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Driving the meeting.

Here's a handy tool kit that will serve you well as you travel down the road to becoming an effective facilitator.

In a longitudinal study of one class of graduates of a prestigious business school, professors predicted the future success of each graduate, using such factors as entrepreneurship, assertiveness, boldness, creativity, and so forth.

After 10 years, these graduates were revisited. For those who had achieved top management positions, none of the established criteria held up. The only common factors were a sense of humor and the ability to run a great meeting.

For most of us, that ability comes after considerable trial and error. It is a classic case of "experience is the name we give our mistakes" - in the inimitable words of Oscar Wilde.

The good news is, we can learn to facilitate effectively, and it is a skill that will serve us well in both our personal and professional lives. You can become the driver of every meeting you attend, whether you are the facilitator or a participant, as long as you know some key driving tips and traps.

Know the destination

Each type of meeting has a general and specific purpose. Your job is to know both.

* A creative planning meeting is focused on the future, and can include an unlimited number of participants, especially now with interactive meeting technology to assist the facilitator (see "Reaching Board Decisions Online" in this issue of LEADERSHIP). It is freewheeling, with few rules. This is a great place to invite outsiders to sit around the table. Biggest trap: Group expectations that results will be translated into action, when in fact the results may just go forward to a decision-making body. Tell participants the truth.

* A problem-solving meeting is called for if a solution is needed for a particular problem. A group of 8-15 is ideal. The most difficult part of problem solving is identifying the problem. Too often, discussion veers off on the facts, rather than focusing on the issue.

For example, if the problem is identified as lack of money, that is a problem, but it isn't the issue - it's a fact. The issue is how to get more or do with less. Such a meeting can be facilitated by an inside facilitator with good skills. Biggest traps: No implementers are included in the problem-solving process, and no pre-established criteria for judging the validity of the proposed solution have been established.

* Decision-making meetings often follow planning and problem-solving sessions. Here, the key is to identify the issue(s) clearly, and to include those with the authority to make and carry out the decisions. It commits those who decide . . . to do. Develop multiple options, so that several alternatives are considered. If an ostensible decision-making meeting is really a rubber stamp, as some association board meetings are, you can count on having an unhappy board and an unproductive meeting, which no facilitator can save. Biggest trap: Coming to premature decisions.

* The feedback meeting, called to solicit opinions about programs, services, operations, or management, is the riskiest type of meeting. An outside facilitator is essential for this type of meeting to manage the feedback process. It is almost impossible for an insider to hear negative feedback and to have the stamina to avoiding saying "but we do . . . "or "we tried that once and it didn't work." Biggest trap: You won't get the truth.

* Have no meeting when there is nothing to meet about. This takes the most self-control. The regular Monday morning staff meeting or the monthly executive committee meeting has the potential for an empty agenda. A meeting is not necessary if items can be communicated in writing, matters are confidential, or only the wrong players can be assembled. There should certainly be no meeting if the convenor's mind is already made up.

Most meetings have at least one and usually several of these components - planning, problem solving, decision making, and feedback - so the facilitator has to change styles and methodologies for different parts of the meeting.

Map the route

Decide where the meeting will take place, who will go, what the possible detours will be, what assistance you are likely to need in terms of resources or resource people, and what materials are essential for the trip. To ensure a good trip, leave the baggage at home, but take lots of spare tires. And remember, the agenda is your map, but chances are, there will be detours.

Choose the vehicles

The physical setup - everything from air quality and light to equipment and table arrangements - is crucial for good facilitation. All meetings benefit from room and seating arrangements that promote discussion.

The huge open square for 35 people is guaranteed to intimidate and limit debate. Rounds are perfect when large groups need to be broken up, while an open "U" works best for a group of 20 or fewer. A big, round table is perfect for 10 or fewer. If you have to work with a group of more than 20 and participants can't be in rounds, try classroom or random seating if no papers are needed.

Keeping track of progress on an overhead projector serves several purposes. It enables everyone to verify that what was heard was what was meant. It enables corrections (if you use water-based markers) as you move along. And it leaves a record of what happened.

