Most of us have attended meetings or training programs during our working lives that have either bored or frustrated us, been far too long or were perceived as simply a waste of our time. Common experiences include unnecessary detail, dominating people, uninvolved participants or an agenda not followed, non-existent or irrelevant – the list goes on. The overall consequence is that we end up thinking that our time and expertise (and that of others) was not used to its full capacity.
Obviously many factors contribute to the effectiveness of these kinds of events. However, from my experience in facilitation over the last twenty years, I have seen two main factors contributing consistently to ineffective meetings and training programs. These are, firstly, inadequate planning and preparation and, secondly, an overemphasis on the content at the expense of process.
These two areas are part of an effective facilitator’s expertise but many organisations either don’t value the need for a facilitator at their meetings or assume that people have such skills without providing them with adequate training. A third issue is that people can often confuse a chairperson’s role with the role of a facilitator. In most cases, they are different roles, as I will explain shortly.
Definition of facilitation
At this point, it is important to define what we mean by facilitation. ‘To facilitate’ means to make easy or less difficult; to help something or someone progress. Given this definition and the fact that meetings and training programs continue to be a fundamental part of our working lives, it would appear that all employees, especially senior managers and Human Resources/Learning and Development specialists, would benefit themselves and their workplaces if they applied some basic facilitation skills. My intention in this article is to focus on two critical facilitation skills.
I will explain both the importance of thorough planning and preparation and of focusing on the process as well as the content. I also offer some guidelines that you will hopefully be able to implement the next time you are planning a meeting or training program; or when you are participating in a meeting of two or more people or a training program. You don’t have to be the designated ‘facilitator’, trainer or chair to make a difference to the way these events progress.
Planning and preparation
Even though this seems like an obvious step, it’s surprising how often important pieces of information are overlooked during the planning and preparation phase. The purpose and expected outcomes need to be articulated as well as their relationship to the wider context of the organisation. Once this is clear, decisions can be made about who should attend, people’s roles, the agenda, timelines and relevant resources, logistics and venue.
I have often heard employees say they don’t know why their organisation holds particular meetings. I’ve also experienced situations when people have not been invited to meetings that directly affect their roles: they’d been forgotten. On the other hand, I’ve known of countless examples of meetings (especially one-to-one discussions) that have improved dramatically through managers spending time before the meeting to plan the discussion. Planning may include a person clarifying the structure of the meeting and how they will open it, clarifying the specific issue they wish to raise, anticipating questions and feelings (especially if the meeting will be focusing on potentially emotive issues) and what they want to achieve during the meeting.
The following points offer some guidelines to effective planning and preparation.
Keep a checklist of the above areas so that you don’t have to think them through each time you plan a meeting or training program. You will then be able to add more as you think of them.
Repeat the purpose and context of the meeting in all initial correspondence, at the beginning of the meeting and during it. For example, if the meeting is a weekly catch-up at a high level, people need to be reminded so that they avoid going into too much unnecessary detail. Make sure you have the right people there. There’s nothing more frustrating than not having the key decision makers present or having others at the meeting who have minimal interest in the content or very little to contribute.
The more you form relationships with people before the meeting by making contact by phone or email, the more likely they are to be involved in the meeting and have given some thought to the issues to be discussed.
Think ahead about how you will deal with latecomers, people who have not read pre-meeting material, etc. Remember that intermittent reinforcement is more powerful than consistent reinforcement. For example, if you start late once for latecomers, people will assume that it’s okay to come late for future meetings.
Think about the different kinds of people attending the meeting and how you may need to adapt to their communication/learning styles. A common example involves people who function with a more introverted style preferring not to be put on the spot to answer questions but preferring to be given time to think through important issues. This will have implications for how much information you give to people as pre-reading.
Plan ahead how you will introduce, ‘outroduce’ and link topics AND make sure you do it. A well thought out introduction makes a qualitative difference to how people then engage with the issues. I once attended a training program that was run in two blocks of time, with several weeks separating them. At the beginning of the second block of the program, the trainer announced that we all knew what we needed to do and invited us to pick up the tasks we were working on a few weeks earlier. There was stunned silence in the room. After noting our immobilisation, the trainer then ‘introduced’ what we were supposed to be doing by linking it back to the first block of the program, by reminding us of the main themes, etc and then we were all able to proceed constructively with our work. Similarly, ‘outroducing’ or summarising the key learnings or points covered, before moving on to the next topic, helps people to complete an issue before moving onto the next one. I often notice that, if I don’t plan for and do this kind of linking, people don’t seem to be able to engage with tasks or discussions as fully as they’re capable of.
