February 28, 2022

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Best Practices for Facilitating Meetings

Kenning Associates Partner Jen LaChance says that facilitating a meeting means “creating space for group level sense-making”.  With that benchmark in mind, she and fellow Kenning Partner (and facilitation veteran) Thom Shaw discuss some of the best ways to prepare for a meeting, conduct it, and what you should do once it’s done.  How do you define goals and outcomes going into a meeting, and how can you create a sense of progress during?  What are some of the ways you can profitably arrange the meeting room, where should you stand, and when does it even make sense to sit down?  What are some of the ways to deal with disruptive behavior, and why is some level of conflict actually a good sign?  And finally, what’s “the bike rack”?

little lightbulbs become one big lightbulb

Thom and Jen draw upon their deep experience to speak to these issues and many more.  In the end, Thom and Jen promise that facilitating a meeting–helping a group solve problems and build alignment–can be rewarding, meaningful, energizing, even fun.



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Jen: Welcome. This is Jen Lachance. I am a partner with Kenning associates and today I’m joined by my colleague, Tom Shaw, 

Thom: Hi Jen, it’s great to be here today with you. 

Jen: Tom and I have both facilitated in a range of different groups across many industries. From financial services to healthcare to everything in between. From small groups as small as four or five all the way through to large groups, up to 200. From an hour to two days. So we’ve had lots of experiences that we wanted to think about together today and to share. 

When people hear facilitation, they can hear or assume lots of different things. For some people, it means running a meeting. For others it means bringing together a group of people to achieve a goal. 

In the Kenning perspective, we think about this as creating space for group level sense-making. If you think about the idea of making sense with your colleagues and the people around you, what’s the learning that you can achieve when you create space together to really understand all the perspectives, bring them forward and all the collective knowledge in a room to get to some kind of outcome that you wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. That’s what we think about when we think about facilitation. 

So, Tom, for facilitation, often we think about what happens during a meeting, but there is a process there is preparing for a meeting, so there’s before there’s during and there’s after.

Thom: You make a good point. It’s so easy to bring in material and just present and hope that people will react. Preparation is so incredibly important and it’s not just defining the goals and being really clear about what outcome we are trying to work toward. 

But it’s also about having a clear idea about the process that’s going to help us achieve that in terms of building relationships, getting particular deliverables produced, or even, fostering some kind of greater level of interactivity than what has been previously done in a lot of meetings. 

Jen: Tom, as you say that, I love this focus on what’s the process we get to, but I know in my experience a lot of times even just defining what the outcome is can be a first step that seems like it would be easy but often takes a lot of work to really define that well. 

In my case, I sometimes use a framework called the POP method: purpose outcome process. What’s the purpose of us getting together? What are the goals? But then what’s the outcome? And this is where we really get to test that purpose. 

So if I say, okay, so if your goal is, to articulate a vision for our group, and then I say, what’s the outcome you’re really going for there? When we walk out of the room, what does that look like? And often that will help a group better articulate what a purpose is. And then we get to the process part.

Thom: That makes a lot of sense. And what I wonder about as you think about using that framework is do you define the outcome both in terms of sort of something on paper, if you will, even in draft form and secondarily the nature of the, I don’t know, level of, alignment or consensus in the group?

Jen: It can be both. That outcome piece, I think, gives people a lot of latitude to play. I say sometimes even before we get to defining the goals, tell me what it feels like and looks like, and sounds like, and what do you have in your hand when you walk out of that room? And that can actually help us back into the goals a little bit more.

What about you though? How do you address coming up with the outcome?

Thom: There’s always a conversation between the meeting owner and perhaps the team that’s trying to support the meeting owner and getting that interaction designed. It often comes down to having to be really clear.

Where in the work are we? And what are we trying to accomplish at the end of the day? And defining that as concretely as we can. But I think it comes down to defining outcomes in a very similar manner, which is both in terms of some material that gets the problem solving or the understanding developed to a greater degree.

And it’s clarity about what seems like the right group related goal, such as having heard from everybody on this issue or having reached a level of consensus around the question we’re trying to answer. 

