The Truth about Facilitation Skills

The Truth about Facilitation Skills

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three lightly-edited excerpts from an article originally published in The Competent Collaborator blog of Fulcrum Connection. See Part 1, “Misconceptions about Facilitation” in the March 2016 issue of Coffee Break. Part 3, “The Benefits of Facilitation” will appear In May.

A facilitator is a process leader who partners with a task leader to design and execute a group event that meets agreed-to outcomes and deliverables. The following sources were used to identify the five key skills needed for facilitation described next:

Key facilitation skill 1: Effectively manage your own emotions to stay neutral and objective on content, and to stay energized in the facilitation role in order to guide the group toward agreed-to outcomes. Some call this emotional intelligence. This skill encompasses a wide range of capabilities such as having the self-confidence to speak in front of a large group of people, trusting the potential of a group to generate high-quality content, and to maintain self-control in the face of criticism and other negative emotions from others.

Key facilitation skill 2: Demonstrate process leadership in preparation for an event/project that is both highly cognitive and highly collaborative in nature. This skill also encompasses a wide range of capabilities such as designing applications to meet client needs, preparing time and space to support the group process, and helping to clarify the purpose and outcomes for the event/project.

Key facilitation skill 3: Practice process leadership to deliver agreed-to outcomes. This skill includes being able to think on your feet, displaying excellent interpersonal communication skills, being able to effectively manage dysfunctional behavior, and adaptability to make needed changes to the facilitation plan on the spur of the moment, and in consultation with the client. This skill also involves a wide range of capabilities such as demonstrating effective participatory communication skills, ensuring inclusiveness, evoking group creativity, and guiding the group to consensus and desired outcomes.

Key facilitation skill 4: Form an effective and complementary partnership with the event/project sponsor/leader that is also highly cognitive and highly collaborative in nature. This skill includes such capabilities as demonstrating collaborative values, clarifying mutual commitment, and developing consensus on task, deliverables, roles, and responsibilities for the event/project.

Key facilitation skill 5: Develop yourself as facilitation professional. This skill includes maintaining a base of knowledge to support your facilitation work, mastering a range of facilitation methods, maintaining your professional standing as a facilitator, acting with integrity, and practicing self-assessment and self-awareness to continually improve as a facilitation professional.

I believe that the reason there are so few professional facilitators relative to the overall population is that many of these key skills are difficult to master because they are contradictory in nature. For example, practicing process leadership when preparing for an event means being credible in the preparation and being cognitively fully engaged in the task. But it also requires being collaborative which means listening to understand and value the ideas of your collaborator(s) as much as your own, and proceeding accordingly. So you have to create a plan for the preparation, but you also have to be willing to abandon the plan, as needed, in response to the evolving collaboration and consensus that occurs during the preparation. This also applies to the facilitated event. You create a facilitation plan but need to be flexible and aware enough to adjust the plan as opportunities and challenges emerge during the course of the event.

About the author

Valerie PatrickValerie PatrickValerie Patrick, founder of Fulcrum Connection, has led over 40 highly successful and high-performance teams across over 200 organizations in the last 15 years of a 25-year career with multi-national Bayer in the areas of product development, sustainable development, and organizational change. Dr. Patrick served as sustainability coordinator for Bayer’s North America operations, Head of Bayer Material Science’s Creative Center in Future Business, and Head of Bayer Material Science’s Transportation Industry Innovations group. Dr. Patrick has B.S. (Bucknell University), M.S. (California Institute of Technology), and Ph.D. (California Institute of Technology) degrees in chemical engineering, and is a CPF (Certified Professional Facilitator) trained Creative Problem Solving facilitator, SOQ (Situational Outlook Questionnaire) Qualified Climate Practitioner, and ADKAR Change Management Practitioner. Dr. Patrick is also author of both the Competent Collaborator Blog and Quadrant II Newsletter, and is host of the Science of Success: Social Secrets Podcast. (All can be found at http://www.fulcrumconnection.com.)

