You're the staff liaison to a committee or the board and the chairperson is running a pretty ineffective meeting. You sense other participants are restless, side conversations are occurring more frequently, and the quality of the overall discussion is declining rapidly. What should you do?
This is one of the most frequent questions I am asked in the facilitation training workshops I lead. It's one thing to decide what to do in the moment; it's quite another to try to avoid having the situation develop at all. Let's take the latter first.
Organizations must ensure that everyone who facilitates has the skills to do so.
This applies to both staff members and volunteers leading committee, team, or board, meetings, as well as individuals leading workshops at conventions. Time and attention are precious resources. Poorly designed or ineffectively facilitated meetings, conference calls, or workshops waste both. Every organization should provide virtual, hybrid, or in-person training training opportunities on an ongoing basis to boost the capacity and confidence of anyone who will be facilitating others.
Regardless of the training that your association or company might offer, one of the many topics you need to discuss as a liaison to a committee or board chair is how you can support him/her during meetings and how you should intervene when you think something is amiss. Part of that conversation could also explore how prepared the individual feels overall to do the facilitation work the position entails and what skills gaps you might be able to help address. The obvious, but important goal is to work behind the scenes in advance to do and discuss everything necessary to set the chair up to succeed in the facilitation environment.
And now for the more challenging situation.
During a meeting or call where you feel the need to intervene, remember one of the core concepts of effective facilitation: provide leadership, but with restraint. Whatever action you take to help move the discussion and the group forward must not embarrass the chairperson who is in the primary facilitation role. If you can't wait until a break to speak with that individual privately about how the meeting is going, here's a simple phrase that might allow you to help redirect the conversations in a supportive way:
I wonder if _______________________
(people feel we are ready to reach a decision, need to take a break, have discussed this topic enough, are considering all of the key perspectives, are all engaged in one conversation, etc.)
By simply prefacing your observation with "I wonder if ... " you've made it easy for the chair or others in the meeting to offer a contrary opinion, as well as those who might share your perspective to concur. Similar phrasing is to state what you are experiencing (your observation) and then check to see if others share it and/or state what you need to better engage: "I'm finding myself getting a bit lost in the discussion right now. I'm wondering if that's true for others. I would benefit from a quick summary of the major issues we've identified already."
When we find ourselves in situations where we think a shift in the conversation might help with the group's work, we want to use non-threatening language that helps surface what might be occurring, but going less noticed by the designated facilitator. This is true whether you be the staff liasion trying to support the meeting chair, a participant in a session led by a professional facilitator, or someone attending a team meeting with your colleagues.
Remember, anyone can and everyone should make facilitative contributions. The observation you share might just be the first domino that leads to a cascade of improvements in the quality of the conversation.
Every Friday in 2012, I post information and insights about effective facilitation, sharing some of the content and thinking I provide in the one-day and half-day facilitation workshops that groups often engage me to present. You can find previous posts by searching for the tag: facilitationfriday.
I'm current scheduling 2013 opportunities to lead half-day or full-day workshops on The Art of Facilitation: Maximizing Results and Individuals' Contributions. Sessions feature content customized to meet the needs of your participants and are highly interactive in nature. I often present them at volunteer leadership conferences, as staff or board training sessions, at conventions as a pre-conference or as part of the main program, or as open registration programs that one or more groups sponsor for members. They can be complemented by pre- or post-workshop webinars. If you'd like to discuss the possibilities for your group, please complete this simple form.