Secrets of Smart Meeting Facilitators

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While relevant for meetings year-round, this article should be particularly timely as we move into the time of year when annual planning meetings are underway. In our role as advisory board facilitators we’ve developed a methodology that is airtight in helping companies execute effective meetings. And it works because it is a mix of art and science. The science is the preparation that we put into every meeting to ensure we have as much control over the unknowns as possible. The art is having the confidence and comfort in the room to move with where the group is interested to go – within reason.

As you consider future meetings and forums, take the time to plan. Two of the most important actions you can take to prepare for the meeting are to identify key stakeholders inside and outside the company for the following two purposes:

• Co-create the agenda: Too often, large meeting agendas can miss the top issues that customers and employees actually care about and day-to-day challenges facing them. It only takes a short period of time to interview a group of 8-10 stakeholders and with those insights, you can build a more effective agenda.
• Co-create the questions: Like the agenda, the questions that a moderator or facilitator ask can shape the outcome of a discussion. Use the prep interviews to understand the questions and issues that are on the minds of all participants. Those questions will inform the agenda and be critical starting points for the in-person discussions.

Strong facilitators plan for all potential scenarios to ensure the meeting is productive for all. But even after you’ve collaborated on the perfect agenda, there are likely to be hiccups during the meeting. Here are the three most common challenges of facilitating large meetings and how to address them.

Losing Control of the Conversation: Every facilitator fears that someone in the group will dominate the conversation or move it in a negative or off-topic direction. While this can happen, it’s rare. Most groups self-govern and most individuals don’t want to stand out, especially for being negative. Still, if it happens, here’s what to do.

No matter what issue is raised, summarize it back to the audience and make it clear that they were heard. Thank the person or audience members for their contribution and move on. When you greet a negative or off-topic issue with a positive attitude, you’ll find most people don’t persist with negativity and they’ll get back to the agenda.

Shaping the Opportunity in the Problem: Another common situation is the public airing of grievances. When this happens, you can’t ignore it or quickly shut it down. Instead, allow the audience to say what’s on their mind for one minute. That can be a long sixty seconds. When the time is up, quickly summarize the issue and allow for a few responses. The key here is to avoid rehashing the issue and you do this by making it clear that the question was noted and answered. At the end, summarize every issue that was raised, including those that weren’t answered, so that everyone knows they were heard.

Allowing and Encouraging All Voices to Be Heard: There’s nothing quite like having a fully engaged audience. While this is a good problem to have, it can still be a problem. There are a few techniques you can use when you have too many participants and can’t get to everyone. For example, you can provide a mobile app that allows questions to be asked and equip a team of people to respond throughout the meeting. Summarize the questions and, before answering, ask the audience how many people in the room have that same issue or question. This helps to eliminate duplication. People raise their hands, nod their heads, and engage with your summarized question and they feel that they had an opportunity to share their perspective. This ensures every voice is heard; it also provides a written record for those who couldn’t attend or want additional clarification.

On the flip side of “allowing all voices to be heard,” there are times when you don’t get any questions. As the moderator, come prepared with several questions of your own. You can also plant some questions with people you met with during the planning phases. For example, you can ask them to raise the same issue they brought up in the pre-interview or you can probe them directly with a statement that sparks the question. The good news is that most people are only silent until the first question breaks the ice.

In summary, the “secrets” to success are to plan well, collaborate ahead of time and prepare to navigate challenges during the meeting itself. Best of luck in your 2017 planning meetings and beyond.

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