In my experience, most meeting facilitators are either too passive or too heavy-handed. I probably err more towards the latter, but over time I have learned to strike a good balance most of the time.
Being a facilitator is much more art than science, though it has elements of both. As in public speaking, a lot of things are outside the facilitator’s control, so avoid getting too worked up if things go very well or poorly during some session that you moderate.
This list is especially geared towards facilitating meetings that go on for several hours with people who do not meet together that frequently, though some of these techniques can be adapted for standing meetings with recurring agendas and regular attendees. It contains the eight of my top seventeen lessons* about effective meeting facilitation.
1. Try to get to know the people in a meeting you are facilitating before the meeting begins. Something is better than nothing; a few words before the meeting starts is not as good as an hour-long discussion a week earlier, but it is something. Even if you know the group well, try to get a sense of their overall disposition and the issues they are most concerned about (especially if related to the meeting agenda but even if it is not) going into the meeting you are leading. If they are people with any kind of public or online profile, read some of things they have written or a speech that they have given recently as part of your preparation.
2. If a particular conversation or agenda item is proving especially fruitful, let it go over time even if you want to stay on your original schedule and doing so will make that difficult. It’s worth it.
3. Figure out ways to get the people who have a tendency to dominate the meeting to listen, and those who are prone to remaining silent to speak up. Sometimes it is as simple as periodically asking the quiet ones to weigh in on whatever you are talking about, or encouraging someone privately, on a break, to weigh in.
4. During a meeting lasting one or more days, end the day with a session with a quick go around the room where every participant gets to reflect on the day, its highs and lows, its accomplishments and failures, and their own emotional state, for no more than 2 minutes each. It often works well to start with the person on either side of you and go around clockwise or counter-clockwise, ending with you, where you can both share where you are but also acknowledge and reference some of the things you have heard.
5. Start the meeting with a mixture of formality (welcoming people), good governance (asking for approval of and any amendments to the written agenda), and context setting. A great way to set the context is spending a few minutes reflecting on the journey that the group is on together, how far they have come and what lies ahead, and what must be accomplished in the session they are beginning now. Show that you are trying to tune in to the emotional states of each participant and that you have given the meeting a lot of thought.
6. Encourage people in a group you are leading that will come together periodically to attend as many meetings as they can, and discourage people not in the group from just dropping in unexpectedly. Having an ever-changing group around the table is generally not helpful in building cohesion and a sense of team and momentum.
7. At the beginning of the meeting and then periodically throughout, thank people who are being helpful to moving the group forward, either through their preparation, the quality of their presentations, or their wise comments. This includes thanking people who are not in the room. For meetings of governing bodies, propose formal resolutions to recognize outstanding contributions and have them included in the minutes. This will help make appreciation a group habit, which will help build the trust and comfort necessary to tackle hard topics and have difficult conversations.
8. Be a fairly militant time-keeper most of the time, and tell people in advance that you will do this, as a way to be fair to the agenda items at the end. When you want to move on, ask people’s permission but don’t wait too long for them to object. Tell them at the outset that if they feel you are squelching discussion of an important topic, to speak up and you will probably change your approach in that moment.
*If you would like the entire list on this topic, send me evidence that you have bought my book Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind. If you want all 403 lessons on all the topics, send me evidence that you have bought at least three copies of the book.