the room has trouble coming up with something that made them think or if everyone seems to have the same answer, consider diversifying your next meeting; this could mean inviting team members from different backgrounds, departments, experience levels, or social circles.
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