You may need some support vehicles as well, everything from the right audiovisual equipment and the right treats for the break to the right materials. If you know that problem-solving will be an important part of the agenda, you may want to prepare worksheets that guide participants to identify the issue. Write out at least three alternatives (to avoid coming to premature conclusions) and for each, provide space to consider the positive and negative implications. A worksheet helps keep participants focused on the task.

Don't forget a key person: your scribe. Always appoint one, and not only to keep notes. The scribe is your ally, someone you turn to when you want to close off conversation ("We already covered that, didn't we?") or when someone is monopolizing the conversation ("You already have that in your notes, don't you?")

Be kind to scribes. And remember, no matter how carefully you choose your vehicles, they may prove to be the wrong ones for the road on which you find yourself. So be prepared to improvise.

Steer the course

The facilitator is the driver and the navigator and must always remain in neutral. Your most crucial assignment is getting where you want to be, using your tool kit when you get a flat. This kit must always contain the tools or techniques that offer assistance in brainstorming, starting a discussion, dealing with deadlock, activating discussion, and coping with irrelevancies.

Brainstorming techniques. Brainstorming - one of the oldest and most underused tools - brings everyone in from the start. If members of the group are throwing out more ideas than they can handle, get them to do it efficiently. Solicit one idea from each participant in turn, posting the issues. Take a few minutes to consolidate similar thoughts. When the list is complete, ask each person to select the three that most interest them for full discussion. Move through the list, asking for votes on each item. Remember, each person may vote three - but only three - times. This is a down-and-dirty way to get a fast consensus on the issues to be discussed. Key caution: The group needs to evaluate ideas, not individuals.

Starters. To get the discussion started, you may use a variety of techniques:

* Establish a quick panel of those who wish to speak to this issue. Ask general, scattershot questions such as, "What is most interesting about this issue?"

* Ask a feeling question, "How do you feel about . . .?"

* Ask triads to "buzz" in order to identify two key facets of the issue that merit more discussion, and prepare to present those to the full group.

* Begin a "stem" sentence, and ask others to finish it. "What we need to learn about this is . . ." or "We could add members to our roster if we would . . ." or anything appropriate to the situation.

Dealing with deadlock. If the group seems stuck on an issue or deadlocked in controversy, consider the following approaches.

* Recognize that this may be O.K. if there is no need to achieve consensus.

* If a decision is expected or required, play it out by suggesting that people who are faced off against each other try reversing roles and arguing the opposite side. This strategy usually liberates brand new ideas, and is a fascinating experience for those willing to try it.

* Ask the group to consider the consequences of each position.

* Use metaphors to remove some of the anxiety. For example, if the group is getting impatient because it's stuck on a point, remind them that people used to wait a week for a stagecoach whereas today people get impatient if they miss a partition in a revolving door.

* Help the opposition identify what would be needed for them to move ahead with the idea on the table. Check with proponents whether some change would be acceptable. Serve as mediator as the consensus is built. Recognize and applaud conciliatory gestures.

* Encourage a caucus. Frequently, factions need an opportunity to determine how and when to move away from a tightly held position. A caucus, called by you, removes the stigma of a cabal.

* Call a break if the idea of a caucus is too threatening or uncomfortable. This is a wonderful way of helping people cool off, talk informally, and make deals - which is what a smart facilitator wants. A break is also a great time for you to speak privately with someone who is being disruptive, arrogant, or particularly difficult. A little attention from the facilitator often tames a mean spirit.

* When you are ready to move on to another issue, leaving an unresolved issue, validate it and its champion by putting it on a flip chart sheet that you have previously posted, explained, and labeled "parking lot." Park the idea there, and get back to it - if and as time permits. In most cases, the parked item will be handled during the meeting. It could also be referred to another group or euthanized.

Activating discussion. If there is no controversy or the group is ready to come to a premature conclusion that will probably be questioned at a later date, or if the atmosphere before you became the facilitator was one where dissent was considered bad form, here's what you can do.

* Put a controversial issue on the table.

* Propose an infuriating scenario - "what if's" tend to clear the sinuses.

* Take a negative vote, the flip side of a straw vote. Ask the group, "Who hates this idea?" You will have given the group permission to dissent - watch out for the flood.

Coping with irrelevancies. If a great many irrelevancies begin to surface, you can help the person focus on the topic at hand, check the group's interest in the topic, or use the "parking lot" flip chart.

