The Subtle Art of Becoming a Master of Facilitating Meetings

What makes someone a master of facilitating meetings?

When people teach others how to run effective meetings, they usually cover specific meeting techniques that can be used. Here are some of the most commons ones:

  • Allow everyone a chance to speak, and actively encourage reticent participants.
  • Use an agenda, schedule each agenda item (as opposed to just listing them), and send it out before the meeting.
  • Create a list of action items to follow up on after the meeting, with assigned persons of responsibility and deadlines.

Implementing these techniques will undoubtedly make your meetings more effective, but I feel that these recommendations miss the high-level skills that are often more subtle to articulate. The actions above will help anyone become competent at running meetings, but there is much more that is needed to become a true master at meetings.

Briefly, I discuss two skills I believe are core to any outstanding meeting facilitator. While my points may be less actionable than many of the techniques you can find online, I believe they provide a valuable framework for evaluating yourself as an effective leader during meetings. Self-awareness is the first step to personal growth!

I do not take the time to expand upon each point at length here, so be sure take the time to digest each point.

Facilitation

To run an outstanding meeting, you must be an outstanding facilitator of discussion. The skills involved in being an outstanding facilitator include:

  1. Controlling the level and detail of discussion. For example, don’t discuss logistics when discussing strategy and vision, and vice versa. Doing so will waste time and the meeting will lose focus.
  2. Controlling the time given for a discussion. Allow ample time for discussion, but cut it off and make a decision when needed. You cannot wait for unanimity, and you certainly cannot make everyone happy. If a decision can’t be made, determine concrete action items to be done before a decision can be made and move on.
  3. Controlling the scope of the discussion. Take on one item at a time, come to some sort of actionable conclusion, and then move on to the next item. Don’t allow the discussion to stray off course. New discussion items can be added to the bottom of the agenda.
  4. Breaking down what is said into its core message by repeating the essence when needed. People can be verbose and roundabout when speaking, and it often obscures their argument to the rest of the group, and even to themselves. Paring their thoughts down to the essential and rephrasing them to directly address what has been said will ensure that the discussion makes progress.
  5. Pointing out logical fallacies when you hear them. Ad hominem, straw mans, and appeals to majority are especially common and undesirable. Understand proper argumentation to ensure that your decisions are based on facts.
  6. Being open-minded by encouraging and incorporating feedback. Allow everyone to share their thoughts, give each careful consideration, and push ahead with the best ones. You don’t even have to have the majority on your side – just make sure everyone feels that their voice was heard.
  7. Guiding the outcome of the meeting, rather than directing it. You need your team to be invested in the decision-making process, so that they will be committed to the ultimate outcome.

Knowing your desired outcome

No one ever consistently accomplishes anything great without setting his or her intentions and desired outcomes. This will also help you keep your meeting on track and on time. Running a highly effective meeting requires:

  1. Knowing exactly why you are having the meeting and what you want to get out of it. You must know exactly why every single agenda item is on there. What do you want to accomplish by the end of the meeting?
  2. Knowing exactly why every attendee must be there. If you value people’s time, they will value yours.
  3. Never holding a meeting for the sake of holding a meeting. This will be the death of your team’s morale and productivity. If you have a weekly meeting planned, but there isn’t much to discuss, just cancel the meeting!

Running an effective meeting is a subtle and nuanced art requiring a high level of social awareness and focus throughout the discussion. In my opinion, mastery of these skills is very difficult and few people have attained it. If you want to improve yourself, pay close attention during discussions and try to get a high-level feel for the direction, scope, and level of the discussion without getting bogged down in what is actually being said. Develop an intuition for guiding and facilitating discussion by leading meetings and then self-reflecting afterward.