The word “meeting” might not conjure up the most thrilling of fantasies. Let’s face it, we’ve all sat in meetings wondering when someone will come and put us out of our misery. Oh yeah. We’ve been there.
If this sounds like your experience of work meetings, then we feel you. But this is not how any meeting should be, ever! Because a good meeting should be engaging! And, when done right, it should even be fun. Yup, we said fun. When a meeting has been facilitated properly, attendees leave it feeling more energized than when they went in, not resentful of the precious minutes or hours of their lives they’re never getting back.
Although meetings don’t come with the best reputation, working as a meeting facilitator is a pretty cool job. And we should know, at AJ&Smart we’ve been doing it–and teaching others how to do it– for a good while now. A meeting facilitator works with the team to bring about the best results for everyone, helps individuals work towards their goals, and provides a clear structure to work with going forward. In addition, they do this in a way that leaves the team feeling pumped and excited about the tasks ahead, clear about their responsibilities, and informed of the process if anything doesn’t quite go to plan.
In this article, we’re going to run through everything you need to know about meeting facilitation, as well as the skills you need to become both a meeting facilitator yourself and the most popular person in your office, guaranteed (kinda).
What is a meeting facilitator?
The meeting facilitator has numerous responsibilities and goals. They write the agenda for the meeting (and ensure everyone has a copy of it well in advance), act as a guide throughout the meeting, ensure that all participants stay on track, keep conversations relevant to the theme (and short), and ensure that by the end everyone is on the same page, clear about what outcomes are expected of them, and fully aware of the next steps they will need to take to achieve them.
The great advantage to having a meeting facilitator is that team members are freed up to focus on the important things, ie, the content of the meeting, rather than its structure, flow, or organization. Team members also gain clarity on when it’s appropriate for them to speak or jump in, and what exactly is expected of them both in the meeting and after it. The ultimate goal of the meeting facilitator is to bring about each participant’s best work by providing structure, and guiding, encouraging, and listening to team members.
Meeting facilitation skills
If you’re considering getting into meeting facilitation either as a side gig or a career, check out this list of need-to-have facilitation skills. Maybe you’ve got them all done to a T already, but if not these are the ones you’ll need to work on before you start leading your team into the best meetings of their lives!
Active listening is when eye contact and body language are used to demonstrate the listener’s attention on their subject. These nonverbal cues enable the facilitator to fully grasp what the other person is saying, the emotion behind it and have a fuller understanding of the reasons which have prompted them to speak out. From the side of the speaker, it makes them feel more seen and heard and that their opinion is being taken seriously.
Empathy is crucial to good meeting facilitation. When an empathetic and collaborative workspace is created by the meeting facilitator, innovative and creative solutions to a problem are more likely to come from the team members gathered. The facilitator should therefore lead by example by demonstrating empathy and an approachable attitude that creates an environment within which everyone feels safe to be themselves and share their views.
We said meetings should be fun, remember? Well, keeping up the energy levels of the group requires a meeting facilitator to be enthusiastic and motivating when the group’s va va voom starts to lag. In addition to prompting excitement around the task at hand, the facilitator should pose pointed or challenging questions, and explain boring or tricky concepts in such a way that is informative, positive, and inspiring–no mean feat!
You’ll need to be a master of diplomacy if you’re hoping to get into meeting facilitation. As the group’s guide and leader, you’ll need to manage varying opinions about the meeting and your facilitation style, mediate discussions on the chosen processes and outcomes, and coax the quieter members of the group to speak out. These tasks require diplomacy and tact if you are to bring about the best results for the group as well as each member of it.
The meeting facilitator needs to remain immune to office politics or internal power struggles which can raise their ugly heads during work meetings. A completely unbiased approach ensures that the outcomes of the meeting are informed by the process alone, rather than the individual agendas or opinions of team members or historical solutions.
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What makes a great meeting facilitator?
We’ve seen which specific skills a meeting facilitator needs if they’re going to run an efficient, engaging, and successful meeting. But what’s the difference between a good meeting facilitator and a great one?