In one situation that I was involved with, there was a real need to develop stronger relationships between the field and the, call it headquarters, and getting alignment around the process they were going to use for staying connected was really important. So being clear about what we do today and the diagnosis around the problems in the current system and real clarity about the adjustments that both the field and the headquarters wanted to make in how they interacted to maintain better relationships going forward. 

Jen: A common outcome that I’ve had folks realize that they want to get to is alignment around strategic priorities for a group of people. They can be within the same sort of business unit, if you will, or they can be across multiple business units.

It’s a question of making that space for the alignment. I will say that a lot of the times in the sessions that I facilitate, I ask what are some of the softer outcomes around relationship building, how the group understands each other? How do they deepen their relationship? To get to better sense-making essentially. That if we really want to get to the best outcome, we also need to invest in their space for relationship building. 

 Thom: When groups are engaged in sense-making, it’s rare that you’re ever going to get to a definitive, concrete, written outcome. Because that requires just an inordinate amount of wordsmithing, that can be an enormous drag on time.

But what I think one of the things these groups sense-making sessions that we facilitate allow to happen is a contribution from multiple corners and a wealth of material and perspectives that a smaller group can take away and try to refine before playing back, perhaps at another session, to the same group.

So that it’s not that we get to perfect closure in any one session, but it’s that people have been involved and have been able to contribute, have had their voices, in the conversation. 

Jen: Yeah. I really liked the way you frame that because in a lot of ways I often look at these rooms of incredibly smart, capable folks and think that the collective knowledge is there, they just haven’t uncovered it. And then as a facilitator, my job is to create space for them to bring that knowledge forward, to inform what happens afterwards to inform a smaller group, taking that and having had the input from all of these great colleagues that they have, but making that space to bring stuff forward for them. 

So when we talk about group sense-making Tom, I think we’re talking about the content of what folks are doing, but at least in my experience, there’s a lot of stuff that happens in that connective tissue time between the sessions of work. And I’m curious, how do you think about that? How do you plan for not only the content of what people are doing, but the rest of the time outside of the work? 

Thom: Making sure that there’s time for people to reconnect. If they’ve been working at a distance or working across time zones, different geographies, they see each other infrequently, it’s important to give them, say a dinner, that night before the session to, come in to town, spend time together, understand how everyone’s thinking about the issues that they might be getting ready to talk about. Socializing time the evening before can be incredibly helpful because it lets you start warmer the following morning.

People have had a chance to get caught up on each other’s news a little bit, projects that they’re working on, what their friends and family have been up to. But that level of connectivity makes for a much richer conversation more quickly in the morning. 

Jen: So I like what you’re saying there about this idea that the space to connect allows for a level of getting back in touch with each other in such a way that when you get to the work element, you’re better able to connect on work as well.

Thom: And finding time, even during the breaks or creating breaks sufficient for people to process some of what their experience in one session is before they go into the next session, for example, can be quite helpful. If what we’re trying to do is help people stay fresh and make sense of the information and perspectives that are emerging in the conversation in the room. 

Jen: From time to time, we’ll design small activities that involve people getting in a trio and going for a walk. Take 30 minutes in the middle of the day. But just because there’s something about what feels a little less formal that time to work together that opens up so much of people’s creativity, but also their relationship building. 

Thom: That’s a lovely point. I was going to build on that and say, what that work in a trio or a pair. And that walk outside, if you will, does is it gives some of our introverts in the group a smaller venue in which to process and think about their experience and bring up the issues and topics that matter to them. 

And in some cases become clearer about what they want to say when the group returns to its larger state. So giving people a mix of structures if you will, or group sizes allows the group as a whole to probably generate more ideas. 

Jen: When we get into the actual session, Tom, I think, what we’re talking about here is having that mix of process oriented and task oriented management for the facilitator and the process side, watching and being aware of the group’s interactions with this goal of maximizing input and participation from everyone. And then there’s the task oriented, which is around really, how are we getting to the goals? How are we achieving those outcomes?

