Facilitating a meeting – beginning to end

This section gives an overview of the tasks a facilitator may need to undertake in a meeting. Every meeting is different. Not all the points mentioned may be appropriate – use your own judgement and innovation. Whilst it’s important that these tasks happen, it doesn’t have to be the facilitator that does them all! Draw on volunteers in the group to help with the facilitation. Make sure that the goals of the group and members’ expectations of the facilitator are clear to everyone. This allows the appropriate use of tools and suggestions.

1) Preparing the meeting

  1. Prepare an effective agenda (see example below).
  2. Ensure everyone is informed about time, place and content of the meeting. Send out pre-meeting materials if necessary. Don’t just rely on email, unless you know everyone has internet access and uses it regularly.
  3. Consider physical arrangements such as temperature, air quality, ability to hear and see. Think about any special needs people might have and how to cater for them. Arrange the seating in an inclusive way – some groups find circles are best because they allow everyone to see each other, while other groups prefer rows so that people can seat themselves according to how committed they feel to the group. In the case of rows, many groups find a V formation useful, like sergeant’s stripes with the point away from the front.
  4. Gather materials needed for the meeting, e.g. watch, pens, marker pens, flipcharts, written presentations and proposals.
  5. Find a co-facilitator who can take over in an emergency, if the main facilitator tires or wants to participate more actively in the discussion.

The meeting agenda

A well structured agenda is vital for a good meeting. The facilitator can help the group draw up agendas that are focussed on the aims of the meeting and are realistic. Remember: if the meeting is only an hour long, there should only be an hour’s worth of items on the agenda!

You can either draw up the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, or better still prepare a proposed agenda in advance. It’s important that everyone gets a chance to have an input and that the agenda is agreed by everyone.

To create an agenda first agree the aims for the meeting and then collect agenda items from the group, preferably in advance. Estimate the time needed for each item. Think about priorities for this meeting – what could be tackled another time or in separate working groups? Think about effective tools for controversial topics. Deal with difficult items after the group has warmed up but before it is tired. Alternate short and long items. How should the meeting start and end? Plan in breaks, especially for meetings longer than 90 minutes. Plan in an evaluation of the meeting near the end so you can learn for next time.

Write up the proposed agenda where everyone will be able to see it (on a whiteboard or flipchart, for example) or make copies to give to everyone. This will be helpful during the meeting as well as democratising the process of agenda formation.

Ask yourself what you can cut from the agenda, or trim down if anything runs over your proposed time. Have some suggestions up your sleeve.

Sample meeting agenda for the
Stop Newton Bypass Campaign

Start 7.30pm

  • Introductions (10min)
  • Short summary of the campaign (5min)
  • Report back from working groups: media, finance, research, stalls (20min)
  • Should we meet with the planners? Questions to ask (30min)
  • Break (20min)
  • Xmas do – when and where (10min)
  • Organising more stalls/leafleting (30min)
  • Next meetings (5min)
  • Any other business (10min)
  • Evaluation (10min)

End 9.30pm

2) Getting the meeting off to a good start

A good start is to introduce yourself and explain the role of the facilitator(s).

Have an introductory activity. What you do really depends on the group. It might be a formal icebreaker or a few minutes chat – whatever you do make sure you don’t alienate anyone, especially newcomers to the meeting. If people don’t know each other or there are newcomers to the group, get everyone to introduce themselves – really important for welcoming new people. Encourage people to share more than just their names. You could ask everyone to state in a couple of sentences why they are here, or to share an interesting skill they have (e.g. “I can compose poetry in Mongolian”). Or ask for their favourite colour, food etc. If there are too many people this could be done in smaller groups.

Set the boundaries of the meeting: explain the time frame, subject, aims of meeting, the process for making decisions, the responsibilities of the facilitator and what you aim to do. Agree with the group what behaviour is acceptable/not acceptable in the meeting (e.g. one person speaking at a time, non-sexist/racist language, no dominating/threatening behaviour). This might be something that is agreed for a series of meetings, or unique to a particular meeting. It can be useful to have the group agreement, as it’s sometimes called, on display to remind people of what the group agreed on.

group of people sitting in a circle, one writes on a flipchart

Explain the proposed agenda, then ask for comments and make necessary changes. Be careful not to spend half the meeting discussing which item should go where – if necessary be firm. Allocate time for each item and set a realistic finishing time. Keep to this. If using consensus decision making make allowance for extra time to go deeper into the issue if necessary.

Ensure roles such as notetaker, timekeeper and vibes-watcher are covered.

3) During the meeting

Go through the agenda item by item. Keep the group focussed on one item at a time until a decision has been reached, even if that decision is to shelve it for some other time.

Use short items, fun items, announcements and breaks throughout the agenda to provide rest and relief from the more taxing items.

Make sure that decisions on action steps include what, how, who, when and where. Ensure any action points are noted down along with who will do them and the deadline.

If new items come up in the discussion make sure they get noted down to be dealt with later. You could choose to use a parking space.

Invite and move forward discussion. Clarify proposals that are put forward. State and restate the position of the meeting as it appears to be emerging until agreement is reached.

Introduce tools such as ideastorming options, forming small groups for discussion, delegating to working groups, and go-rounds, to make the meeting more efficient and participatory.

Regulate the flow of discussion by calling on speakers in an appropriate order. Often this will be as they indicate they want to speak. Sometimes you may ask more vocal people to hold back from speaking in order to let others have their say.

Help everyone to participate – draw out quiet people, limit over-talking, don’t let anyone dominate the discussion. Use tools such as talking sticks or breaking into small groups to equalise participation and to create a safe atmosphere for expressing opinions and feelings.

Check on the overall feeling of the group throughout the meeting – check energy levels, interest in the subject, whether the aims are being fulfilled, whether the structure is appropriate (large or small groups) and time.

Be positive: use affirmation and appreciation, and comment on special contributions of members and accomplishments of the group. Be even-handed and don’t just affirm a few individuals.

In tense or tiring situations try humour, affirmation, games, changing seats, silence, taking a break etc. Some groups might rebel at the suggestion of “wasting time” on a game, but will welcome a stretch break or informal hilarity.

Challenge put-downs and discriminatory remarks.

4) Ending the meeting

Make sure a time and place for the next meeting has been agreed and that people leave their contact details if they want to be updated or receive minutes for the meeting. Do this before people start leaving.

Sum up, remind people of what they’re committed to doing before the next meeting, and provide some satisfying closure to the meeting.

Check that someone has taken responsibility for writing up and circulating the minutes or notes in the next few days.