Well, excellent communication skills are gonna be huge here. Yes, you’ve probably read the words ‘great communication skills” in every job advertisement ever, but in this case, it’s really true. Being able to convey complex ideas, speak comfortably in front of groups of people, engage with employees of all experience levels (and varying degrees of skepticism or reluctance!), and being able to swiftly and succinctly summarize and communicate back key ideas and themes is no walk in the park. Honing your communication skills will take time and tons of practice, but will get you well on your way to being a huge success as a meeting facilitator.
Flexibility and the ability to improvise take practice and experience, but will leave you crushing your meetings time and time again. Why? Because no meeting ever goes entirely to plan and facilitation requires bobbing and weaving, answering questions you’ve not prepared for, dealing with unexpected reactions or situations, and adapting to what is thrown at you in the moment. A great meeting facilitator won’t freeze up and they won’t insist on sticking to the agenda religiously. Instead, they’ll incorporate ideas and feedback, respond to queries, and be open to new ideas or suggestions. However, being open and flexible should not be interpreted as being a pushover. A great facilitator will know their boundaries and the goals of the meeting and will allow spontaneity as long as it benefits the team and the desired results of the meeting.
Refined observation skills combined with an acute sensitivity to body language make all the difference in meeting facilitation. A facilitator needs to be well aware of small gestures and facial expressions and how well the group is responding to tasks, ideas, or the process itself in order to know how well the meeting is going down or if things need changing up. A facilitator who ignores a lack of energy won’t win any fans and certainly won’t achieve the goals of the meeting. A great facilitator will identify a mood change quickly and try to bring any concerns to the surface quickly.
Finally, authenticity! This is an attribute of great meeting facilitators that cannot be more firmly emphasized. An authentic approach:
- Helps team members feel more connected to their facilitator
- Builds trust between the team and the facilitator
- Enables group bonding
- Builds trust in the process
What are the different roles of a meeting facilitator?
As well as being the organizer, navigator, leader, mediator, diplomat, and enthusiast of the meeting (phew!), the meeting facilitator has some other distinct roles and responsibilities. Here are some that you’ll definitely need to bear in mind.
Communicating the goals
The meeting facilitator is the person responsible for first of all fully understanding what the goals of the meeting are, before explaining and clarifying them to the team so that everyone is aligned and knows what is expected of them in order for them to be achieved.
Keeping the focus
Keeping discussions relevant, bringing the focus back to the topics, and ensuring that all team members are following proceedings is the job of the meeting facilitator. A great meeting facilitator will keep the energy levels and interest high so that team members are less likely to become distracted.
Enabling (effective) discussions
Facilitating great discussions is a key part of this role. Asking pointed or challenging questions, bringing out quieter members of the group, holding back those who tend to dominate, and leading with thought-provoking insights all lead to effective discussions.
This can be a tricky task to define, but the facilitator will need to encourage team members to work together. If individuals don’t know each other yet, using meeting icebreakers and games can be a good way of getting everyone in the mood for collaboration.
Getting everyone onboard and involved
More introverted members of the group will need to be coaxed out of their shells to contribute to the meeting. Be encouraging, ask directly for their contribution, and make sure they can’t be interrupted by louder team members.
The team will need to make decisions as a group, but the facilitator will be the one to say when it’s time to make the decision and ensure that it happens.
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How to facilitate your first meeting
Now, let’s get down to business: it’s time to run your first meeting. What do you need to get ready so that it runs like clockwork? Or maybe not clockwork, but like a fun, spontaneous, yet efficient and purposeful gathering?!
Here’s what you need to do.
Define the purpose of the meeting
You’ll need to think carefully about what you want to get out of this meeting.
- Is it to uncover new opportunities?
- Solve a user problem?
- Enhance the product?
- Resolve team tensions?
- Review a recent campaign or launch?
You’ll need to have the issue defined and communicated ahead of time so that all team members are on the same page from the get-go.