But when we talk about process oriented, I think we’re talking about different ways to elicit that input from everybody and so one of the ones that you just brought up is about how do we think about different work styles? Making space for your introverts to feel comfortable in different settings and your extroverts.

What are some of the other things that you see that you think really can make a difference in terms of that process side of things? 

Thom: There are two ideas that come to mind. One is taking the time to design process in advance. Meaning, it’s so much more valuable to try to build in time than to adjust in the moment once you’ve already committed to a particular agenda.

So building in a variety of activities makes a lot of sense. Another way of answering that question is to think about how can we get everyone’s voice in the room early? Finding a way to create some sort of small disclosure exercise early in a session, whether it’s people interviewing each other as part of the introductions or finding one thing that they’re happy to share with others makes a big difference. So finding a way for people to speak and take turns and then they’re much more ready, I believe, to speak again when the matters of substance are in play. 

There’s something about the process of hearing your voice that first time that opens up the possibility of you participating even more going forward. And it can be really powerful and very subtle in a lot of ways. How about norms? So when we think about norms for a group, we’re thinking about the conventions that they’re gonna all agree to. Are we all going to turn off our phones? Are we going to wait for breaks to grab food? Any of those kinds of things that help people know what to expect? How do you address the norms for a session?

Thom: Addressing norms for a session really depends on the group. Is this a group that work frequently together, and so they have a clear sense of norms? Or is this a group that’s coming together, that’s drawn from different locations and different functions, if you will.

I often think that there’s value in just pausing for a moment to get agreement on a set of norms. Because time is so precious, really, in many of these meetings, it may make sense to propose a list of norms. Including perhaps how frequently we’ll take breaks and whether we’ll respond to text messages while we’re in the meeting or not, or we’re going to put our phones on silent. 

You can make a proposal then discuss them, and then more quickly get to an agreement about how we’re going to work together, And that commitment to norms that we’re going to optimize our time together. For example, can make a group come together around a particular goal more quickly. 

Jen: I think a lot of that in my experience is about building trust for folks around what they can expect and then following through. And as a facilitator, your job was then to hold people to that so that everyone is in agreement on that commitment that they’ve made. 

One of the norms that I always love, but you have to be really intentional about it, is the use of the parking lot. Or as we call it at Berkeley, the bike rack, that when things come up that aren’t necessarily essential topics or the most germane to what you’re trying to achieve there, that you don’t want to lose them, but we don’t want to go down every single rabbit hole that comes up. 

And so, key here I’ve found is that you want to capture those things, but then you as a facilitator need to demonstrate and follow through on making sure that those don’t just get lost. Because when the group starts to wonder if it’s just being written up there and no one will ever do anything with it, you can lose a lot of that trust in that sense of commitment to the norms that you’ve set.

Thom: That’s so true. Also, I think there’s a handoff to be made between the facilitator and the meeting owner to be sure that those items don’t get lost. And the meeting owner has some level of responsibility to decide how best to take those issues forward.

I do think it’s powerful, those bike racks or parking lots they record and make visible an issue that was important to someone in the group. And the fact that it gets recorded often enables the group to refocus on the other issues. Having seen it, they can let it go. At least temporarily. But you’re right, coming back to it and being sure that it doesn’t get lost is really important. 

Jen: As we think about what happens in the session, we’ve talked about these different pieces of it. I also want to come back to just one of the most basic things, which is how you set up a room.

Thom, what do you think about when you imagine people coming into that room? How do you think about the actual physical space?

Thom: When I look at a room and think about the possibilities for setup, I try to balance a couple of issues. One is how many people and how much space, and what kind of interaction are we trying to foster. If people can’t see each other, meaning they’re all facing the front of the room in theater-like rows, that’s going to limit the amount of crosstalk that we can support or we can foster.

So if we want people to be talking to each other, then finding a room arrangement that lets them do that. And if we want people to be working in small groups, that’s where seating a series of round tables in an appropriate distribution makes for the ability to have small group work and large group conversation moving readily between the two. So the room setup really can influence how people experience, each other and the work that we’re trying to do in that place. 

