Taking the LEAP into Better Meeting Facilitation

By Natasha Dresner

Is running meetings part of your professional or volunteer role?

A number of weeks ago, I had the privilege to spend two days training and learning from a group of nonprofit board chairs and vice chairs, one of whose key responsibilities is to run meetings. This gathering was the first of three face-to-face meetings this cohort will have this year as part of LEAP (Leadership Engagement and Advancement Program) – a training initiative offered by the JCamp 180 Program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam, MA.

I’d like to offer you a few of the many lessons we learned together, which will enhance your ability to run productive meetings. Whether it’s a board meeting, staff meeting, or any other type of gathering, the success of your meeting lies in your ability to facilitate it. Facilitation is a skill that requires a lot of juggling: leading the room, listening to people, interpreting information, making decisions on the spot, accounting for different learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic), different thinking and speaking styles (extroverts vs. introverts), different agendas and perceptions, identifying hurdles, helping the group get unstuck and move forward, etc., etc., etc.

While I can write a whole separate article (and perhaps I should) going deeper into each and every one of the “juggling balls” of facilitation, I’d like to share with you the two facilitation tools the LEAP group discussed and used:

1. Tool 1: Before you go into the substance of the meeting, ask the group for permission to facilitate, explaining what that means. Here is language I use “…Before we continue, I’d like to ask for your permission to facilitate this meeting, which means relinquishing control of running this meeting to me. I may need to stop or redirect the conversation to keep us productive and on time, etc. Do I have your permission?” What that does is clarify my role as a facilitator quickly and timely with the group’s explicit permission for and trust in me to do my job.

2. Tool 2: This tool goes by many names – Ground Rules, Rules or Engagement, Covenant… The bottom line is, whatever you call it, it is a set of rules and behaviors, established early on in the meeting, by which your group agrees to abide while together. What it does is manage expectations of all involved and gives the facilitator a tool to hold everyone in the room, including herself, accountable to ensure the group is successful and achieves its goals for the meeting. Here is the list of ground rules the LEAP group discussed when we talked about effective Board meetings:

  • Be on time – How many of us wish we could start our meetings on time? Having this rule creates an expectation for people to be on time, which in reality means being early.
  • Be prepared – come to the meeting prepared to use your own and everyone else’s time well. How frustrating and unproductive is it when during the meeting you realize that the person asking the questions clearly didn’t read the supporting materials?
  • Be engaged – don’t just come to the meeting to sit there or to play Candy Crush under the table. Give your full attention, listening, and participation, and expect the same from others.
  • Be brief – so as not to dominate the discussion and allow others the opportunity to speak.
  • Be respectful – of each other, of time, of differences of opinions. This ground rule encompasses any and all of the behaviors that are generally considered or could be perceived as disrespectful – from being late to raising your voice at someone. But let’s be clear, being respectful is not synonymous with nice or nonconfrontational – in other words, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
  • Be generous – in every way. With your expertise, ideas, resources, connections,
  • Be creative – think outside the box, question the way things have always been done
  • Be honest – don’t be afraid to utter an unpopular opinion or question if it serves the best interests of the organization. Just remember that how you say it matters.
  • Be accountable – if you take something on, make sure to deliver, and don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
  • Dont take yourself too seriously – as hard as it may be for some of us to fathom, it is not about us. It is about the organization and the mission and people it serves. When we remember that and don’t take ourselves too seriously, we make better, more responsible decisions.
  • Confidentiality – this rule helps people open up and, when followed by the participants, contributes to building trust amongst them. It doesn’t mean everything at the meeting needs to be confidential – only if a group member asks for it.

There are, of course, other ground rules you can use to make your meetings productive. Ground rules exist to ensure that the values and culture of your organization are reflected in the culture of your meetings and, if you reverse engineer, they can help you offset participants’ unproductive behaviors. The LEAP Board Chairs and Vice Chairs, for example, did an exercise to consider what challenging behaviors they have on their boards and during their meetings, and what ground rules could help them better manage those behaviors. The group then discussed the importance of keeping themselves and others accountable to these rules; otherwise, it sets a really bad precedent and renders those ground rules useless.

So, with these suggestions, I hope you are now ready to take the leap into facilitating more productive meetings.

Natasha Dresner is an organizational development consultant and mentor with JCamp180, the program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Agawam. She can be reached at Natasha@hgf.org

An earlier version of this article was published in The Berkshire Eagle; reprinted with permission.