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7 unexpected things I’ve learned facilitating meetings

One of my favourite team warm-up questions is: What advice would you tell your Earlier Self? After about 20 years of running meetings of all kinds, here’s what I’d say.

So much is learned in experiencing the unexpected, rather than the expected. Hitting the curve balls, adapting on the fly, making mistakes and recovering is such a huge part of the art and science of facilitation. So, in the spirit of sharing what I’ve learned from mistakes, here’s my list of unexpected lessons.

#1 Start strong

The first minute of any experience sets the tone for the rest of the experience, whether it’s a conference talk, a movie, dinner with friends, you name it. The same goes for meetings: as the one running the meeting, you have to own the start, and you have to start strong. It’s up to you to model the behaviour you want from others.

There’s a strong urge to behave like everyone else; you don’t want to be different, or cause any weird awkward moments by being the one to say ‘facilitator-y’ kind of things (“Let’s remind ourselves of the ground rules we set for each other”). But, I’ve learned that it’s OK to behave differently. That’s often what leadership looks like. As the facilitator, your job is different to everyone else’s. Own it.

#2 Choose to be in it, OR on it

I’ve witnessed a lot of tension (in myself and others) when the person running the game also has skin in the game. As the facilitator, you need to be completely objective. You need to guide the group to the outcome they collectively want, not what you want.

There are managers who will try to be both facilitator and participant (and I’ve done this too). They’ll create difficult situations that everyone else picks up on, but often won’t call out because it’s not safe to do so. This means that there isn’t authentic discussion, proper insight and emergence, or proper resolution.

If you have to handle lots of different stakeholders in meetings, it can be a huge win to check in with each stakeholder first, and ensure that they know this difference.

#3 You’re a guide, not a sherpa

I used to get to the end of workshops stressed out of my tree and absolutely exhausted. I realised that I was taking on the responsibility of the workshop’s success all on my own shoulders. Of course it’s true that much of the success of a workshop is due to skilled facilitation, but here’s the difference: as a facilitator, you own the structure and environment, they own the outcomes.

Here’s a good litmus test: at the end of the meeting/workshop when you’ve captured the next actions, is your name on any of those actions? Then you haven’t let them take true ownership of their outcomes. Don’t carry their luggage. Don’t do their work for them.

#4 Call the game

There’s a lot of value in listening to the sports commentators as you’re watching sport (happy to argue in the comments!). It’s the same in meetings: as a facilitator, I’ve learned the unexpected value of ‘calling the game’ as the meeting progresses.

Obviously you do this with discretion (and never in a passive aggressive way), but the idea is to enrich the discussion with a bit of intrigue and drama to maintain engagement, and verbalise the things that others are probably thinking but won’t say out loud, because they don’t want to look dumb, or cause an awkward moment. Examples:

  • “Well, we’ve heard a lot from Team A, but now we need to hear more from the other teams”
  • “We’re coming up to the end of the first half of our meeting, and we’re behind, so I think we need to pull out the stops somehow, if we’re to get the outcome we want by the end”
  • “If ideas were horses, this is looking like a one-horse race… We better turn out attention to the rest of the pack of ideas, in case we miss some really good ones”

(#shamelessplug: Want more tips and resources about facilitation? Sign up to the Bright Pilots weekly newsletter. All killer no filler, I promise!)

#5 Be a duck

I tend to think out loud a lot. This is very helpful as a participant in a meeting, but horrible as a facilitator. There might be 101 things going on in your head (I hope everyone understood what he just said, because I didn’t. When do I time the next break? Why isn’t the screen sharing working?), but all of those things should stay on ‘inside voice’ unless it’s going to help move the meeting forward in some way.

Over time, I’ve learned to be a duck: smooth as silk on top, no matter what’s going on beneath the surface. Your participants need to have their full attention on their problem to solve, their solution to create, their decision to decide, and not be distracted by any problems to do with facilitation.

#6 Ask closed questions

This one really snuck up on me. A lot of books and training say to always ask open questions (e.g. “How has your week been?” versus “Has your week been good?”). This is of course really useful for opening up conversations and inviting different perspectives. But sometimes discussions need to close, decisions need to be made, and a lot of people will subconsciously avoid closure and decision. Closed questions act as a forcing function to help more rigorous thinking and accountability, as well as exposing passivity and false consensus. Examples:

  • “Should we drop this idea, then?”
  • “What date will we tell our teams this plan will be ready?”
  • “So, to distill what we’ve been discussing, is it best to build this feature ourselves, or acquire it?”

#7 Finish strong

Meetings often end with less achieved than what we expected (gasp!), and we leave the meeting with a collective shrug that we’ll sort it all out later on…somehow. When this happens, there’s ambiguity, uncertainty, and often a lot of time wasted in redundant communication (“What did we actually decide? Am I meant to do anything? Is Barry from Accounts meant to do something first…?”).

I’ve learned to get to ‘the end of the meeting’ about 10 minutes prior to the actual end of the meeting time. This gives the group 10 minutes to discuss and capture the next steps for how to achieve what wasn’t achieved in the meeting. It means that even if what was achieved fell short of expectations, everyone is crystal clear on who does what next, and by when. I’ve learned that this can actually create a surprisingly strong sense of collective achievement that would otherwise have been missed.

I hope this is useful for you, your team, and your work. Like it? Give it a 👏 or two. Thank you! It actually does mean a lot.

If this is your thing, you might like to check out the online classes we run at Bright Pilots, and/or sign up to our newsletter, which gives you power moves to use in your meetings, every week.

Design strategist, educator, sketchnoter, facilitator, explainer, author of Presto Sketching. I like bringing out creativity in others.