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Key Functions of Effective Meeting Facilitators

Kathy Grossman
Sandy UT USA
Elizabeth White
Leawood KS USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 38 No. 3, June-July 2002 p. 62.

Even when there are several Leaders at your Series Meeting, one person is usually designated as the facilitator, the one who is actually "leading" the meeting. Attendees of Chapter or Area Council Meetings also need someone to keep discussions on track and to make the most of the time together. And, whether it is at a Series Meeting, Chapter Meeting, an Area Council Meeting, or several Leaders meeting with a Leader Applicant, the basic function of a facilitator remain the same.

Plan and Design the Meeting Process

With a clear sense of purpose and some objectives, a facilitator plans for meeting these goals. For a Series Meeting, the goal may be to answer every mother's questions. For Leader meetings, an agenda sent out ahead of time gives everyone some homework and some thinking time before actual discussions as well as time for participants to prioritize items. Including a timekeeper and a note-taker will help the facilitator be alert to meeting attendees' cues and stay focused and productive. Generally a facilitator obtains agreement on meeting purpose, agenda, and closing time. In addition, she introduces items for discussion.

Listen, Clarify, Integrate, and Clearly Present Information

A facilitator can state specifically what the group wants to accomplish. Brainstorming ideas? Hearing committee reports? Deciding on whether to invite a certain speaker? Summarizing, confirming, and bringing a group back to the original question or problem will keep members focused and efficient.

Demonstrate Flexibility and Adaptability

If chair arrangements are impeding everyone hearing what is being said, the facilitator can initiate a change in room set-up. If a topic is encouraging too many side conversations, the meeting Leader can redirect the discussion for another time. Skilled facilitators can steer the meeting, saying, "We need to move on. There will be time later for individual conversations."

Keep the Group Focused on the Outcome or Task

Keeping the group in check and setting limits will help attendees focus on the purpose of the meeting to meet objectives. A facilitator can use comments such as, "Let's take all ideas and proposals first as we agreed and discuss them after we have had everyone's input." A meeting Leader can defer discussion to a more specific time: "We're going to talk about the Conference program right after lunch. Let's continue on with our Conference funding ideas."

Create An Open, Positive, and Participative Environment

A facilitator starts on time and honors the efforts of attendees who arrived on time. She can encourage icebreakers and games to foster warmth, enthusiasm, rapport, and trust in a group of people who may not know each other well.

Select and Prepare Appropriate Items Based on the Outcome and the Participants

Is a flipchart, dry-erase board, or poster important to the discussion? An overhead projector? A laptop computer for note-taking? Might participants want pads of paper and pens? Will attendees be bringing small babies? Do certain attendees need "partners" to share notes with them? Do participants need to be sitting at a table? Spending a few moments on room set-up, temperature, and audio/visual equipment can greatly enhance a meeting.

Direct and Manage the Meeting

A facilitator directs the form of the meeting: Round-robin comments? Brainstorming? Voting? More formal meeting procedures for attaining consensus?

Develop and Ask the Right Questions

Open-ended questions such as, "How might a banquet meet the needs of everyone coming to our Area Conference?" can be very stimulating and open up many areas of discussion. Very specific questions such as, "Which of these three activities will attendees benefit most from: an ice cream bar, bedtime stories, or sing-along?" will elicit very specific responses.

Help the Group Own and Take Responsibility for the Meeting Outcomes

Ask mothers at your Evaluation Meeting to be honest about whether Series Meetings are meeting their needs. Be open with a Leader Applicant about how she wants to design her leadership meetings with you. Let your co-Leaders know what you want to talk about at a Leader planning meeting. And, if Chapter Meeting planners have trouble with Leader participation, a facilitator can build an evaluation of those meetings right into the agenda.

Actively Build Rapport and Relationship Among Group Members

A facilitator establishes a climate of the meeting with praise, a positive attitude, an unbiased approach, a sense of purpose, and warmth. A meeting Leader might design spaces for one-on-one exercises, mealtime sharing, and round-robin opinion gathering.

Demonstrate Self-Awareness and Self-Expression

A Series Meeting facilitator might start with herself during introductions to provide the amount of information and personal revelations in a respectful way.

Manage Conflict and Negative Emotions Constructively

A firm, serious approach can help keep tangents and interpersonal disputes from taking center stage. A facilitator can get up and walk around the room, stand by certain attendees to subdue side conversations or other distracting behavior. Each member has the responsibility to take initiative to comment on behavior that is destructive to the group. Using "I" statements and having a warm and supportive approach is effective. Letting things slide to avoid criticism or conflict can waste everyone's time. It is counterproductive to allow others to continue dominating those around them.

Encourage and Support Multiple Perspectives

Some keys to brainstorming are suspension of evaluation or criticism of ideas. A facilitator can encourage contributions of as many ideas as possible, including the wild, the expensive, and the farfetched. She can encourage new combinations and improvement of previously listed ideas.

Seek Evaluation

Wrap things up or close with a summary of meeting content, action statements, and time for questions and answers. The evaluation may be quick and simple or more detailed. In written or verbal form, knowing how participants felt about a meeting is crucial to future meeting planning. Focus on things you want or need to know. If you don't really care what everyone thought about your co-Leader's lasagna, don't ask! Some helpful questions to ask or consider participants to rate use of time, productivity, encouragement, participation, preparation, and suggestions for improvement.

Whether you're facilitating a meeting with a Leader Applicant, organizing a Chapter Meeting, or leading a Series Meeting, set your expectations high, announce meeting times well in advance along with soliciting agenda items, prioritize, be specific about what you want to accomplish, and success is yours!

Kathy Grossman has facilitated various La Leche League meetings while living in seven Areas across North America. She now lives in Sandy, Utah, USA with her husband, Tom Dillon, and three sons Sam (19), Ed (16), and Monty (13). She is the US Western Division Publications Coordinator. Elizabeth White is the USWD Division Events Coordinator and lives in Leawood, Kansas, USA with her husband, Dave, and two children Margret (16) and Nate (12). She and Kathy presented a session on facilitating meetings at the International Management Symposium in 2001 in Chicago. Brandel Falk is the Contributing Editor for this column. Send articles or ideas to Brandel at Pal-Yam 34, Tsameret Ha-Bira, Jerusalem, ISRAEL or ImaBDF at (email).

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