Process and content
Content refers to the ‘what’ or tasks involved in a meeting or training program. It includes sticking to the agenda, making decisions, focusing on details and objectives, etc. Process refers to the ‘how’, that is, the climate, participation levels, feelings, underlying assumptions, quality of listening, levels of understanding, etc. Most people want to reach decisions and take actions as quickly as possible, so process is often forgotten or assumed to be unimportant. When asked, many people will tell you if they’re not happy with how a meeting went but they usually don’t know what they could have done about it or haven’t had the courage to speak up and take a risk if things are not going as effectively as they’d have liked.
I’ve had many conversations of the following kinds with managers. They were bored during a meeting but instead of saying something, they switched off. Or they knew they were going around in circles with someone during a discussion but didn’t know how to stop it. Or everyone knows that a specific person goes into too much detail but they all just roll their eyes and put up with it. Or they were aware, during meetings, that the same people speak up while the same ones do not. I could go on.
These are all process issues and, unless addressed, will usually demotivate the participants of the current meeting (and future ones) and contribute to less than effective discussions and decisions.
The following points offer some guidelines to dealing effectively with process issues.
Appoint a facilitator or chairperson who focuses on the process as well as the content. Most chairpersons focus mostly on content and don’t give much input to the process, like the speaker, or chairperson, in Parliament. The most he seems to say about process is, ‘Will the member for ‘x’ come to order’, or something to this effect.
Meetings work best if everyone takes some responsibility for the process. Show how to do this by being a role model, for example, ask for other people’s opinions after one person has dominated the discussion for a long time.
Trust what you feel. An old adage that’s common to many group theories is, ‘What’s in you is in the group’. If you feel bored or frustrated, there’s a very high probability that at least one or more other people feel bored or frustrated too. They’re very likely to feel relieved if you say something, so take a risk.
You don’t have to take all the responsibility for solving process issues. A simple framework is: make an observation and then invite input. For example, ‘I’ve noticed that there are several people we haven’t heard from. Let’s open the discussion to hear other points of view’.
The previous example highlights the importance of taking a group approach rather than focusing on individuals. Instead of saying, ‘Chris, you’ve talked too much’, taking a group focus most often gets the message across while minimising the possibility of unnecessary conflict by singling people out.
Remember that a little time spent on process allows for more time spent effectively on the content or task. The reverse is often true too. No time spent on process can often lead to wasted time spent on the task. One of my coaching clients, whom I’ll call Sam, complained about one of his clients arriving unexpectedly at his office while he was having an extremely busy day. Sam said that the meeting with his client went for over two hours and was highly frustrating, because every time he tried to get his client to focus on his whiteboard models, his client would take the discussion off track. Finally, Sam realised that he was so focused on the content that he had forgotten to include the process which, in this case, involved strong emotions for the client related to the project they were both involved in. Sam told me that, as soon as he acknowledged that his client was feeling insecure and threatened by the current situation, his client was then able to stay on track. In fact, Sam told me he was certain that, if he had acknowledged these feelings at the beginning of their meeting, the whole discussion would have taken no more than half an hour.
Look for underlying assumptions. If we are able to get to the deeper assumptions and premises driving people’s opinions and decisions, we are able to have more in-depth discussions and better decisions. For example, people are often too quick to answer questions or defend their positions when asked questions. Coming back with a probing question can get closer to finding out what people really think and what is underneath their questions. Another useful adage related to this is, ‘Behind every question lies a statement.’
Ensure that decision-making processes are transparent. The important process issue here is to articulate upfront how a decision will be made. For example, ‘I will make the final decision but I’m very keen to get your input’ (consultative style), or ‘We’re going to make this decision together’ (participative). Remember to keep the stated decision-making process on track and follow through on what you said you would do. In other words, don’t dictate a final decision after you have told people that the decision would be made as a group.
The principles in the previous point apply to any ‘process’ strategies like brainstorming, voting, asking for every person’s opinion on an issue, etc. State the strategy upfront and keep it on track. In the case of brainstorming (gathering ideas first without judging or solving them), for example, make sure people do not start problem-solving before a list of ideas is generated.
‘Let’s brainstorm first and get everyone’s ideas before we narrow down our options.’(does this have a style name?) Remember to keep the stated decision-making process on track. In the case of brainstorming, for example, make sure everyone contributes to the list first before their ideas are judged.
Imagine how much more productive the meetings you’re involved in would be if all participants took some responsibility for the process. A good first step to taking on more of a facilitative role is to observe the process during any discussions you’re involved in, even if you don’t say anything initially. Ask yourself questions like: What is not being said? What topic is being sidestepped or avoided? Who’s talking the most or least? What emotions are driving people’s behaviours? Who is ‘stuck’ in one kind of role, eg, challenger, peacemaker, etc?
When you feel ready, articulating these clear, non-judgmental observations and then inviting a response will go a long way to improving the discussions, meetings and programs you’re involved in.