Serve as traffic cop

Meetings often serve as status arenas. It therefore falls to the facilitator to protect the weak and control the strong. Some of the people who are sure to show up at a meeting and who will definitely need attention, are the griper and professional dissenter, the rambler, the expert, the interpreter, the professors, the inarticulate, the rigid, the director, and the coroner. Here are some suggestions on how to deal with these personalities.

The griper and the professional dissenter. Ask:

* How would you improve this? How would you fix this statement so that it works for you? What would we need to change to make it acceptable to you?

* What is O.K. in this position?

* Have you had an adequate opportunity to voice your opinion?

* We have all noted your position. Who else shares this point of view?

You may find out that the dissenter represents a large constituency and was the only one with the courage to speak. Gas up and take it from there.

The rambler. This person has difficulty saying anything in fewer than 20 convoluted sentences, full of irrelevancies. Let the person speak until he or she utters a word or phrase that you can use to transition back to the issue in question and, literally, lasso that word or phrase. Then move right on to the rest of the group, starting with the word or phrase you lassoed, which validates the contribution of the rambler but prevents him or her from using precious time or disengaging the rest of the group from the issue.

The expert. An association meeting is full of these. Recognize and acknowledge the expertise, but be careful lest the self-anointed expert intimidates the rest of the group. If this happens, try to ask that person to either serve as

* a resource, and you will call on his or her opinion as the discussion progresses, or

* a special scribe during this part of the discussion, since his or her expertise will help record the salient points on this topic. Above all, don't alienate the expert.

The interpreter. This person never has an opinion, but speaks for everyone else, especially "them" and "they." Whenever this happens, put the question back to the speaker, gently but firmly asking for his or her own opinion.

The professors. They hate closure on anything, but love the debate. Professors say things like, "On the other hand . . . ." "But what if . . . ." Thank your lucky stars they are present. Professors are your spark plugs. They will even surface issues that are politically incorrect. After all, they are tenured.

The inarticulate. Many participants have a lot to say, but are reluctant to do so. They either wait for someone else to give their opinion or just don't bother for other reasons. There is a tendency to try to get these shy or inarticulate ones to speak. Resist the temptation.

Instead, ask only if they would like to add anything to the discussion. This allows a single-word answer: yes or no. If the answer is yes, it opens the way. If the answer is no, ask the person to let you know when he or she wishes to jump in, and move on.

The rigid. This person is a broken record. Here's what to do.

* Ask a rebound question: "Is there anything new you want to add?"

* Ask a ricochet question, to the full group: "Are we all pretty sure we know what Betty thinks?" Then, advise Betty that you know her position.

* Check with your scribe to be sure that Betty's opinion has been noted - and quickly go on to someone else.

The director (a.k.a. "the Donald"). This participant knows that he or she should have been the facilitator. Try any of the following:

* Invite him or her to lead a portion of the discussion.

* Ask the person to scribe, lead a subgroup, or maintain the "parking lot."

* Treat that person as any of the personalities already discussed if the description fits.

If the director attempts to lead the group to where you or they don't want to go, use a ricochet question, such as, "is this what you want to discuss now?" Trust the group and keep steering.

The coroner. There will always be someone who leaves the meeting and gives a devastating postmortem. This is also the person who keeps the telephone company happy. Don't worry. There is little you can do to impede it. Just don't become part of it by allowing yourself to get caught up in the aftermath.

Achieve the objective

At the close of the meeting, remind the group of the purpose, and let participants know how much they have accomplished. Provide a brief summary of where you began, where you went, and where you finished. Doing so leaves people feeling good about their role in the process.

In addition, always tell the members of the group what will happen next with what they did. If they've reached a decision that has to go somewhere else, tell them. If it's an idea that will be implemented, tell them by whom and when.

Always applaud their efforts.

When you know how to facilitate, you can actually control any meeting from any seat in the house by using the facilitator's tool kit, gently. Above all, be authentic. Your style is uniquely yours, and it suits you best. Enjoy the trip.

Dadie Perlov, CAE, is founder and principal of Consensus Management Group, New York City and Fairfax Station, Virginia. [C]1996 Consensus Management Group.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Perlov, Dadie
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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