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What is a "facilitated" meeting?

Updated: 5 days ago


A colleague asked me if managing a typical meeting agenda that included presentations, Q&A, and group discussions meant that she was "facilitating" her meetings. Because "facilitate" means "make a process easier," the answer depends on her goals for the meeting. If she wanted to ensure people received and understood new information (teaching), a traditional presentation format would work. Such a format would not make it easier, however, to create an engaging, cooperative dialog where people learn together as they build a sense of belonging.


Learning together is essential to doing well together; it's a social act and comes from conversation that personalizes new information. But in most meetings, information flows in one direction (presentation), and the dialog (Q&A) is about clarifying the information rather than understanding what it means in our lives. Simply, a traditional meeting format feels very different than an informal conversation between colleagues around the water cooler, where people speak authentically to process what they heard at a meeting.


To facilitate authentic sharing and empathetic understanding, we need to bring the water cooler conversation into the meeting room. The first step is to skip the typical ice-breakers ("You were a champion ping-pong player as a kid?!") and ask questions that reveal what really matters to people about the issue: "Why is it important for you to be here today?" or "What do you intend to get from this meeting?" Later you might ask, "How have you contributed to this problem?" or "What doubts and reservations do you have about this conversation?" These questions help people say it like they live it.


The second step is to restructure the room. Standing in the kitchenette, people talk intimately in small groups. At your meetings, break people into groups of three and ask them to lean into circle and listen with curiosity; give them 10 minutes to answer the question. The structure itself builds authenticity, cooperation, and understanding. When you return to one conversation, rather than get a series of reports, ask, "What struck you about that conversation (what was most memorable)?" to get vibrant group insights rather than an individual's knee-jerk reactions that typify a dialog around the table.


Furthermore, people talk about real stuff around the water cooler, so during your meetings ask people to share a story of a lived experience of the issue. Real-life stories not only personalize the dialog, but they convey the unique contexts, relationship issues, and cascading impacts of the issue on various lives. With stories, people see and feel the problem, which evokes the compassion and creativity of their subconscious minds. In addition to using small groups, create conversation during whole group debrief by asking people who speak to call on one of their peers for the next comment.


Finally, at the water people, people will often say "Good talking to you about that -- I was going to burst during the meeting!" Bring that into your agenda by asking people to reflect on the meeting as a final step -- not what they will do next because of the meeting, but what the meeting meant to them. This reconnects people after working through the tension of the problem.


If you just want to deliver clear information, don't worry about all this—traditional meeting facilitation will work fine. But if you want to build high-trust teams that can work and learn cooperatively together, start practicing these strategies.


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