Jen: It’s interesting as you were talking about that. I, in my teaching at Berkeley, set up my classroom a different way each week, because I want the students to experience how much that impacts how they participate, that the setup of the room really impacts. How many people you’re connecting with. If you’re at a small table, you’re going to connect with the people at your table. If you’re in a big hollow U, or square. 

You’re probably just going to connect closely with the two people on either side of you, but you’ll talk to everybody in the room through your contribution. So it’s just an interesting thing to think about and to experience how does that room set up, impact how I show up and how I connect. 

Thom: One idea I would add here is, and you want people to be close enough, but not too close. Meaning, if you have a grand ballroom and you have four tables spread out, small tables, people are going to feel very distant they’re going to be much more prone to working in that small group as opposed to ever coming together. So finding the right distance, and amount of separation and togetherness, and the right balance, is important. 

Jen: Yes. Really thinking about the space carefully matters a lot. What about where you are in the space? When you’re a facilitator, sometimes you’re inherently given a level of power and sort of the perception of power that can sometimes be helpful can sometimes not.

Thom: That’s right. I find that it makes a lot of sense to think about who’s taking what role and if I’m facilitating, sometimes I need a scribe who’s handy at the flip chart or the white board to help record the material as we generate it. There are times when, for example, even if I’ve been at the front of the room and have been trying to guide the process, a conversation that needs to happen, emerges between a couple of the participants.

I will sit down so that I am not drawing attention, but that the conversation between the participants can really unfold as it needs to. And I’ll try to make sure that we capture what we need to capture, but from a less prominent situation. 

Jen: I love that idea of really thinking about how much do you want to allow the participants to carry it forward and how much sometimes do you need to be in a more, obvious role to help guide. In any room, there’s going to be a range of different folks with different personalities and hence different behaviors. And some of those can sometimes be experienced by others as disruptive. I’m curious, how do you think about and handle different behaviors that can be disruptive to the group process?

Thom:  I try to understand what the underlying hope, fear, or intention is by whatever someone is doing. I try to think about them in terms of what’s going on for the other person. And there are times when the work and the questions that are being asked, whether it’s about modifying a process for maintenance or it’s a process for communication disrupts the way people have been managing their work and managing themselves. 

And so the discomfort that comes with that is sometimes just a underlying source of energy, if you will. And so trying to understand, is this person in their behavior, are they speaking up and raising an issue that we need to find a place for in the discussion?

 Sometimes when you hear an issue for a second or third time, it means you, as a facilitator, somehow haven’t been listening. And so finding a way to either acknowledge it or record it, can help that person re-engage around the direction that the group is trying to go in the process we’re trying to follow. 

Jen: One of the most common disruptive behaviors that we see, especially these days, is someone who is disengaged and you see them on their phone. And it’s not disruptive in terms of it stops a conversation, but it’s disruptive in terms of not engaging and the purpose of this meeting is to engage. And I’ll just say I was in a meeting, I saw somebody who was clearly disengaged was on their phone and others were noticing as well.

And in that case, I called a quick break and pulled the person aside and said, can you tell me what’s going on? In their mind they said, well, I’m just getting all these emails right now and there’s a real emergency happening. So then we talked about, okay, let’s take a 15 minute break for everybody so that you can go deal with those. And when you come back in, would that be enough for you to be able to be really engaged because we’re missing out on your perspective and they were able to do that. And so it was a win-win for everybody. 

One thing that I’ve found around helping people maintain their concentration is giving them something to do with their hands. We’re also used to having a small little computer in our hands all the time. And if we don’t want folks to be distracted, giving them something else to do so that they can really participate fully. 

So one of the things I do is I bring pipe cleaners–remember those from kindergarten? They travel well, they’re light, they’re easy and it is amazing how much people enjoy playing with those. It gives them something to do with their hands. That’s something that can really help with people’s focus and avoiding those kinds of sometimes disruptive behaviors, it keeps them engaged.

Thom: I love that. I’m going to get some pipe cleaners. 

Jen: It is amazing. People will give you a look at first, like really? And by the end of every session, without fail, someone very senior in the room has on pipe, cleaner eyeglasses.

