Meeting Facilitation

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By Lori Waller

The Otesha team met nightly to review the route for the next day; plan & debrief presentations; do any work required for presentations, workshops and other random events; and deal with any issues that needed to be discussed as a group.

Meeting facilitation was a rotating responsibility, passed on to a new team member approximately every week. The meeting facilitator was responsible for setting the agenda, calling the meeting, guiding discussions, implementing a consensus model of decision-making, and summarizing the outcomes. This guide is a summary of the techniques for meeting facilitation found to be most effective by Otesha team members.

As meeting facilitators, we found that the main challenges were to:

  • Cover everything on the agenda
  • Maintain the entire team's attention
  • Guide discussions so that only one person speaks at a time
  • Make sure everyone's opinion is expressed
  • Keep the meeting within a reasonable length, without cutting off important discussions before they are resolved
  • Manage disagreement: guide the group toward consensus decisions by re-chanelling irrelevant comments or circular discussions into constructive, solution-oriented dialogue.
  • Make sure everyone leaves the meeting knowing exactly what was decided and what follow-up plans were established.

Setting an agenda

Leave yourself some prep time before calling the meeting to get together an agenda of items to be covered. Set time goals for each item - rough estimates of how long you think it will take to cover the item. Establish an order, and schedule in fun breaks or other interludes you have planned.

Consider planning small group break-offs (dividing the meeting into several sub-groups for a set period of time) for work periods, or for ironing out minor logistical wrinkles. This is good for breaking up long, tedious meetings, and allows the whole team to get 3 or 4 things done simultaneously.

Getting Started

In our case, it was wise to warn everyone that meeting would be called 10 minutes and then 5 minutes beforehand, allowing people to finish whatever they were doing and get together any materials they needed to bring with them to the meeting. Our group was usually scattered around a campground, so it was important to walk around and make sure everyone was informed. This is also a good time to ask people to add any other items to the agenda.

Getting everyone together might require either a very loud announcement that the meeting is starting, or you might have to walk around again and pry people from their tents/bikes/other distractions. We do not recommend physical intimidation or violence.

Pick a large, open spot where everyone can sit down in a big inclusive circle, leaving room for the inevitable straggler or two. It's important that you don't have people squished out in a corner, unable to see or be seen, because they won't be able to follow the meeting and can become distracted/distracting.

Ask again if anyone has items to add to the agenda, and slot them in as necessary.

Start out by offering words of love and affection, if desired, then read out the entire meeting outline before you start.

Make sure everyone knows the rules of the game - the hand gesture system should be explained to any newcomers who haven¿t been briefed on this.

Taking comments

During an open group discussion, only one person speaks at a time, and everyone has to get permission from the facilitator to speak. Have people raise their hands when they want to speak, and acknowledge them by saying out loud "I'm going to take comments from ---, ---, and then ---." Thus you always have a 'speakers list' of three or four people on the go. When one speaker is done, signal to the next one by pointing to them and saying their name.

With the raised hand & speakers list system, it is a challenge to maintain order and efficiency without stifling the flow of discussions. An excellent tool to address this is The Levi Hand Signal Technique (LHST). The LHST allows meeting participants to register their intent to make two distinct kinds of comments: those that are directly in response to someone else's comment ('reactive comments') and those that are separate thoughts ('unique comments'). Intent to register a reactive comment is signalled by a different hand signal than is intent to register a unique comment. We used an index finger for the former and a full hand for the latter.

So for example, you open a discussion on hippopotami, and Alex, Jasmine, and Andrea give you the full-hand salute. You take comments from Alex about the use of hippo symbolism in post-modern literature, then from Jasmine about hippos' endangered species status. While Jasmine is speaking, Simon becomes inspired and sticks up his index finger. In this case, you let Simon add his comments about the hippos' endangeredness before moving on to Andrea, who opens up a whole other can of worms by asserting that hippopotami are known to be involved in terrorist conspiracies.

Another indispensable technique is the 'twinkle' system. No one really knows why it goes by this name, but it's basically a way for people to signal their agreement with what is being said without having to all put up their hands and get called on, just so they can say "I agree with what ----- said." Anyone who agrees with what the speaker is saying just opens their hands and wiggles their fingers in the air. This helps the speaker gauge the response to what they're saying and allows the facilitator to assess the level of consensus within the group - if everyone's twinkling, time to move on to the next item on the agenda!

