Facilitating large group meetings

Large group meetings pose particular challenges for facilitators. Any more than 12 people can exhibit all the characteristics of a big group – it doesn’t have to be hundreds of participants.

Large groups can:

  • Make it more difficult for less assertive people to participate. Not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of a large meeting;
  • Be easily dominated by a confident few;
  • Have a slower pace and lower energy than smaller groups – taking longer to reach decisions.

Preparing meetings for larger groups

Planning: Larger group meetings need more preparation and planning. Often a tight structure will be useful, however this can also be overly restrictive for the meeting. Try to strike a balance between structure and open flow.

Agenda items: Which items need to be discussed and agreed by everyone? Which can be delegated to smaller groups? Not everyone needs to discuss the exact wording of the media release, or the order of bands for the benefit gig!

Time: Allow extra time for large group meetings so that people feel that there’s been adequate discussion and an opportunity for people to express and hear all the ideas. Cutting off discussion and forcing a decision will leave lots of people feeling disempowered and frustrated.

The facilitation team: You will need a facilitation team who all know exactly what job they are doing – someone to facilitate, someone to take hands, someone to write up notes on a flip chart, maybe a separate timekeeper and a doorkeeper, someone to prepare refreshments.

Clear process: Take time at the beginning of the meeting to explain clearly how the meeting will work, what the agenda is like, how decisions are made, what guidelines there are for behaviour in meetings. Make use of flipcharts to write up the agenda, key points of the discussion, key decisions etc. Try and ensure the flipchart can be seen by everyone in the group.

Large plenaries and working in small groups

In large groups it’s sensible to consider whether you can delegate any of the issues to a smaller group. However, sometimes the issues will be so important that they have to be discussed and decided by everyone. It can also be very inspiring to have an open discussion with everyone – collectively coming to good decisions and seeing that everyone supports the agreement reached.

Large and small group processes can be combined to deal with some of the drawbacks of large meetings. Large group plenaries can be used to share information, making proposals and final decision-making. Splitting into small groups can speed up some of the discussion phases.

The advantages of breaking into small groups for discussion are that they create safer, more dynamic spaces to work in and include more people in a discussion. Small groups can each discuss different elements of a topic, covering more ground in a shorter time.

However, some people resist small group work. It requires trust to let other people go away and discuss an issue, and that trust isn’t always present, especially in groups that don’t know each other well. Some people just like having a larger audience, and feel that their ideas are so important they should be heard by everyone. Sometimes people struggle to choose between working groups.

As the facilitator, you need to offer reassurance. Explain why you want to use small groups and that there will be feedback, so everyone will get to hear and comment on what other groups discussed.