Thom, different groups will have different kinds of styles. And I’m curious, how do you think about, and how do you adjust to different styles?

Thom: That’s an interesting question. And I think it’s by trying to pay attention to, for one thing, the volume in the room. Are people speaking loudly? And is there a lot of energy here? Are they in a more somber state, depending on what’s just been happening with the organization? You certainly want to align yourself and help them see how you are part of their group and there to serve the group by matching their energy level. 

There was one situation I was in where announcements have been made recently about a reorganization just as we were getting ready to undertake some work. And so there was a lot of buzz, and concern around what these organizational changes were going to mean.

So we needed to take a little bit of time for those comments to bubble up and to be shared. And then people were ready to refocus on the work that we’d come together to try to tackle. So finding a way to make space for whatever’s going on, what energy people are bringing into the room, whether it’s disruptive or excited or calm and already ready, does matter as a facilitator, trying to find a way to connect.

Jen: I really liked the way that you are phrasing that around just thinking about different groups and seeing where they are and you match them and you model for them, and sometimes the energy, I’ve found, I do need to switch it up intentionally. And often I’ll take a quick break if I have a group that’s really getting low on energy, we might take a break and get them walking or stretching or something like that. So that when we come back, I can infuse some more energy. 

And sometimes the other way, sometimes you need to take it down a notch. I was in a session just recently and it was with a healthcare organization and Omicron was just starting. That was a place where we needed some space for some honest and somber reflection time. The opening that I had planned was not the right one. So we had to adjust to that level of energy. That seemed right for the moment.

Thom:  And sometimes you don’t know quite where the group is going to be until you get into the room with them. You may have met them before and worked with them before, but on any given day many things can shape how the group is feeling. 

Jen: So one other question I have about when we’re in the session, Thom, is about conflict with the idea that if we’re really bringing together ideas that a group hasn’t heard before chances are, and it’s a good sign if this is true, but chances are that there will be a lot of discrepant ideas.

What’s your approach around conflict? For many, it can make people uncomfortable as a facilitator. How do you approach those moments?

Thom: I try to not ignore them, first of all. I mean, there’s an impulse when you’re focused on a task or focused on what you think is an issue. And some discrepant idea pops up, coming from a different angle or from a different point of view. That seems really off target is to pay attention to it, walk toward it if you will. To try to understand what is the connection that someone sees in the unexpected. So be curious, see if you can understand what the connection is and find a way to bring that idea, that energy to bear on the problem we’re trying to explore. 

Jen: And I think in a lot of ways it can come back to some of the norms that you said at the beginning around not only making it just okay, but actually celebrating the idea of discrepant ideas coming forward, playing devil’s advocate is a really strong role and can bring a lot of new thinking into a group.

Thom: One time I was working with some locomotive maintenance crews and a gentleman who’d been with the organization for a long time, had a great deal of skepticism about changing any of the processes had been through so many change programs that didn’t believe that anything new or productive could come out of the process we were following.

And that was a situation where his inclination to dismiss or be dismissive of the ideas that others were sharing was one I had to step into, acknowledge his point of view, acknowledged the experience on which he was basing his perspective, but very directly asked him to hold off on the analysis or the critique of the ideas, because we were not at that phase of the process.

So sometimes reminding people where we are in the process can help diffuse some of the issues that do come up. 

Jen: What about cadence? I know in meetings I will often think about what’s the cadence of how we’re going to get to this big decision? I don’t know that I’ve ever been successful or tried to just have my first decision with a group be a big one. How do you think about those cadence of decisions? 

Thom: I think there are a couple ways to respond, to think about cadence. One is there’s a principle, I think, that I’ve found helpful in facilitation, which is to go slow, to go fast. To the extent that we can take a little bit of time up front to get agreement on norms, get agreement on the process we’re going to use, get agreement on what’s inbound and what’s out of bounds.

Those upfront agreements can help us move more quickly later. That’s one thought. I think there’s also a notion that just agreements themselves create momentum in a room. That there are strategic opportunities to build small agreements and every one of those adds to the group’s sort of alignment and sense of movement toward a particular set of decisions that they need to make.