Need help making the best use of time spent in meetings? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

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Misconceptions about Facilitation

Misconceptions about Facilitation

Editor´s note: This is the first in a series of three, lightly edited excerpts from an article originally published in The Competent Collaborator blog of Fulcrum Connection. Parts 2 and 3 will appear in the April and May issues of Coffee Break.

The Institute of Cultural Affairs in Belgium identified five common misconceptions about facilitation.

  1. Facilitation is another name for training. In training, information flows primarily from the trainer to the participants, while in facilitation, information flows primarily from the participants to each other and to the facilitator.
  2. Facilitation is easy. Like any professional skill, facilitation takes deliberate learning and time to understand, practice, and master.
  3. Facilitation is getting inundated with a whirlwind of ideas. Although idea generation is often a component needed in a facilitated session, facilitation is focused on delivering the outcomes necessary for a group to take informed action.
  4. Facilitation is a new buzz word. Facilitation began in 19th century France with an event called a charrette for group work focused on design and then became mainstream in 1994 with the formation of the International Association of Facilitators.
  5. Facilitation is tricks and gimmicks. The techniques of professional facilitation are grounded in science; for example, read Creative Approaches to Problem Solving by Isaksen, Dorval, and Treffinger, 2000.
  6. Certified Professional Facilitator, Geoff Ball, identifies some more misconceptions about facilitators to add to this list. See ClientAwarenessGuide.pdf

  7. A facilitator takes over the group. A facilitator complements the task leader who hires the facilitator as the process leader but it is the task leader that is in charge of the group and who has responsibility for results; in fact, the facilitator does not have credibility without the task leader’s endorsement and support.
  8. It is a sign of weakness to let someone else facilitate your meeting. The facilitator and the task leader form a collaborative partnership in which the facilitator acts as a consultant and coach to help the task leader look good, and to achieve the group outcomes needed to support long-term goals.
  9. Facilitation is “touchy-feely” like group therapy. Creativity and the willingness to learn from others are important components to facilitation. Science shows that emotion impacts both creativity and learning so awareness of emotions is part of what it takes for a facilitator to deliver agreed-to meeting outcomes.
  10. Facilitators are only involved in what happens in the meeting. As Bill Shephard points out in the Science of Success podcast, the work that the facilitator does before the meeting is the largest contributor to the success of the meeting.

About the author

Valerie PatrickValerie PatrickValerie Patrick, founder of Fulcrum Connection, has led over 40 highly successful and high-performance teams across over 200 organizations in the last 15 years of a 25-year career with multi-national Bayer in the areas of product development, sustainable development, and organizational change. Dr. Patrick served as sustainability coordinator for Bayer’s North America operations, Head of Bayer Material Science’s Creative Center in Future Business, and Head of Bayer Material Science’s Transportation Industry Innovations group. Dr. Patrick has B.S. (Bucknell University), M.S. (California Institute of Technology), and Ph.D. (California Institute of Technology) degrees in chemical engineering, and is a CPF (Certified Professional Facilitator) trained Creative Problem Solving facilitator, SOQ (Situational Outlook Questionnaire) Qualified Climate Practitioner, and ADKAR Change Management Practitioner. Dr. Patrick is also author of both the Competent Collaborator Blog and Quadrant II Newsletter, and is host of the Science of Success: Social Secrets Podcast. (All can be found at http://www.fulcrumconnection.com.)

Need help making the best use of time spent in meetings? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

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How long should a meeting last?


When someone asks me “How long should a meeting last?” the underlying question often is “How can we avoid meetings that drag on with no apparent end in sight?”

The short answer to the first question is: as long as it takes to complete the stated purpose of the meeting. (Skip to the end of this article if you want a specific time estimate.)

The short answer to the second question is: by clearly stating the purpose and expected outcome at the beginning of the meeting and ending when that result had been achieved.

Too often, meetings are called without the team leader or meeting convener having completed this crucial sentence: “By the end of this meeting we will have….”

Here are some examples of outcomes for three different meetings focused on the same issue.

