The role of meetings in group work
What is facilitation?
A facilitator's skills and qualities
Co-facilitation roles at a meeting
Facilitating a meeting - beginning to end
Download the PDF of this briefing to print out - 950kDealing with problems in meetings
Blocks in the process
Facilitating large group meetings
Have you ever sat through a meeting that has dragged on and on, with tempers running high, people talking over each other and no decisions being made? Or maybe one person dominates the whole meeting and makes all the decisions, leaving you to wonder why you bothered turning up? Most of us can manage sitting through such a meeting a couple of times, but then we start finding excuses not to go any more, or at least wish we didn't have to.
Unfortunately this pattern is very common in groups of all kinds. It leads to frustration, inefficiency and eventually loss of group members. However with the goodwill of the group it is quite easy to turn around the style of meetings and actually make them an enjoyable and inspiring experience for everyone. This briefing explores the concept of facilitation and how it can help in creating successful and positive meetings. It is primarily aimed at groups using consensus decision making, a process that involves all members of the group in reaching an agreement that is acceptable to everyone. However, facilitation can help any meeting work more effectively.
To find out more about consensus decision making please have a look at our various consensus briefings. For a discussion of tools used in facilitation see our briefing Facilitation Tools for Meetings and Workshops. Terms in a box like this are explained in the glossary at the end.
The role of meetings in group work
Was the meeting successful?
Tasks - what got done? Did you get the needed results? Did problems get solved and things planned to meet the objective of the group?
Maintenance - How did it get done? How did people feel and how will this affect morale and group cohesion? Did the meeting make good use of the pooled talents? Was it enjoyable?
Meetings are a necessary part of working in any group - they give us the chance to share information, to reach decisions and to get jobs done. But meetings have another important function, which is often forgotten about - group maintenance (see box right). A good meeting not only gets work done, but also involves, supports and empowers the participants, creating a high level of energy and enthusiasm. A sense of community and connection to fellow group members is the basis for successful group work and social change. Good facilitation will help you to achieve all of this.
What is facilitation ?
What the dictionary says:
Facilitation Fa-sill-i-tay-shun, noun. making easy, the act of assisting or making easier the progress or improvement of something.
Facilitation is about helping the group to have an efficient and inclusive meeting. It combines a series of roles and tasks. These are often embodied in one person - the facilitator - but we encourage groups to think in terms of shared facilitation, with everyone sharing the responsibility for ensuring a meeting is well run, productive and participative.
Facilitation tasks include:
To ensure that the group is using the most effective means of working through topics the facilitator might introduce tools such as ideastorming, go-rounds or small group discussions. See the Glossary of Tools below, and our Briefing on Facilitation Tools for Meetings and Workshops for more information.
Learn to facilitate
The role of a facilitator can be learnt by everyone. Use your own experience of meetings and observe other facilitators. Learn from mistakes, from bad meetings as well as good ones. If the role of facilitator is rotated amongst group members, people can develop these skills. It is well worth conducting training, aside from normal meeting times, to practice facilitation skills. These skills are not only useful in group meetings but also in informal settings, at work and at home.
Facilitation or chairing?
Superficially a facilitator fills a role similar to that of the traditional chairperson. There are however important differences:
Who should facilitate?
The role of facilitator can be learnt by everyone - use your own experience of meetings and observe other facilitators. Learn from mistakes, from bad meetings as well as good ones. If the role of facilitator is rotated amongst group members, people can develop these skills. It is well worth running some training, aside from normal meeting times, to practice facilitation skills. These skills are not only useful in group meetings but also in informal settings, at work and at home.
Be aware that people's behaviour in groups is influenced by individual needs and past positive and negative experiences in groups. Try to spot your own negative behaviour patterns and work on identifying your own and other people's needs. For more on this see the section Disruptive Behaviour below.
A Facilitator's Skills and Qualities
Good listening skills including strategic questioning to be able to understand everyone's viewpoint properly.
Energy and attention for the job at hand.
Understanding of the aim of the meeting as well as long-term goals of the group.
Confidence that good solutions will be found and consensus can be achieved.
Neutrality on the issues discussed. Trust in the facilitator is dependent on them avoiding manipulating the meeting towards a particular outcome. If this becomes difficult, or you know in advance that you'll struggle to remain impartial try:
stepping out of role and letting someone else facilitate;
making it clear when you're expressing your own opinion and when you're interving as a facilitator;
trusting that someone else will express your thoughts or feelings on the issue;
asking someone else, in advance, to ensure that your opinion is mentioned.
Assertiveness that is not overbearing - know when to intervene decisively and give some direction to the meeting.
Respect for all participants and interest in what each individual has to offer.
