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Facilitation 101


Facilitation 101

Ideas for running better meetings or hiring a facilitator

Make sure that everyone understands their roles, vary the meeting's activities, and most important, don't be swayed to change your plan.

Set clear objectives

It is far too common that meetings occur without any kind of a clear objective beyond something along lines of "we haven't met for a while, so we should meet." It is very hard to organize and manage a meeting, at least a meeting that people will find useful, around such a purpose. You need to ask yourself whether the meeting is to identify problems or solve problems; to provide information or get information. Are you looking for some level of agreement? And is agreement going to be based on consensus or on majority rule? Once you have identified your objective, it's much easier to develop an outline with activities that will lead towards that objective.

And word of caution about stating your objective in terms of consensus: Consensus is often difficult to achieve, because it implies that all the parties in the room will come together on all of the issues that you have identified. That is a tall order, and so it is easier to set your sights lower when defining your objective, and then possibly exceed your objective by the end of your meeting.

Provide a road map for participants

Participants need to know where you are going and how you are going to get there. I find it a good idea to have an agenda and the meeting's purpose posted where everyone can see it. And, on the agenda I never show times (while the client and I have a detailed timetable with hoped-for times). That way, you can adjust the meeting as you go, without participants thinking that you have lost control of the agenda.

Identify the rules of the game and control that game

You will probably want to identify the kinds of behaviors that you can expect from different participants and then to design meeting activities and rules to address those behaviours. So, if you believe there might be some people that might hijack the meeting, start with a tour-de-table for everyone to have an equal opportunity to voice their chief concerns. But, if for instance, everyone is allocated two minutes, don't let the third person get away with three minutes, because by the end of the tour, you will have lost control. It is no use proposing a series of rules of the game unless you are prepared to enforce them. And early in the meeting you and the rules will be tested. I generally place my rules of the game under the rubric of "How to get more from this meeting", and then I list a series of points such as: one person speaking at a time please; please listen to your colleagues and build on their ideas, etc. I also describe what my role is. That way, everyone knows what is expected of them.

Pace and timing

When you carve up a day-long meeting into natural segments, you will find that you only have about five hours for real work. That is not a lot of time, and so it is important that you don't try to load down the meeting with a busy agenda. Assume that everything will take as much as twice as long as you think it should, and by the end of the day you will still be on track. And you never want your meeting to go off track, because it sends a bad signal.

The morning is better for giving information and the afternoon is better for either getting information from participants or putting them in groups and getting them to chew on some issues. It is important to try to vary the activities as much as possible. It is best to have your health breaks when you feel the group is ready for them, rather than at some precise time for which the coffee and juice has been ordered.


You will have already detected part of my attitude in what you've already read: You can invite a series of individuals, all of whom are ready and prepared to work in good faith. But put them in a room together and something happens. It's about group dynamics. Groups exist to avoid work, and this work-avoidance will most often occur by either the group deferring all problems to the leader or facilitator up to the point where that person breaks, or by lowering the group tension so much that no work is done and everybody tunes out. I don't expect you to buy into this. But at your next meeting, any meeting, just watch for the different avoidance mechanisms employed by the group.

Breaking the ice

Unless your meeting is one of a series, it is worth while investing some time to get people to feel comfortable with each other. When most people are unknown to each other, I usually do this by starting with an exercise where people are divided into pairs and interview each other, and then introduce each other to the rest of the group. For a room of 20 people, this could take 45 minutes or more, but if what you want is open dialogue, it is a worthwhile investment.

Wrap-up and follow-up

At the end of the day, when everybody is tired and dragged out, it is important for the leader/facilitator to muster sufficient energy to recap what has happened during the meeting, so that people can feel some kind of closure. Usually it is good to provide notes from the meeting or some other information as a form of follow up. Participants want to know that something is going to happen after the meeting.

Hiring a facilitator

If you answer "yes" to either of these questions, you might want to consider hiring a facilitator: Do you have a particular point of view that you either want to give to the group or to argue about? Are you able to separate yourself from your issues in the meeting and not become defensive when your point of view is attacked?

There are two main values in hiring of facilitator: First, as an outsider, the facilitator frees public servants who presumably should be representing the public interest from having to pretend that they are neutral. Second, facilitators are usually better at keeping a meeting on track and on time. Their role is not to make friends or allies. It's to control the meeting so that the objectives are met. And that is not easy.

If you are going to hire facilitator, I suggest that the contract should allow for sufficient time for the facilitator to get up to speed on your issues. Sure, you can get some facilitator to just walk into a meeting and orchestrate it for the day, but when things get technical or when things get sticky, it's better to have someone who can understand at least some of the nuance. The package cost for a one-day facilitation would be in the range of $2000 to $5,000, largely depending on the amount of prep time and whether you want the facilitator to complete a post-meeting report. For the actual meeting days, facilitators will usually charge about one and one-half times their usual per diem, because by the end of the day, facilitators are usually pretty bagged.

It is best to use the facilitator to help you to design the meeting. On the flip side, you will not get as much value for a facilitator if you merely hand her your agenda. And once the meeting begins, managing the meeting must rest completely with the facilitator. If you as a client feel you want to see things handled differently, then talk with a facilitator during a break. Once the client takes over a meeting in any way, the facilitator's credibility is shot.

The best way to hire facilitator is to talk to others who might have used one and consider that person a good match to your needs. I would never hire a facilitator just because I liked their promotional material or if they had good advice on their web site.

More Information

If you would like more insights into facilitation, consider registering for the Consultations ToolBox workshop.

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