“By the end of this meeting we will have…

  1. …analyzed options for improving our security system and decided on steps needed in order to make a decision at our next meeting.”
  2. …decided on the priority improvements in the security system and selected a service provider.”
  3. …reviewed the results of the changes made in the security system and decided whether additional measures need to be taken.”

Given this kind of clarity about the purpose of these meetings, the convener knows exactly who to invite (i.e., those with a direct responsibility or specialized knowledge about the issue.) And those participants arrive at the meetings fully aware of the task before them. Ideally, they have received and reviewed relevant background information ahead of time and the leader or facilitator has designed an orderly process for discussing, deciding and clarifying next steps.

And then when the objective has been achieved, the meeting is adjourned.

Unless of course someone suggests additional items for the group to address. The justification for this is usually something like, “Well, now that we are here, let´s also talk about…”


If these new issues were really urgent, they should have been included in the original agenda. Make note of them and agree to address them in a future meeting BUT NOT NOW. Do not trap the participants, who after all, have completed the task they were called to do, in a longer meeting. Everyone in the room has other things to do. Let them go, with thanks for a job well done.

While the exact duration of a meeting depends on the complexity of the issues and degree of controversy around them, as well as the effectiveness of the agenda design and the facilitation skill of the meeting leader, here is a rough estimate, based on the frequency of the meeting and the kinds of issues addressed. Download a summary of four kinds of meetings, what they might include and how long they typically last.

Need help making the best use of time spent in meetings? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

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Imagine meetings that surprise and delight

Visualize your meetings

Imagine that the participants at your meetings arrive full of curiosity about the discussion to come and leave feeling energized by the work they accomplished together.
Imagine that the conversation during the meeting is focused, dynamic and leads to new insights, clear next steps and wise decisions.
Imagine that the decisions taken are skillfully implemented and also carefully monitored and adjusted as needed.
Imagine that people want to join your team in part because the meetings are so interesting and productive.
Imagine that your meetings set a new standard of excellence that others in the organization begin to emulate.
Imagine that the organization begins to thrive in new and surprising ways because of the quality of the team leadership and collaboration displayed in its meetings.

As John Lennon reminds us, you are not the only one dreaming of these transformations. Meeting participants everywhere are acutely aware of and frustrated by the 10,000 ways their time is wasted in meetings. But too few meeting leaders dare to imagine a different reality and take the steps needed to create it.

Over the years, I have shared many tips and techniques for creating excellent meetings. (See the published books, free resources and blog posts at www.iifac.org.) Today I am inviting you to take a moment to connect with your heartfelt desires related to how you and your colleagues meet and work together.

Take a deep breath.
Slowly re-read the “Imagine” texts at the beginning of this article.
Read them out loud.
Take another deep breath.
Notice what you feel in your body when you contemplate these possibilities.
What does your heart say?
What other details would you add to the dream?

Want to talk about it? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation about your meeting related hopes, dreams and fears.

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When facilitation is not the answer

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Facilitation, understood as designing and leading a participatory group process, can have a transformative effect. In the hands of a skilled professional, a facilitated process can help a group discuss difficult issues, resolve conflicts, make sound decisions and use its time well.

Facilitation is not, however, a panacea. There are circumstances in which even the best facilitator will not be able to function effectively – and others in which it would be unethical to try.

Here are few of those situations.

  • The decision has already been made. If the intention of bringing people together is to get them to “validate” or “buy into” a plan that they had no hand in creating and that they cannot modify or contribute to, a facilitator is not needed. A persuasive salesperson would be a better investment.
  • The only venue is an auditorium. As the same word suggests, an auditorium (from the Latin audire, to hear) is for listening. The fixed seats facing a stage do not permit group members to turn and face each other, form circles, meet in small groups, or otherwise exchange ideas and work together. If there are no other spaces where true participation can occur, a facilitator is not needed. A master of ceremonies will suffice.
  • No clear purpose or desired outcomes for the meeting. A facilitator can help a leader or organizing committee clarify what they hope to accomplish by bringing a group together. This planning is essential to creating an event that justifies the time and attention of those invited to attend. But until this work has been done, it would be better to cancel or postpone the meeting and take everyone out to lunch instead.
  • A miracle is needed – now. Facilitators can help groups achieve amazing breakthroughs, transform long-standing conflicts and/or deal with complex issues, but these kinds of results cannot be delivered “on demand.” Just putting key stakeholders in the same room for an hour or two is seldom sufficient to produce miraculous results. If you cannot give the facilitator time to prepare for a challenging job or give the participants time to work together, prayer may be your best recourse.
Want to know more about why, when and how to hire a facilitator? I recently created an online course that addresses these issues. You can learn more about this information-packed, three-session learning opportunity.

