M. Kathleen Joyce & Associates                                                                    
                                  Helping individuals, groups, and organizations develop capacities to move beyond their boundaries

Meeting Facilitation 

 M. Kathleen Joyce & Associates has worked with clients to plan results-oriented processes for hundreds of meetings.  A general description of our meeting planning and facilitation services follows.   Our services are based on a four-stage approach:

(1) Pre-Meeting Planning
(2) Meeting Facilitation - The Process 
(3) Meeting Facilitation - The Skills 
(4) Post-Meeting Analysis and Reporting

All of our staff members must demonstrate exceptional skills in each aspect of our four-stage approach, which is illustrated and described below.

 Pre-Meeting Planning

Generally, the facilitator works with a meeting planning committee, and recorder (if applicable).  All planning committee members should be involved in pre-meeting planning discussions and decisions, which involve planning the goals, developing the meeting strategy, creating the agenda, and identifying potential strengths and weaknesses.

Planning the Goals.  When planning a meeting, many want to dive into writing the agenda first thing.  In fact, allowing the agenda to determine a meeting process will only be successful if the agenda is specifically based on well-articulated and understood goals.  So, the first step in the meeting planning process should be a discussion of goals, including specific outcomes that planners want the meeting to achieve, and, if applicable, longer-term program goals.  It is important that planning group members have consensus about goals and intended outcomes for the meeting.  These planning discussions normally take place during pre-meeting conference calls. 

Developing the Meeting Strategy.  In this stage of the planning process, the purpose is to take each goal and determine the best way to reach it through selected activities, discussions, or other methods.  We offer the planning committee specific processes or tools to ensure that the strategies will help meet the meeting goals. 

There are myriad tools and strategies to help make meetings effective, ranging from ways to test the strength of consensus to methods for quickly categorizing ideas and information.  Our company works with meeting planners to provide the best strategies as planning discussions reveal needs. 

Creating the Agenda.  Once the goals and strategies are clear, we work with the planning group to develop two agendas.  The first, an annotated draft agenda, will lay out each activity with a suggested time frame and description of what will be done, who will do it, and what the outcome should be.  The annotated agenda will also identify “backup plans” if strategies do not seem to work as planned.  For example, we may prepare a set of questions to ensure that all topics are covered if a discussion continues to narrow in on a few favorite topics.

The second agenda is a draft without the annotations, which is provided because it is easier to review the entire meeting plan at a glance, without the lengthy annotations.  There may be several iterations of the agendas, until the facilitator and all of the planning committee members feel confident that the agenda will be a useful tool in reaching the meeting goals. 

Identifying Potential Strengths and Weaknesses.  As part of meeting planning discussions, it is important for the planning committee and facilitator to identify areas that could sabotage the meeting progress, or items that could help ensure its success.  When meeting participants are known, discussions may include, for example, participants who may have strong positions on certain topics, those who do not generally get along with one another, or those who have communication traits that could have an impact, positively or otherwise, on group dynamics.  This discussion also includes such topics as how much leeway there is in the schedule (e.g., must lunch begin at a certain time, or does the room need to be vacated at a certain time).  Other discussions here include resources (e.g., might the group want a projector to post notes, or need communication equipment if some participants will engage remotely).  Many topics can fall into this category of discussion; it is likely that the discussion will be visited each time the planning committee meets.  Back to top.

 Meeting Facilitation - The Process

The facilitator works to ensure that the meeting process is thorough, effective, and appropriately captured and summarized. The specific meeting activities will be planned based on the goals.  However, at a minimum, the meeting should include using guided introductions, presenting participant agreements, presenting an agenda overview, checking in periodically, and discussing next steps.

Using Guided Introductions.  Many meetings begin with “ice breaker” activities.  While this may be appropriate in certain situations, many professionals do not appreciate what they perceive as “games" to start a meeting.  However, the purposes of the ice breakers – to introduce participants and give everyone a chance to feel comfortable at the meeting – are still important to achieve.  One way that we achieve these goals in professional meetings is through “guided introductions,” which are essentially a round-robin opportunity for each person to introduce him/herself.  Even if participants know one another, this helps the facilitator to learn participants’ names.  Perhaps more importantly, the facilitator will also ask each participant what he/she would like the meeting to accomplish.  This helps to assess how much consensus about meeting goals exists within the group.  Also, participants’ responses allow the facilitator to, for example, immediately alert participants when their intentions for the meeting are not in line with goals, or to assess the strength and diversity of opinions about certain goals. 

Presenting Participant Agreements.  After introductions, the facilitator will introduce Participant Agreements, and ask if everyone is willing to abide by the agreements for the course of the meeting.  We generally use the following core agreements, which can be revised as necessary during the planning process:

~  Participate fully.  In addition to being an invitation to speak during the meeting, this agreement also reminds people that they should be “fully present” in the meeting, holding phone calls, internet searches, social media checks and so forth, until a break.

~  Let one person speak at a time.  This is a reminder that no side conversations take place, so that (1) everyone can hear all of the discussion, and (2) those taking notes are not missing important points because of the noise level.

~  Honor confidentiality.  Although there may not specifically be confidential information discussed, it is important that participants agree to hold their discussions in an atmosphere that everyone feels comfortable speaking freely, without fear that their ideas or opinions will be broadcast inappropriately to colleagues or others not affiliated with the meeting.

~  Honor time frames.  This is an agreement between the facilitator and participants that the facilitator will ensure that the meeting finishes on time each day, if the participants arrive on time, and come back from breaks as requested.

