Facilitating and chairing meetings

  • July 17, 2019
  • Paul Godin

Sometimes, we are called upon to facilitate or chair meetings that do not have settlement or resolution of conflicts as their purpose. They are not deal-making sessions or traditional mediations. Nevertheless, if such meetings are handled badly or sub-optimally, we may end up creating new and larger conflicts. If managed well, such meetings can be productive, engaging, and minimize negative escalation.

Examples of such meetings include:

  • Town Halls or meetings for sharing and/or distributing information
  • Consultation processes with stakeholders (e.g. government, property developers)
  • Board meetings
  • Team meetings

Know thy purpose

Whatever the title given to the meeting is, you need to identify and understand the core purpose of the meeting and your role in it if you are the facilitator. If you are not the one defining those points, you need to get clear answers from the clients/leaders that have set up the meeting. They need to be clear on the compass for the meeting, and they may not have clearly defined those goals themselves.

  • What is the purpose of the meeting?
  • What is my role and mandate in that meeting?
  • What do you need me to do? Are there things I should not be doing?

Everything that you and the other meeting planners do should be guided by that core purpose and any related goals that you identify. Plan the meeting structure and facilitation to achieve that core purpose.

Mediation skills and processes can still be used and useful, but should be adapted appropriately to the purpose at hand. Brainstorming ideas, for example, might fit well into some meetings, but be inappropriate in others. You can’t describe yourself as a pure “neutral” to participants, if you were hired by a company to manage the meeting to achieve their agenda and goals. If time is tight, and the primary purpose is to deliver and explain a key message, dialogue may have no place in the meeting (though good planners may recognize that incorporating dialogue and feedback somehow may assist that purpose).

Planning tips

Some key questions should be considered in advance of such meetings by the facilitator and organizers.

  1. What is your purpose for the meeting? What are the key goals in terms of what you want to achieve?
  2. Who are the participants? How many? Who should or should not be there?
  3. What are the likely key goals of participants in the meeting? Can those be aligned with your goals, or otherwise managed?
  4. What are the concerns you have for the meeting (e.g., angry disruptive voices)? Are there any thoughts on how to manage those concerns?
  5. How should the meeting agenda and physical layout be structured to achieve those goals? What timing is needed to do a proper job?
  6. What information needs to be shared between you and participants in order to achieve your desired goals? How can you best do that in a meaningful and effective way (ideally even before the meeting)?
  7. How can you capture participant thoughts at the meeting, even if they can’t be dealt with directly or fully in the session? It helps to ask speakers during Q&A sessions to identify at the start of their contribution whether they are presenting a question, goal, comment, idea, and/or concern. Knowing what is coming helps everyone listen more effectively, and helps participants structure their thoughts. It also helps organizers track the incoming information better.
  8. Is there background information that will help me as a facilitator? Get that information in advance.
  9. Consider how can you set the tone that you want at the meeting?
  10. What audio-visual equipment is needed? Will people be able to hear one another?
  11. Do you need to identify individuals from the meeting? How will you do that and capture their contact information if desired (sign-in sheet; podium sign-up)? Are there confidentiality issues in asking participants to identify themselves?
  12.  How will audience members be able to follow up with the organizers? Do you want to post primary contact routes on the venue wall or on a slide presentation or on a handout/agenda?
  13. What are the agenda items? Draft the agenda and circulate it to key stakeholders for review, comments and amendments before finalizing and recirculating it.

Proper preparation, guided by a clear understanding of the meeting goals, will produce more satisfying meetings and better results. The target is not perfection, but improved effectiveness. A town hall meeting on a controversial issue will likely never be perfect. Tense moments and flare-ups may still occur, but the overall session can be more productive and less adversarial than would otherwise occur.

Paul Godin is President & Principal of Katalyst Resolutions, a mediator for sports, legal, commercial, family, and other conflicts. He is also a Member-At-Large on the ADR Section executive.