Facilitation 104: Tools of the Trade

Part 4 in the Facilitation series.

Previous post: Facilitation 103

The specific tools you use for facilitation really depend on what kind of meeting it is, where it’s being held, and what kind of technology you need. There are three main kinds of meetings:

Status updates, which don’t really require much facilitation other than preventing off-topic conversation. One main tool for keeping these conversations focused is to only ask yes or no questions, and another is to follow a punchlist or dashboard, so the order of updates is routine.  

Decision making meetings, which require a strong effort to keep discussion focused on the end goal (the decision to be made). Reviewing meeting minutes at these meetings can be very valuable, because it helps remind everybody of the recent history — what led to needing a decision. It also reinforces the value of keeping minutes. This is another yes-or-no question kind of meeting.

Brainstorming, discussion, or planning meetings. These require the most active facilitation, because you need to walk a fine line between keeping people engaged and active, and open to participation, while keeping that participating focused and productive. This is an example of a meeting where it can be really beneficial to have an outside facilitator — someone who isn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the outcome, and can help the team see when they’re stalling out. Ask open-ended questions rather than yes or no when conversation stagnates.  

One brainstorming method is for all participants to first write down all their ideas on post-its, and then organize the post-its by topic or area. Typically then, participants will present and defend the topics, so that everyone in the group understands what’s been brought up. Then, each participant gets a few stickers to place on items they feel are highest priority. This is a really valuable exercise for clarifying priorities within a team.

Regardless of what type of meeting it is, a facilitator should always be ready to summarize points when the topics jump around, and address side-trackers, by mirroring, redirecting, and clarifying points without causing anybody to become defensive. Here are a couple of specific facilitation tools.

The “parking lot” is just a place to write down out-of-scope topics that pop up during the meeting — these are things that are worth addressing, but are outside the goal of the meeting. Writing them down means people feel their ideas have been heard and valued, and it means we don’t lose anything. You can follow up on parking lot topics outside of the meeting, or at the end of the meeting if you have time. Take care to avoid making decisions about a parking lot topic if you don’t have all the necessary stakeholders in the room — sometimes that’s why the topic landed in the parking lot in the first place.

Mirroring simply means letting the group know how they appear, so they can reflect and adjust. It’s a good way to get everyone’s attention, and to address disruptions. An example of a facilitator mirroring would be telling the group that they look tired and distracted, and asking whether the group needs a break. Another example would be pointing out that you’re seeing a lot of side-conversations, and asking whether there is something that needs to be put in a parking lot or addressed immediately before getting back to the objective.

Redirecting is a means of intervening when a person’s behavior in a meeting is disruptive.  In meetings where the rules of engagement are very clear, anybody in the room can easily shut down an interruptor (at daily scrums, for example, where the generally understood rule is that only the immediate scrum team is permitted to talk, though observers are welcome to attend). But it can be a lot harder in other meetings, especially where it’s a newer group of people who haven’t fully defined their own rules and dynamic. One technique for redirecting is to first describe the behavior (ie, “Emma, you’ve left the meeting three times already.”), and then make an impact statement to tell the participants how that behavior is impacting the meeting (“We had to stop our discussion and start over three times.”). Then you can redirect the behavior by asking the group for suggestions (“Would everybody like to take a short break so when we return, we won’t have any more interruptions?” or “What can we do to make sure we don’t have more interruptions today?”). This is a method that takes some care and practice — it’s a lot easier to set up rules of engagement early on, that everybody in the meeting can agree upon.

A Note on Formality
I tend to have pretty informal meetings, but lots of groups use more formal meeting procedures, like Robert’s Rules of Order or consensus-based procedures. It’s worth assessing how formal or informal a meeting should be — if everybody’s getting what they need out of the meeting, don’t sweat informality. If the meetings have been exhausting trainwrecks, consider formalizing the rules for a while.

Next post: Facilitation 105


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