Effective Meeting Facilitation: The Sine Qua Non of
[NOTE: Miranda Duncan's following article is the longest in our Toolkit. It is so rich with useful information, however, that I could not bear to shorten it! Instead, I have moved her excellent list of sample TOOLS, FORMS AND CHECKLISTS to a separate chapter directly following this one. -- Morrie Warshawski, Editor]
Say the word "meeting" and expect to hear sighs, groans, or sarcastic remarks. Yet, planning requires people to come together frequently over a period of time in a word meeting. Well-planned and facilitated meetings sustain participants' energy and allow them to contribute their best thinking to the planning endeavor.
The planning process is like a slide show that follows a logical sequence from beginning to end. Each slide represents a single meeting. The whole of the planning process will be greater than the aggregate of each meeting, but only if each meeting is orchestrated to accomplish the requisite function. Like each individual slide, the composition of a meeting is designed to convey a message or fulfill a purpose.
A large part of the planning process is accomplished in meetings because, as the saying goes, "Two heads are better than one." Each member of the planning team brings an essential perspective to the process. Elements of a plan goals or solutions to problems are not the only outcome of planning meetings. The interactive work transpiring to develop the plan is as important - if not more important - than the plan itself. Think of a time you recounted a funny story, but no one laughed. Then, you realize, "Well, I guess you had to be there to appreciate it." That's the way it is with planning: Those who must carry out the plan with energy and enthusiasm, must be there to help create the plan.
The information in this chapter is presented primarily for the person who will be responsible for pulling those meetings together, leading them, and coordinating tasks in preparation for meetings and the follow-up steps in their wake. Topics cover the items on a facilitator's check list.
I. THINK BEFORE YOU MEET
It is not unusual to spend as much time planning a meeting as running it. Preparation begins with asking these questions:
II. ORCHESTRATING THE MEETING
Leadership. In the olden days, meetings were run by chairmen. Bringing in an independent facilitator, or appointing someone to that role is becoming standard planning practice. There is a danger, however, as "facilitation" moves into vogue: It looks easy, but the appearance of ease may be deceptive. The word "facilitation" means to make something easier, so while others look on and think the facilitator has an easy job, the facilitator is working very hard to make it look easy. Behind the scenes, the facilitator has taken training courses, practiced, taken more training, learned the hard way from experience, and puts great effort into his or her work.
The ideal arrangement is for the chairperson and a facilitator to work closely in planning and leading the meeting. The chairperson retains the prestige and authority of leader, and provides grounding in reality. The facilitator has process expertise, serves to balance participation, and is better situated to move the group through sensitive issues, controversy, and tough problems. Sometimes groups further divide functions and ask someone other than the facilitator to record meeting notes on a flip chart. Many facilitators use the flip chart as a tool in leading (and controlling) the meeting.
Separating the titular leadership role from the meeting leadership function benefits the planning process in three ways.
Frequently a member of the planning team must assume leadership of a meeting. On those occasions, the internal leader can serve the group well, just as the external facilitator does, by adopting the following operating objectives:
- Separating content work from process work
- Identifying interests
- Framing problems
- choice of words
- ability to listen, summarize and reframe
- using questions to stimulate thinking
(3) Familiarity with process models
- decisionmaking and consensus building
- techniques to keep the meeting on track and moving
Analysis. A community leadership group received $2,000 gift for youth programs from a wealthy individual. No one stepped forward to design and oversee a program. In the meeting to plan next year's activities, the gift was overlooked. Eventually the president asked what the group wanted to do with the funds. All sorts of suggestions poured forth, always with the same conclusion: The kids wouldn't come anyway. What the group needed to do was decide a process issue before launching into content. They needed to evaluate options of how to deal with the funds (not what program to implement). The choices were: (a) give it back; (b) give it to someone who would do something with it; (c) use up the funds on a one-time event for youth; or (d) implement the program as envisioned when the gift was made. After discussing the pros and cons of each option, the group agreed to implement a youth program. Until they decided that question, they could not focus or commit to any specific plan of action on the content. This story illustrates how a facilitator needs to separate the process issue, prompt the group to take care of that issue, and then move on to the goal or content issue.