Jen: Allowing people to feel that there’s progress being made and that, okay, we’ve cleared this hurdle, however small it may be. And to really feel like they’re in it together. 

Thom: I do find that there’s always a risk that we’re never going to get done what we set out to get done, which is to say that the timing allocation that we set for our draft agenda isn’t going to quite stand the test of people in the room. And as a result, we’re going to have to make adjustments partway through and finding a way to accelerate or to streamline the process after you’re partway in can be important. 

Often there’s a pace that we pick up toward the end as we try to reach a good closing for the work, whether it’s been a two hour session or a two day session, that there may be some issues that aren’t resolved, but being really clear about what we’re going to take forward as an open issue and what we’re going to get done in the session that we have given the time that we have with people. So finding ways to flex that schedule can help you manage what might otherwise feel like too much cadence too much paced. 

Jen: As you’re saying that, it brings up for me that I don’t know that I’ve ever had a session where I haven’t had to adjust, usually because the beauty of bringing a group together is it’s not all predictable. And a good facilitator is going to have an ability to adjust to where the group is to see where they are. 

When I plan a facilitated session, I have identified probably four backup activities for any given segment. Or extra questions to prompt thinking if the ones that I thought of didn’t land, or if the activity is just not working or the cadence of the group is feeling really different.  That always having those backup plans in mind is important. 

The other thing that I wanted to share, when I was learning how to facilitate one of the things that I remember, one of the rules of facilitation was the idea of never doing for the group what the group can do for itself. You, as a facilitator, might have an idea on what you think the decision could be or should be, but that is not the role. The role is not to chime in at that level. And it’s much more to make the space for the group to bring forward their collective thinking. I try to keep that in mind all the time. Because there are moments that I do have opinions and I have to say, no, this is not up to me. My job is to make the space for them to bring it forward.

Thom: Yes. There are some times though I wonder about the need for the facilitator to synthesize what’s in the room, and making a proposal for that synthesis. Sometimes I’ve found myself needing to take off my facilitation hat, but do so explicitly and ask permission to share a thought on a particular issue before I sort of step back.

Jen: That is a great point. You’re right. I think the synthesis is really key. And then also there will be moments when you might need to take off your facilitation hat. and that it’s important to name that so that folks are clear that at that point you’re a participant. And then you’re going to go back to being your facilitator self.

As we come to closing, Thom, what do you think about when you think about what happens after a meeting? 

Thom: Well part of the closing, I think, needs to detail exactly what’s going to happen afterward. Who’s going to take the material? How are they going to process it? And when can participants expect to hear something back? If they’re going to be involved at the next step, having real clarity around what those next steps are and being able to communicate them to everyone makes a big difference. There’s always a question of who owns the flip charts and somebody’s got to transcribe them.

Jen: Oh, transcribing the flip charts. That’s always an exciting thing to do. 

Thom: We can take pictures now, as opposed to, carrying 40 pages of flip chart paper on the subway. 

Jen: So on those flip charts one of them is going to be that parking lot or your bike rack. And it brings you back to establishing that trust with folks and carrying it through the whole way, and making sure that it is clear to folks what the plan is. 

We shared all these tips today, but I think one of the other really key tips is to have fun with it. You get to bring together a bunch of people and be in a room of people trying to achieve something together and to produce something. And this is also an opportunity to just enjoy that time together. It doesn’t have to be heavy and serious even to get to serious and really important outcome. 

Thom: It’s incredibly rewarding to me to see a group come together and generate meaningful work, and find a solution to a set of problems that they share but they haven’t found a way to resolve.

There’s a wonderful energy that comes from seeing a group build alignment and be excited about some of the solutions that they come up with. It’s fun to be part of that. 

Jen: Thank you so much, Thom. This has been really fun for me. As always, I’m having my own thoughts about some of the ideas that you shared and that we were able to share with each other. So thanks for making the time. And I hope that others found it as helpful and interesting as I did.

Thom: It’s been great to talk with you today, Jen.