Clear thinking - Observation of the whole group. Attend both to the content of the discussion and the process. How are people feeling?
Co-facilitation roles at a meeting
Instead of just one facilitator you may have two or more co-facilitators. You can share out more facilitation tasks amongst the group and make the job of facilitating easier and less intimidating. It is important for co-facilitators to agree before the meeting exactly what the roles in the meeting are and when and why they may change roles.
Co-facilitators can take turns and support each other. This is useful if the facilitator needs to step out of his/her role to take part in the discussion, have a break or when back-up is needed in cases of tension, conflict or confusion. Four ears hear better than two, so co-facilitators are useful to check understanding of what is being said.
Taking hands: One of the co-facilitators can take on the job of keeping track of whose turn it is to speak next, and of giving appropriate time limits to speakers.
Vibes-watching: Someone not actively facilitating can pay more attention to the emotional atmosphere of the meeting and watch out for individual members being affected. In situations of conflict and distress the vibes-watcher will intervene, for example by taking on the role of an intermediary, by taking time out with someone to listen to their concerns or suggest breaks and tools to improve the atmosphere of the meeting. Good vibes-watchers are able to sense underlying feelings by listening carefully and being aware of body language.
The timekeeper draws attention to the agreed time frame for the meeting and keeps the group to it, negotiating extensions for particular agenda items, or for the meeting as a whole, if needed.
Notetakers play a vital role at meetings: they keep track of decisions, take minutes or notes, collect reports, and also draw attention to incomplete decisions - for example who is going to contact so and so, and when? Notetakers can also provide a summary of the discussion if needed.
A doorkeeper is useful in public meetings or when some people may be late. The doorkeeper welcomes newcomers or latecomers and brings them up to speed on the meeting - aims, what's been covered so far in the agenda, how decisions are being made, as well as the practical 'housekeeping' information such as tea and toilets. A doorkeeper can prevent the flow of a meeting being interrupted to recap every time someone enters the room.
In very large meetings it is advisable to have a practical co-ordinator responsible for the venue, equipment, refreshments and notices. The co-ordinator can also gather people together to start on time.back to top ^
Facilitating a meeting - beginning to end
This section gives an overview of the tasks a facilitator may need to undertake in a meeting. Every meeting is different. Not all the points mentioned may be appropriate - use your own judgement and innovation. Whilst it's important that these tasks happen, it doesn't have to be the facilitator that does them all! Draw on volunteers in the group to help with the facilitation. Make sure that the goals of the group and members' expectations of the facilitator are clear to everyone. This allows the appropriate use of tools and suggestions.
1) Preparing the meeting
The meeting agenda
A well structured agenda is vital for a good meeting. The facilitator can help the group draw up agendas that are focussed on the aims of the meeting and are realistic. Remember: if the meeting is only an hour long, there should only be an hour's worth of items on the agenda!
You can either draw up the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, or better still prepare a proposed agenda in advance. It's important that everyone gets a chance to have an input and that the agenda is agreed by everyone.
To create an agenda first agree the aims for the meeting and then collect agenda items from the group, preferably in advance. Estimate the time needed for each item. Think about priorities for this meeting - what could be tackled another time or in separate working groups? Think about effective tools for controversial topics. Deal with difficult items after the group has warmed up but before it is tired. Alternate short and long items. How should the meeting start and end? Plan in breaks, especially for meetings longer than 90 minutes. Plan in an evaluation of the meeting near the end so you can learn for next time.
Write up the proposed agenda where everyone will be able to see it (on a whiteboard or flipchart, for example) or make copies to give to everyone. This will be helpful during the meeting as well as democratising the process of agenda formation.
Ask yourself what you can cut from the agenda, or trim down if anything runs over your proposed time. Have some suggestions up your sleeve.
Sample meeting agenda for the
The facilitator can equalise speaking time by using tools such as the following.
Dealing with blocks in the process
Time constraints on finding a solution to an urgent problem leads to stress. We need to allow enough time in the meeting for issues to be dealt with adequately. Prioritise which decisions need to be taken there and then and which ones can wait a while. Some decisions could be delegated to smaller groups.
Lack of focus
Avoid having meetings in which several issues are being discussed at once. State clearly what the issue is and what needs to be decided about it. Explain when the other issues will be discussed and stop people from going off on tangents. Make a note of any new issues that come up and park them for later in the parking space.
Example Problem - problem process
The group has been talking about the current agenda item for well over an hour and still doesn't seem to be anywhere near a decision. It doesn't feel like any progress is being made.
- Maybe the group doesn't have all the information it needs to make a well informed decision.
- Perhaps the group is tired and unfocussed.
- If it's a complex issue, maybe the range of possibilities is confusing the group. The group may be nearer to a solution than it realises, but isn't hearing its own common ground.