The other useful analytic ability is to spot an underlying interest, and bring it out in the open so it can be discussed and negotiated. The president of the school board does not want to incorporate public participation into the district's strategic planning process, claiming it is unnecessary and a drain on time. His underlying interest, however, is that he does not want to be chastised for low student test scores. The facilitator must recognize the validity of the president's reluctance, yet push forward with the requirement: "How can we involve the citizens of the district without the meeting turning into a gripe and blame session?" Once structures were in place to prevent wholesale attack on individual board members, he was quite willing to involve the public.
Problems must be stated without imparting judgment or implying a solution. The problem statement has to be worded so that participants with differing viewpoints accept that description. For example, an arts organization holds a theme fair to raise funds for its operation. One of the planning committee members raises the concern that a vendor sells items that do not conform to the theme. Note the difference in how the dilemma is stated: "Should we let Henry sell his items next time?" Or, "How do we ensure items are congruent with the theme?" Or, "We're here to discuss sexual harassment," vs. "We're here to agree upon appropriate conduct in the work place."
Communication skills. The facilitator primarily relies on listening and asking questions. Listening enables the facilitator to remember the content, relate the content to the discussion, capture its essence on the flip chart, note reactions of others to what is said, and make a judgment call about sticking with the topic or moving on to the next speaker or agenda item. By summarizing the speaker's point, or by recording the idea on the flip chart, the facilitator affirms to the speaker that he or she has been heard and understood.
Facilitators ask questions to control the process and to spark thinking. A question signals progress we are moving on with our agenda: "Shall we begin?" "What did you hope to walk away with by the end of the meeting?" Questions bring the discussion back on track: "Shall we add that topic to the agenda for next time?" "Do we need to make sure we cover the other items before we run out of time?" Or, "Do we need to decide this in order to decide that?" Questions can provide closure: "Is there anything else before we move on?" "What are our next steps?"
Questions also stimulate thinking, and rethinking. Statements can be perceived as, or actually are, challenges provoking a counter challenge or assertion of a superior idea. Questions, on the other hand, create a temporary vacuum a time for reflection. The facilitator, by posing questions, eliminates much of the superfluous posturing and banter. Questions maintain an air of openness, an attitude of, "Let me hear more before I decide." Examples: "If you do this, what will happen?" "Could you describe the process of communication you currently use?" "If you could change one thing about the design, what would it be?" In other words, questions, rather than directives or advice, are the most potent way to encourage the group to focus on something, rethink a course of action, or evaluate options.
"Reframing" combines skill in communication with an ability to analyze what's happening on the spot. Reframing is a way to "launder language." The facilitator extracts inflammatory or negative impact from a statement, and crystalizes the legitimate underlying motivation for that statement. For example, a board member emphatically states, "There's no use in going forward with this planning process. What we need is a new executive director!" The facilitator quickly reframes the remark to highlight a valid concern: "You want to make sure staff can carry out the board's policy directives." Reframing a statement so the language is palatable to others does carry the risk of the speaker admonishing the facilitator for not summarizing the statement accurately, as originally stated. If that happens, the facilitator would have to rework the wording more to the speaker's liking. On the other hand, the speaker may be relieved to see that there is a more constructive way to present the concern and feel affirmed that someone has taken the concern seriously.
The disadvantage of voting is that it leads to an all or nothing, win/lose outcome. What happens to those who voted "nay" and were outnumbered? How committed are they to supporting the outcome? And, what happens to the concerns driving the no-vote. Were those concerns addressed, or will they come back to haunt the yea-sayers? Ample discussion with analysis of alternative courses of action can counteract the disadvantages of voting. Even then, voting might be reserved as a last resort. Clearly, in a small group convened for the purpose of planning, consensus is possible and more desirable.