Keeping Time

As you are taking comments from people, keep an eye on your time-goals and remind everyone periodically of these, so they will keep it short and sweet. You might consider having a separate time-keeper who keeps an eye on the clock.

Remember that the time goals are just that - goals. Sometimes things come up that need to be dealt with. If an item is taking longer than expected, consider cutting the discussion off after a certain point and planning to take it up again in a future meeting. But if the item needs to be dealt with tonight, then don't rush though it - go over time if you have to.

Putting on your facilitator hat

In your role as facilitator, you should remove yourself emotionally from whatever discussion is at hand, and not let your own opinion about contentious issues like hippopotami affect your facilitation. You are accepting and inclusive of all comments. Of course, you still have an opinion as a team member and this can be included in the discussion. What is important is to clearly distinguish between your facilitating comments and your personal comments. One silly way of doing this would be to have a facilitator hat that goes on your head the moment you call the meeting. When you want to bring your own feelings about subject X to the table, you simply put yourself on the speaker's list, remove your hat, and state your case. Just be sure to tell everyone beforehand what the hat symbolizes or they will just think you are fidgety.

If the issue being discussed is very personally significant to you, and you find you cannot emotionally distance yourself as a facilitator, you might consider passing on the job of facilitation to someone else for this particular agenda item.

Dealing with transgressions

If someone is going on and on, and you really find they're rambling, should you cut them off? Well it depends on the situation - how pressed are you for time? If you decide to cut the offender off, one technique is to not just verbally cut them off, but rather motion with your hand, make eye contact, and get them to stop speaking first. Then summarize their point and *suggest* moving on - get a nod from the person, and continue with the meeting.

Worse than the ramblers are the interrupters. One way of dealing with these scoundrels is to interrupt them, not letting them speak until they submit the proper hand gestures. However, cultivating a compassion for the interrupter's bursting passion to speak is probably more constructive in the long run. As long as they keep it short and sweet, you can let them say their piece, then ask them to follow speaking protocol next time.

A similar approach works for addressing misuse of the LHST (ex: giving a reactive comment signal and then contributing a unique comment), off-topic comments, or irrelevant comments. If you feel it is necessary to interrupt the delinquent speaker, do so amicably, and with a clear statement that your problem is with their procedure, not their words. Otherwise, let them speak, but be sure not to let their transgression go without comment, as failing to address it might confuse other people.

One creative solution to irrelevant comments is to appoint an 'irrelevant comment watchdog'; this person barks and growls at irrelevant or redundant comments.

Keeping everyone's attention

Another notable challenge with our excited, energetic team was dealing with distractions from people joking around and not paying attention to the speaker. This was very irritating to some facilitators because they felt it made the meetings longer and less focussed.

One way to avoid this was to make sure fun breaks were scheduled into the meetings, usually about half way through, as attention was beginning to wane.

Having something enjoyable planned for the end of the meeting ¿ brownies or some kind of fun activity - also helps keep people focussed on moving quickly through the meeting agenda.

Reaching consensus decisions

The consensus model aims for resolutions that everyone in the group can live with. When contentious issues come up, you might want to start with a go-around; each person gives their initial thoughts about the topic. Once the go-around is complete, it is a good idea to summarize the general themes you heard, highlighting the differences in opinion that need to be addressed. Then you open up a discussion on how these differences can be bridged to come to a satisfactory resolution.

If you feel that the discussion is going around in circles, don't be afraid to point this out and suggest solutions. Summarize as best you can what the conflicting opinions are, and then start outlining some options for resolution, looking especially for areas of possible compromise. Your creativity here can be a very valuable contribution to the team. List all the options, making sure people understand what they are, then ask for twinkles on each.

If everyone is still not on the same page, but it is close, ask the dissenters to speak their piece - they often have a good point that no one else notices. It is super important to not pressure people into consensus. The idea is to bring out ideas and get the best possible solution out there. It's kind of like the dumb slogans on shampoo bottles "rinse, lather, repeat." With consensus, it's "go-round, propose solutions, twinkle, repeat" each time refining/filtering the process until there's one solution that is obviously going to be acceptable for everyone.

Summing up and establishing follow-up

Given time constraints, some facilitators are so relieved when an item comes to something resembling a conclusion that they rush on to the next item, leaving some loose ends still hanging. Don't make this mistake; beat the dead horse till you're sure it's dead. Make sure that decisions and action plans will actually be implemented by having people commit to doing any follow-up tasks, by a specific time. Have a note-taker record follow-up stuff - what is to be done, by whom, and by when.