- Check with the group whether everyone feels well enough informed. If not, ideastorm a list of questions that need answering and work out who will do the necessary research. Can the meeting be put on hold briefly, whilst someone does research on the web, or do you need to come back to it another time?
- Take a break or do an energising activity, then try one of the other solutions.
- Have a go-round to check where each person is in relation to the discussion - what do they think the obstacles are to making a decision? What are their favourite solutions? Then summarise.
- If the discussion is complex, break it down into its component parts. Maybe use small groups. Each small group can take one component part or possible solution and explore it in more depth before reporting back.
- Use your active listening skills to summarise the discussion so far - what have been the main concerns? Is there any agreement (no matter how small)? Stating areas of agreement can lift the group's spirits.
- Restate the aims of the discussion to refocus the group.
The group can't reach a decision
A real consensus comes only after bringing differences out into the open. Encourage everyone to present their viewpoints, especially when they may be conflicting. This requires broad discussion and enough time.
Listen carefully for agreements and concerns and the underlying issues. What's at the root of people's worries? This helps with drawing up a proposal that takes them into account.
Test for agreement periodically. This helps to clarify disagreements. State the tentative consensus in the form of a question and be specific. If you are not sure how to phrase the question ask for help.
When there is time pressure or the group has lapsed into nit-picking, it can help to state the perceived agreement in the negative: "Is there anyone who does not agree that..?"
When no agreement can be reached, try the following:
- ask those disagreeing for alternative proposals;
- propose a break, silent thinking time, or postponing the decision to give people time to cool down and reflect. If the decision is postponed it is often a good idea to engage conflicting parties in conflict resolution before the issue is brought up again;
- agree a process for taking a decision that all parties can sign up to.
When one or two people are blocking consensus, ask if they are prepared to stand aside, to allow the group to proceed with the action (standing aside = not being involved in implementing a decision and its consequences). It may help if the group assures them that the lack of unity will be recorded in the minutes, that the decision does not set a precedent and that they won't be expected to implement the decision.
Don't mistake silence for consent - insist on a response from every participant. The group should be conscious of making a contract with each other. If an agreement is reached too easily then test to make sure that members really are fully supportive of the decision and do agree on essential points.
If there are limits to the level of participation available to individuals, make these clear right at the start of the meeting. Are people simply being consulted, or asked to make a decision?
Step 1: active listening for the underlying issue behind the problem.
Step 2: choose an appropriate facilitation tool to deal with the underlying issue.
Step 3: the underlying issue is dealt with and the problem is solved.
Facilitating large group meetings
Large group meetings pose particular challenges for facilitators. Any more than 12 people can exhibit all the characteristics of a big group - it doesn't have to be hundreds of participants.
Large groups can:
- make it more difficult for less assertive people to participate. Not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of a large meeting;
- be easily dominated by a confident few;
- have a slower pace and lower energy than smaller groups - taking longer to reach decisions.
Preparing meetings for larger groups
Planning: Larger group meetings need more preparation and planning. Often a tight structure will be useful, however this can also be overly restrictive for the meeting. Try to strike a balance between structure and open flow.
Agenda items: Which items need to be discussed and agreed by everyone? Which can be delegated to smaller groups? Not everyone needs to discuss the exact wording of the media release, or the order of bands for the benefit gig!
Time: Allow extra time for large group meetings so that people feel that there's been adequate discussion and an opportunity for people to express and hear all the ideas. Cutting off discussion and forcing a decision will leave lots of people feeling disempowered and frustrated.
The facilitation team: You will need a facilitation team who all know exactly what job they are doing - someone to facilitate, someone to take hands, someone to write up notes on a flip chart, maybe a separate timekeeper and a doorkeeper, someone to prepare refreshments.
Clear process: Take time at the beginning of the meeting to explain clearly how the meeting will work, what the agenda is like, how decisions are made, what guidelines there are for behaviour in meetings. Make use of flipcharts to write up the agenda, key points of the discussion, key decisions etc. Try and ensure the flipchart can be seen by everyone in the group.
Large plenaries and working in small groups
In large groups it's sensible to consider whether you can delegate any of the issues to a smaller group. However, sometimes the issues will be so important that they have to be discussed and decided by everyone. It can also be very inspiring to have an open discussion with everyone - collectively coming to good decisions and seeing that everyone supports the agreement reached.
Large and small group processes can be combined to deal with some of the drawbacks of large meetings. Large group plenaries can be used to share information, making proposals and final decision-making. Splitting into small groups can speed up some of the discussion phases.
The advantages of breaking into small groups for discussion are that they create safer, more dynamic spaces to work in and include more people in a discussion. Small groups can each discuss different elements of a topic, covering more ground in a shorter time.