Decisionmaking by Consensus. Over the past 15 years, making decisions by consensus has gained acceptance, yet a number of misconceptions remain. Consensus is the cooperative development of a decision that is acceptable enough so that all members of the group agree to support the decision. Consensus means that each and every person involved in decisionmaking has veto power. Keep in mind, though, that members of the planning group are team members, not adversaries. Responsible team members use power only to achieve the best results vis a vis the group's purpose, not for their own personal gain. In other words, if a team member objects, it behooves the others to find out why and give considerable thought to the concerns expressed by the dissenting member.
The remarkable result of giving individuals veto power is that they rarely use it! If participants are reassured nothing can go forward without their approval, they tend to relax, contributing more to the content and worrying less about procedural matters.
Consensus does not mean there is an absence of conflict. It does mean there is a commitment of time and energy to work through the conflict. Consensus requires taking all concerns into consideration and attempting to find the most universal decision possible. Groups able to make decisions by consensus usually demonstrate:
Factors working against consensus include: competition, individualism, passivity and solution-orientation
There are many techniques to facilitating consensus:
Voting and consensus are the "how" of decisionmaking. Decisions, themselves, seem to come in three shapes:
Try out different ways of framing the decision using the above three formats. The way in which the decision is framed sets the stage for the solutions generated. Different framing of the same topical issue elicits very different solutions. For example, a decision regarding regulation of outdoor advertising can be framed, "Who is going to control outdoor advertising local municipalities or the state?" Responses will be very different from those prompted by the question: "How can local government determine the character of its land use without eliminating outdoor advertising?"
The important rule of thumb about good decisionmaking is "Do Not Decide Prematurely." Ultimately, the thinking process for any type of decision is the same:
III. OTHER TECHNIQUES TO MAKE MEETINGS MORE EFFECTIVE
Ground Rules. An essential task early on in planning meetings is for the group to agree on ground rules. Ground rules are logistical agreements a group makes to improve its ability to work as a group. They are the standards of operating that determine how people conduct their discussions and how they will make their decisions. The value of ground rules lies in their very creation. Any preordained rule such as, "We should respect each other" will garner minimal commitment. Only through dialogue will a rule achieve its maximum self-enforcing potential. The discussion can be initiated with the question: "What operating principles should we adopt in order to make our work more efficient and of higher quality?" Or, simply: "What are some important guidelines we should all keep in mind as we work together in these meetings?"
The discussion prompted by asking for ground rules not only elicits the rules; just as importantly, it allows potentially derailing sensitivities to surface. The facilitator can normalize strongly held values and emotional issues. The participants will feel better about themselves as group members and appreciate a greater sense of safety. Some participants may discount the importance of establishing these guidelines up front. The facilitator must be prepared to assert the value of the discussion and negotiate for the participants' indulgence. If the group has polarized around issues, spending time on establishing ground rules becomes all the more important. Ground rules generally take the form of agreements on certain topics.
Typically ground rules center around these issues:
The facilitator can offer one or two ground rules to stimulate the participants' discussion. The faciliator can also suggest thinking about ground rules participants have overlooked. Agreement on a specific rule, however, must be made by the participants.
The information on the flip chart must be "user friendly." Use large letters, space between concepts (so ideas can be added), alternating colors, and make sure the paper can be posted rather than just flipped over.
Bin Issues. A useful tool for moving participants through the agenda is to create a separate flip chart page for issues raised, important, but either tangential or too complex to deal with during the meeting. Noting these issues on a separate sheet, also referred to as the "parking lot," respects participants' concerns and assures them that the issues will be addressed. (Make sure they are addressed eventually, or that participants no longer want to address them; otherwise the bin issue sheet soon will lose its efficacy.
Next Steps. The facilitator should have a good sense of what is going to happen in meeting #2 when planning meeting #1. That sense is confirmed by taking about 15 minutes at the end of the meeting to ask "Where do we go from here?" or, "What do you need to do so that you can move forward in this process?" There may be a number of tasks participants must accomplish before the next meeting convenes. Make sure to summarize who is going to do what, with whom, and by when. Rough-out major agenda items for the next meeting before adjourning.