~  Criticize ideas not people.  This is a reminder that “personal attacks” are not acceptable.  People should be free to disagree about ideas, but not to engage in ad hominem assaults. 

Presenting an Agenda Overview.  The facilitator will briefly review the agenda with the entire group, and explain her role in the process.  This provides another opportunity for participants to introduce items that they had hoped would be covered at the meeting.  (Items that cannot be covered at the meeting will be identified and noted for later discussions, either at the meeting if time permits, or on a later date).  This is also an opportune time for leaders and/or meeting planners to give a “pep talk” to their colleagues about taking advantage of the meeting opportunity to accomplish as much as possible.

Checking In Periodically.  The facilitator will check in with the participants several times during the meeting, to ensure that everyone understands where the group is, in relation to the agenda and goals, and to ask if anyone needs to ask questions or add additional ideas.  As necessary, the facilitator will talk with planning committee members to ensure that everything is progressing to their satisfaction.  If not, the facilitator will work with the planners to adjust the agenda and activities as required.

Discussing Next Steps.  By the end of a fruitful meeting, people have not “spent” all of their ideas.  Instead, they continue to think of new and innovative topics for further discussion or action.  So that those ideas are not lost as the meeting ends, a short time should be set aside toward the end of the meeting to collect those ideas, and to determine if there is an obvious priority or agenda item that should be discussed at future meetings.  This is also an opportunity to specifically list follow-on tasks and responsibilities, if the meeting has produced such a list.  Back to top.

 Meeting Facilitation - The Skills

In addition to the items listed above, addressing the content and process of the meeting discussions is the true job of a facilitator.  A good facilitator should be able to keep the group on track, and on time.  More importantly, a facilitator has to be cognizant of group dynamics and use them to provide supports and mitigate barriers to meeting goals.  Most importantly, a good facilitator needs the mental agility and memory skills to continually process the conversations and feed ideas or summaries back to the group in a way that ensures progress.

Staying on Track and on Time.  Participants often remark to facilitators that they have done a good job “keeping us on track,” “checking the time,” or “herding the cats.”  Staying on track and on time, even with a group that is not easily led (e.g., “cats”) are important jobs of the facilitator, although not enough, in themselves, to ensure a successful meeting.  

A facilitator should not be shy about calling a group to order, calling those lagging behind in from a break, or asking participants to stop a discussion that has gotten “off track.”  In addition, the facilitator should constantly assess progress against goals and time, so that adjustments can be made to the planned schedule or activities.

Recognizing and Using Group Dynamics.  A good facilitator will quickly recognize those members of a group who can move it forward, and those who can keep it from making progress.  Employing specific skills to support those who can benefit the group, while re-directing those who move the group away from progress can be a learned skill.  However, working with the group dynamics in a way that allows everyone a chance to express opinions, and in a way that seems natural and does not appear to “single out” certain participants is a special skill.  For example, when a person is interrupting or “hogging the conversation,” the facilitator can employ many ways to manage this behavior.  As an example, a facilitator may walk into the center of the group periodically as a way to better engage them.  When someone is interrupting, the facilitator can step into the center, then pause with her back to the person who is interrupting and call on someone else.  This movement around the group seems perfectly natural, and works to quell the disruption without calling any attention to it.

Employing Mental Agility and Memory Skills.  A facilitator should be continually looking for similarities and differences in ideas and opinions; categorizing ideas, either “in her head” or on paper; summarizing discussion points; and feeding summaries back to the group.  This allows the group to continually progress.  For example, when the facilitator says, “It appears that all of the comments on this topic are in agreement, why don’t we move on,” the group can begin discussion of another topic.  In addition, if there is some agreement, the facilitator can point that out, to let the group focus on areas of disagreement.  Also, at some point in almost every discussion, the number of topics at hand becomes cumbersome.  When that happens, the facilitator should be prepared to note potential categories, to assist participants in grouping like ideas.  Once the related ideas are pooled, discussion can focus on the outliers, or on the gaps.   Back to top.

 Post-Meeting Analysis and Reporting

Our post-meeting analysis and reporting is strictly based on a client's needs.  It may range, for example, from a post-meeting discussion, to a formal report, to a survey of participants to gauge their satisfaction.  

Reflecting the Client's Needs.    We work with clients throughout the meeting planning and implementation processes to ensure that we identify all results that client's need from a meeting, including analysis and reporting.

Improving Future Meetings.  We recommend that clients spend a short time with us after the meeting to review the meeting process, noting what went well, and what could be improved.  This brief analysis provides invaluable lessons learned for planning future meetings.

Range of Reporting.  If requested, we can provide several levels of meeting reporting.  Three examples follow.  Each client has different needs and reporting requirements, so specific needs for reporting are usually determined during the planning stage of the meeting. 

~  Reporting – Bullets and Comments, includes providing copies of all notes taken during the meeting, in bullet format, with brief paragraphs describing the meeting process and summarizing the main themes. 

~  Reporting – Final Report, provides a full, detailed report of the meeting.  A final report includes observations, recommendations, and other insights from the facilitator, and may be written in conjunction with the meeting recorder if a separate recorder was engaged.

Reporting - Additional Documents, includes a full range of other published results.  For example, MKJ has developed training courses and program implementation "blueprints" as products from facilitating meeting discussions.  Back to top.

Please note that MKJ does not make venue or travel arrangements for meetings directly.  However, we work closely with other small businesses who can provide these services at a client's request.

NEXT: Organizational Improvement Consulting

Contact us for more information or to discuss how we can assist your organization.

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