How To Facilitate a Meeting
To make significant changes in your organisations or sector, most of the time you’ve got to get people together, generate new ideas, and thrash out a solution that everyone can get behind. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, but it can be incredibly rewarding when you leave the room energised and with a clear plan of action.
Over the years, we’ve facilitated lots of group sessions, meetings and workshops. Sometimes these are about getting on-the-ground audience opinions. Other times, it’s about getting teams to work out shared priorities or plan a collaborative project. And occasionally it is an ideas session designed to come up with creative solutions to problems.
Here are some strategies and tips we’ve found useful along the way:
Set Objectives and Prepare
One of the most common barriers to a good session is not having a clear idea of what you want to achieve. Work with others before the session to create a clear objective for the meeting. “Talk about collaboration in the arts” might be the starting point for getting people together, but it’s not an objective. Instead, something like “Come up with a way to encourage Belfast theatre organisations to share resources” gives everyone a clear expectation about what you are hoping to achieve.
It’s important that everyone attending knows the objectives in advance. That way, it is always easy to pull conversation back if it begins to stray or widen. Sending out the objectives, along with some context as to why the meeting is needed is a great way to start.
Doing some research on the topic, the attendees, and the wider context (aka the NI arts sector) is a must if you’re not already familiar with these. As a facilitator, you don’t need to know the ins and outs of every organisation attending, but you should be familiar enough with the topics to follow along and ask relevant questions.
Set the Tone
Consider your venue. It has to be one that’s accessible for those who need to attend the session, but more than that, it can set the tone for the discussion. Think about the different vibes in a boardroom, an artist’s studio, a living room, or a pub. Choose somewhere that fits with the tone you want to create, and try to pick a neutral space if there are likely to be charged emotions or conflicts. Timing is important too – is it an early morning session, or a late-night brainstorm after work? Before the meeting, send directions and parking/transport information to participants, so they can (hopefully) arrive stress-free.
Don’t discount the importance of good food and drink. You want people to feel like they are free to share their opinions, not like they’re being interrogated or examined. Food is also a great way to bring people together and break the ice. Having a shared lunch or interesting snacks at the start of the session will get people interacting in a social way instead of a formal ‘business’ one.
Kicking Things Off
As a facilitator, your attitude and positivity will have a big impact on how engaged your participants are. The first ten minutes of any presentation or meeting are vital. This is where you reassure everyone that they won’t be harshly judged for a silly suggestion, that there isn’t any competition for ‘the best idea’, and that everyone is working towards a shared goal.
When people start to arrive, welcome them, get their names, and invite them to grab a coffee and take a seat. Before you kick off, run through some housekeeping – are people allowed to take phonecalls or grab drinks refills, where are the bathrooms, and what time is lunch at?
It’s a good idea to run an ice breaker at the start of the session, such as asking people what their ‘secret skill’ is, or who their favourite band was when they were 16. This gives everyone the chance to speak, and it should hopefully lead to a few laughs and create a much more relaxed atmosphere.
Then, reiterate the objectives of the day, and run through the schedule, letting everyone know that you’ll be keeping an eye on the time and keeping people focused on the objectives.
Structuring the Session
When you’re working towards a decision or a solution, it can be tempting to start throwing out fully formed ideas immediately. But this closes off the opportunities for a lot of creative thinking. Instead, the majority of your session should be spent exploring lots of different ideas, and then refining down to a consensus nearer the end.
Generating Ideas and Running the Session
Try to keep things relaxed and interesting, rather than barraging people with question after question. People have a range of different skills and communication styles, so mix it up and make it fun (especially if it’s a day-long session).
- Use pictures or objects to start a discussion.
- Ask people for as many words as possible to describe something.
- Use flip charts or whiteboards so the group can see everyone’s ideas.
- Introduce a tactile element with magazine clippings or post-its. People can brainstorm first and then organise and group their ideas.
- Challenge people to act out their ideas.
- Bring unexpected objects or images into the mix. Ask how they could solve the problem.
As you’re going along, keep track of who is speaking and try to draw out quieter participants. Splitting into smaller working groups can be a good way to make sure everyone gets a chance to contribute.
Every so often, summarise what has been said “It seems like we’re agreed that the offices need to move, but we’re unsure of when?”. Check with everyone that you’ve got it right.
If you feel that the energy in the room is dropping – it may be time for a break. Tea and coffee are always a welcome pick-me-up, as well as encouraging participants to move around or move to a different space.
You might end up with an ‘energy vampire’ in the room. Someone who is constantly pitching in with negativity or on singular point they want to make. One trick is to get their idea down on paper and stuck up on a wall. That way, they’ve been heard and their idea is considered, but they don’t have to keep going over it again and again.
This is where your well-thought-out objectives and session structure come into play. The first half or two-thirds of the meeting is spent freely exploring lots of options and letting everyone pitch their ideas. Then, it’s time to narrow down and agree on a solution, idea, or actions.
In order to make decisions at the end of the session, you’ll need to capture and record people’s points or ideas. There are lots of ways to do this. You can invite participants to put words or bullet points up on the walls. You could also record the main points yourself using a flip chart or whiteboard. The important thing is to capture the essence of what people are putting forward in a clear way. Try summarising and asking questions to get to this level of clarity.
An idea or action like “more funding for the arts” is too vague, and probably something we all agree with anyway. Nearing the end of your session you should have more specific ideas or actions like “institute a bedroom tax in Belfast hotels to supplement arts funding”.
If you’ve got loads of varied ideas, one strategy is to allow people to vote on the ideas they like the best using coloured stickers or by rearranging or grouping post-its.
Taking Things Forward
At the end of the session, remind everyone of the progress they’ve made and thank them for all of their ideas and effort.
Of course, there’s no point making decisions if nothing else happens with them. At the close of the session, make sure that there are clear actions points recorded. Typing up notes and actions to disseminate afterwards will help participants to start working towards the shared goals they set themselves.