Prepare the location
You probably have a dedicated meeting room, but it’s still important to make sure your meeting attendees are comfortable and have the space to be a bit creative.
Where possible, implement the following:
- Comfy seating options
- Lots of natural light
- Space for some movement
- An area for presentations
- Some wall space for Post-its and a whiteboard
Write and distribute the agenda
Writing a clear and goal-oriented meeting agenda should never be underestimated (check out our article on how to write a great meeting agenda, here). Think about including concrete deliverables rather than focusing too heavily on creating a prescription for every moment of the meeting.
You’ll want to have the agenda distributed among team members well in advance of the meeting itself. This ensures everyone is aligned, there’s time to clarify anything attendees are unsure of, individuals have the opportunity to prepare items or documents that’ll be needed during the meeting, and it provides an opportunity for teammates to get in touch with you to suggest improvements or amendments.
Best tips and practices for facilitating a meeting
We’ve written an in-depth article with all of our best tips and tricks for facilitating a meeting. Here are the key takeaways:
Appoint a facilitator
Yep, that’s you! Having a dedicated facilitator for your meeting means that the team can focus on the content of the meeting, rather than its organization, structure, or the processes needed to make everything flow.
Appoint a decider
The decider is the person who, you guessed it, decides on and defines the next steps. A good person for this role is usually a product owner or manager.
Get the team right
Don’t invite everyone to your meeting! Try to find a balance by inviting individuals who are connected to the theme but who bring diverse perspectives, experience, and knowledge to the table. We think around 7 attendees is usually about the right number.
Sequence your discussions
Consider providing structure to your meeting by splitting it into specific phases.
Visualize your discussions
Rather than talking through every point on the agenda, break things up by using your whiteboard or sticky notes to visualize what you’re talking about.
Time-box your activities
Allocate a time slot for each activity on the agenda to prevent time running away with you.
Work alone, together
Working alone-together simply means that the group works on the same challenge simultaneously but without any collaboration, idea exchange, or chatting. This helps more introverted group members present their ideas, and prevents ‘groupthink’.
ALWAYS finish the meeting with a decision
Make sure to leave the last few minutes of each meeting for the decision making and next steps. Assign tasks or actions to team members with defined timelines and deadlines.
What are some of the best books about meeting facilitation?
Want to read more about meeting facilitation? Get a load of these inspirational books.
- Visual Thinking by Willemien Brand
- The Workshopper Playbook by Jonathan Courtney
- The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker
- The Art of Facilitation by Dale Hunter
- Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by James Macanufo and Sunni Brown
- The Secrets of Facilitation: The S.M.A.R.T. Guide to Getting Results With Groups by Michael Wilkinson
How to get trained as a meeting facilitator
There’s no prescribed way to become a meeting facilitator, however as we’ve seen there are a host of specific skills you’ll need to onboard to make a success of this career.
Although not a prerequisite to becoming a meeting facilitator, taking a formal course or earning certification in facilitation will help to set you apart from your competitors, cement your skills and knowledge, establish trust with your clients, demonstrate your credibility, and prove your commitment to meeting facilitation. You can also learn a lot through blogs, podcasts, books, and by speaking directly to facilitators about how they work. Finally, nothing beats getting hands-on experience, whether in your current company or in a more informal setting. Real-world practice enables you to learn your trade, try out best practices and techniques, and learn the challenges of the job.
Check out the following options for learning facilitation skills and see which combination of learning routes the best suit your learning style, budget, and availability.
Read facilitation blogs
Follow facilitation influencers
Take a facilitation course
- Workshopper Master by AJ&Smart
- Udemy - How to be a facilitator
- The Knowledge Academy - Facilitation Skills Training
- LeadStrat - The Effective Facilitator
Listen to facilitation podcasts
Other learning methods
In addition to reading, training, listening, and following, consider also:
- Shadowing a facilitator
- Practicing facilitating meetings in your current company
- Speaking to facilitators about their work
- Speaking to those who have attended successful workshops or meetings run by trained facilitators