When participants reach decisions, the facilitator will need to devote time to how they will implement those decisions. Thinking they are done, euphoria sets in, and participants fail to convert the decision to an action plan (see action planning worksheet in the attachments). Before participants leave the meeting, the facilitator should pin down action steps: Who is responsible for taking what action by when?
Evaluation. Planning requires a willingness to look critically at how the group is performing. Honest reflection can be difficult. One way to help participants become more comfortable with self-critique in a work setting is to ask them to evaluate the meeting. "What aspect of the meeting did you particularly like? Any insights? What didn't go well? What would you do differently next time?" On a written evaluation, leave room for "suggestions." If participants offer their critique orally, the facilitator will need to encourage them to be critical, that the evaluation is an important part of the facilitator's learning and improvement. (See attachment.)
Handling conflict in a meeting. If meetings are well-planned and orchestrated, conflict is less likely to surface. If it does, it probably needs to. The most common reaction to conflict is avoidance. Repressing conflict, pretending it doesn't exist, hoping it will go away, or admonishing participants for disagreeing are all forms of avoidance. Generally the conflict does not disappear, and often times, the situation worsens.
The facilitator is in a good position to help participants engage in constructive conflict. Understanding the nature of conflict, its sources and patterns helps the facilitator remain centered when participants begin to develop oppositional stances on goals or strategies in the planning process.
Social scientists make a distinction between objective and subjective conflict. (See "Sources of Conflict" diagram in next chapter). The source of subjective conflict stems from poor relationships, personality clashes, and differences in values. This type of conflict is difficult to handle because values and preferences cannot be negotiated. Rather, participants agree implicitly or explicitly work around fundamental differences either because those differences do not interfere with getting the job done, or because getting the job done is more important than expending energy on fighting.
If relationship conflicts have been allowed to fester in an organization, members of that organization may not be able to work together as a planning team. The group may benefit from a team development program, sensitivity training, or application of Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicators to enhance their ability to interact constructively before embarking on a planning process. On the other hand, when participants come together frequently for a significant purpose and experience success on joint goals, often relationships improve. There is no litmus test to determine which of these two routes to follow. The choice may be best left to the participants themselves.
The source of objective conflict lies in the allocation of resources salaries, vacation time, office space, supplies, respect. Objective conflicts can be negotiated. The conflict is framed in the same way a problem would be framed, and the negotiations would resemble problem solving. What makes resolving conflict more difficult than solving a problem is the pervasiveness of strong emotions and lack of trust. The facilitator has to move more slowly, spending time talking with participants individually, finding out from each individual or faction what it would take to be able to work together productively again.
Here too, the planning process itself may provide the group with the opportunity to improve to rethink job descriptions, performance objectives, incentives, and working conditions. Or, the group may decide to put the planning on hold and focus on settling a specific, exacerbated conflict first. When it appears addressing a specific conflict takes precedence over planning, there are a few principles to keep in mind:
The process to resolve conflict is similar to problem solving. The most important steps, especially when viewpoints have become polarized, are the first four (below). Frequently conflict does not get resolved because the participants begin at step five. The role of the facilitator is particularly valuable to ensure that the participants do start at step one.
IV. IN CLOSING
Following a process structure for thinking and dialogue, sharpening facilitation skills such as listening, reframing, and asking searching questions, planning meetings ahead of time are the basics of meeting effectiveness. Two additional ingredients cannot come from a book (or a computer). The first is a mindset a mindset that: believes in the wisdom of the participants, demonstrates patience and more patience, and conveys a nonjudgmental demeanor. In general, a good facilitator is supportive, respectful, and has enough extra energy to carry a group through late afternoon slump.
The second ingredient is experience. A facilitator becomes better with age having had valuable opportunities to synthesize the theory of process models, skills, and techniques with practical experience.
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