However, some people resist small group work. It requires trust to let other people go away and discuss an issue, and that trust isn't always present, especially in groups that don't know each other well. Some people just like having a larger audience, and feel that their ideas are so important they should be heard by everyone. Sometimes people struggle to choose between working groups.
As the facilitator, you need to offer reassurance. Explain why you want to use small groups and that there will be feedback, so everyone will get to hear and comment on what other groups discussed.back to top ^
Top Tips for Facilitators
- Design a good agenda. Be realistic about what the meeting can achieve. Set time limits and tackle all points.
- Be aware of both content and process.
- Keep the group moving towards its aims.
- Use a variety of facilitation tools to keep everyone interested.
- Create a safe and empowering atmosphere to get the best contribution from everyone.
- Put a stop to domineering, interrupting, put-downs and guilt trips.
For an in-depth discussion of consensus decision-making in large groups see our consensus briefings. These include a discussion of spokescouncils. Open Space Technology is another tool for large groups (see Further Reading below) that allows people to dip in and out of smaller groups as they see fit.
Glossary of Tools
(For more tools see our briefing Facilitation Tools for Meetings and Workshops)
Excitement sharing - people share something good or exciting that has happened to them recently / since the last meeting. Good at start of meetings as it creates a lot of positive energy and puts people more in touch with each other's lives.
Group Agreement - the group agrees at the beginning of the meeting what behaviour will help make the meeting a safe, respectful place for everyone. May include things like: switch off phones; no smoking; one person speaking at a time; no put-downs; respect etc.
Go-rounds - everyone takes a turn to speak without interruption or comment from other people. Go-rounds help to gather opinions, feelings and ideas as well as slowing down the discussion and improving listening. Make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak.
Handsignals can make meetings run more smoothly and help the facilitator see emerging agreements. Three simple signals should suffice:
Raise a hand when you wish to contribute to the discussion with a general point.
Raise both hands if your point is a direct response to the current discussion. This allows you to jump to the head of the queue, so use it wisely and discourage overuse!
'Silent applause' - when you hear an opinion that you agree with, wave a hand with your fingers pointing upwards. This saves a lot of time as people don't need to chip in to say "I'd just like to add that I agree with..."
Ideastorming gathers a large number of ideas quickly. Start by stating the issue. Ask people to say whatever comes into their heads as fast as possible - without censoring or discussion. This encourages creativity and frees energy. Write down all ideas for later discussion.
Paired listening creates a space where everyone is heard, so participants can explore and formulate their own thoughts and feelings on an issue without interruption. In pairs, one person is the listener, the other speaks about her thoughts and feelings on the issue. The listener gives full attention to their partner without interrupting. After a set time swap roles within the pairs.
Parking space - when something comes up that's not relevant to the discussion at hand "park" it in the parking space (a large sheet of paper on the wall) and deal with it at an appropriate time later. This allows you to stay focused but reassures participants they will be heard.
Small Groups create safer spaces for people to contribute to the meeting. They can also make meetings more efficient - any topics are discussed more effectively in a smaller task group, and different groups can discuss different topics simultaneously. Explain clearly what you want groups to do. Write up the task where people can see it. If you want feedback at the end, ensure each group appoints a notetaker to report back.
Talking stick - people may speak only when they hold the talking stick. This makes people conscious of when they interrupt others.
Throw back to the group - many facilitators feel they have to deal with all the problems that arise in meetings. Where possible, let the group do the work. If someone asks a question, you don't have to answer it so throw it back to the group. Get them to make the major decisions about things like time, and priorities for the meeting.
- Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Sam Kaner with Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk and Duane Berger, New Society Publishers, 1996, ISBN: 0-86571-347-2
- Democracy in Small Groups - Participation, Decision-Making and Communication, John Castill, New Society Publishers, 1993. ISBN: 0 86571 274 3
- Resource Manual for a Living Revolution, Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser, Christopher Moore, New Society Publishers, 1981, ISBN: 0-86571-008-2
- Working with Conflict, Fisher et al, Zed Books, 2000. ISBN: 1-85649-837-9
- The Mediator's Handbook, Jennifer E. Beer with Eileen Stief, New Society Publishers, 3rd edition, 1997. ISBN: 0-86571-359-6, developed by Friends Conflict Resolution Programs
- From Conflict to Cooperation - How to Mediate A Dispute, Dr Beverly Potter, Ronin Publishing, 1996. ISBN: 0-914171-79-8
- Open Space Technology: A User's Guide, Harrison Owen, Berret-Koehler, 1997. ISBN: 1-57675-024-8
A Consensus Handbook: the guide to consensus and facilitation
by Seeds for Change. More details, and how to get a copy...