Making the most of meetings so we don't have to meet again
October 7, 2008 4:08 AM   Subscribe

How do I become a better facilitator / collaborator?

I facilitate a lot of meetings between teams of technical collaborators. The majority of the teams are fairly young (under 30), and they usually have great ideas. However, they will often come up with ideas that are way too complex or way too simple. I usually have to step in and judge their ideas and redirect the conversation.

This role feels uncomfortable. I feel like a lot of times I'm squashing their ideas. A lot of times they just go with what I say, because I say it. I don't get a sense that they believe what I'm saying. So, I have to go into detail about things, and it feels like I'm lecturing a class.

To be honest, I have more experience than most of them. I can understand their perspectives, as well as the current conventional wisdom. It's my responsibly to make a good judgment. Just because something is in style, doesn't mean it's a good idea.

However, I don't want to turn them off. I just want to be a good guide. And, I absolutely don't want them to blindly accept my ideas.

How do I become an expert at facilitating collaboration? How do I get more from a group than the sum of their individual controbutions?
posted by brandnew to Human Relations (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a whiteboard?

In my experience folks are more willing to contribute if they feel they're being heard, so write any idea up, no matter how flawed or stupid. Maybe jump straight into detail on the good ones, or ask other people what they think are the pros and cons of different ideas. That way at least if you're dismissing the idea everyone really is learning from the experience, but as more a group exercise rather than a lecture.
posted by kaydo at 4:51 AM on October 7, 2008

I agree with the group exercise idea. You can lead by consciously focusing on asking questions. Letting them "evolve" the ideas themselves will stop them from feeling shut down.

The simplest way I can think of to do this is to place each suggestion on a notecard in a SWOT-like grid or a linear 1 - 10 line. You could, for example, plot ease of implementation (resource demand), ability to meet the requirement, the value of the feature to the end user, whatever. The key is that you have to ask the group where to place each notecard on the grid. They'll have to talk to each other to do that and it will become much more of a group exercise.

I like to use the conference table as the board, and grid it into quadrants with yard sticks. It makes a nice big space to work in and everyone is sitting around it, too.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:29 AM on October 7, 2008

A few things I picked up at a facilitation training at my job:
- Have a person other than you be the notetaker on a whiteboard or flipchart if you aren't already. This allows you to focus on the conversation and also allows you to check back and say "what Steve has written there, does that capture your idea?"
- Before the meeting starts, set ground rules with the group. This should be collaborative with them contributing some (such as "all cell phones on silent") and some set by you - these can include things to help shape the answers like "we want to collect ideas for saving money in the fourth quarter and these ideas should be simple enough to implement by December 31."
- Have a "parking lot" whiteboard or flip chart to record ideas that are off topic or not immediately feasable or in scope. That will help participants feel heard and likely make it easier to move forward and not get bogged down.

Are you simply the facilitator or are you also the leader/supervisor/boss? If the latter,you may want to ask a different person to facilitate. That way, you likely won't feel as if you're lecturing and there is a third party who can direct the conversation.

Sorry for going all rambly! Hope this helps!
posted by pointystick at 6:12 AM on October 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

DarlingBri's answer reminded me of the Decision Matrix which I came across in the context of Particpatory Rural Analyis — a set of techniques used to encourage participation in development processes in the under developed world. Though it comes out of a specific place many of its exercises and techniques will be applicable elsewhere. I was and art student at the time and we were using it to analyse a set of problems in creating artworks, for example.
posted by tallus at 6:13 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

on second thought, what pointystick said
posted by kaydo at 6:21 AM on October 7, 2008

Make sure your comments are of the "active listening" type-- repeat, in your own words, your understanding of any given point, end the comment with a question that demands a response-- "is that an accurate description of what you mean?" and then get the person to clarify/simplify/develop. You can bring others around the table into the discussion through this method as well.

Also, not to compare 28-yr-old professionals with a skating class of 6 yr-olds, but I have a tendency to talk too much and to use negative examples ("don't push with your toes"), so at the outset I announce these deficits and ask the class to help me overcome them. They really get into this, it makes them listen to what I'm saying (because of the novelty of being allowed to criticize the teacher). If I go on too long, they feel safe in announcing that they're bored, or if I'm too negative they make me reframe the comment. It makes the classes fun, engaging and productive. You might be able to adapt this to your situation.
posted by nax at 6:27 AM on October 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you give them the "lecturey" part of things before the meeting? Make sure people are informed about background issues before you try to collaborate together. Then, ideas that come up will be informed and potentially useful ideas -- more fun for everyone.
posted by amtho at 6:33 AM on October 7, 2008

Pointystick's comments are a good start. How to Make Meetings Work is the bible for facilitation. The authors founded Interaction Associates, which has other valuable tips for facilitation and coaching on their website.
posted by TDIpod at 7:41 AM on October 7, 2008

Some things I used to teach in group communication classes:

First it helps to have established criteria for evaluating the ideas. Do this before generating ideas, and have these criteria come from the team members. Criteria may be internally or externally imposed (such as a timeline, budget, meeting specific marketing goals, etc.). Write the criteria on the whitboard or flipchart and keep them visible throughout the meeting.

Second-generate ideas. Most group comm literature strongly recommends separating idea generation from idea evaluation. In brainstorming, the team should not be discussing the merits of ideas, just listing them, from wild and crazy to mundane. This is one of the hardest things that you, as facilitator, have to do, keeping them focused on idea generation.

Third-evaluate ideas based on your previously generated criteria. Here's where you can turn the meetings from you doing the evaluating to the team--they already have listed what criteria the ideas have to meet, now you use questions to guide them through examining/discarding ideas based on that criteria. You should try to limit your role to asking questions, rather than offering your own interpretations. So for example, you could start by saying something like, "Ok, you've stated that the project needs to be completed for a budget of $X. Which of these ideas might go over that budget?" The team can then start to eliminate/revise ideas as needed.

Hope this helps :-)
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:11 AM on October 7, 2008

Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making is the reference I use for facilitating corporate meetings -- especially for tough decisions where the answer is not immediately apparent (e.g. most product development). It can be used as a quick guide to a number of facilitation techniques or as a guide through a decision process.
posted by elmay at 10:57 AM on October 7, 2008

On Conflict and Consensus is a classic, solid resource for facilitating meetings based on consensus-based decision-making. It'll help you figure out what role you should take as a facilitator, and what roles others can take. You can adapt it however you see fit, too. Here's a little more on the process.
posted by lunit at 2:37 PM on October 7, 2008

« Older Help for a chronic hearing-aid misplacer   |   How do I return an SSL URL from a non-SSL Apache? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.