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What is your policy for setting the meeting agenda?

When I ask people how the agenda is set for meetings in their organization, too often I receive responses like these:

  • Agenda? What agenda? Most of our meetings do not have an agenda, at least not one that is shared in advance with the participants.
  • The boss sets the agenda – and does most of the talking.
  • I have no idea.

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The agenda, understood as the work plan or road map for a meeting, is an essential tool for clarifying the purpose of the session, prioritizing the topics to be discussed, managing time, focusing discussion and knowing who should be in the room.

The meeting agenda —and the process for creating it— are also an indicator of the leadership style and collaborative values of the group. What may look like an innocent list of topics to discuss can also be a battlefield for power, prestige and control.

Whose agenda is it?

If the group has a formal leader, this person should have an important voice in the creation of the meeting agenda because he/she has assumed responsibility for the overall success of the team. Smart leaders, however, recognize that team meetings are opportunities to address issues that require collaborative effort; therefore, they involve the group in the development of the agenda.

The more horizontal the group’s structure, the more likely it is that the group members will expect to have a say in the creation of the agendas for their meetings. But even in these “leaderless” groups, there is usually a small cadre who step forward to develop the agenda.

In both formal and informal groups, however, the leaders tend to lament that most of the group members do not take the initiative to propose issues to discuss at the meetings. They obediently attend the sessions, but do not feel “empowered” to bring their concerns and proposals to the table.

Verbal encouragement is not enough

Tepid requests for suggestions are unlikely to transform passive meeting attendees into proactive contributors to the development of meeting agendas. Here are some suggestions that can add muscle to the good intention to make your meetings more participatory.

  1. Create a procedure that specifies when and how suggestions for agenda items can be made.
  2. Provide a standard format for the proposals that includes information about why the issue is important for the whole group to address.
  3. Define who will make the selection for each meeting and expect them to be prepared to explain the reasoning behind their choices.
  4. Publicly recognize the issues that were proposed but not included in the meeting agenda and suggest when and how they might be addressed.
  5. Treat every agenda as a proposal to be modified and accepted by the group at the beginning of the meeting.

Having a clear intention to involve group members in the creation of the agenda and procedures for submitting and selecting topics to be included can result in more productive meetings and more effective teams.

Want coaching from Beatrice for planning or facilitating your meetings?

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What to do about “conflictive” people?

In a recent workshop, “Excellent meetings at work,” this question came up: Is it valid not to invite someone because we believe s/he is conflictive or will create conflict?

The main reason to invite someone to a work meeting is that their contribution to the issue under discussion is important.

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Question for the meeting organizers: Are we willing to listen and consider the “conflictive” people’s points of view?

If the honest reply is “no” then it is better not to invite them – and be prepared to explain the reason behind this decision. Besides, we should recognize that without their participation, the group might make wrong decisions due to not having considered the interests of these people. In addition, those decisions might spark resistance, rebelliousness, or attacks from the people who were excluded from the discussion.

Question for the organizers: Is it possible that “conflictive” people could have concerns that should be considered?

Following are a few examples of dealing with “conflictive” persons in work meetings. Each example includes a question with the intention of inviting the event organizers to reflect.

Example 1. The “conflictive” person always presents the same argument in each meeting, whether it is pertinent or not. S/he takes advantage of having an audience to express their beliefs. The conflict arises when the group gets tired of listening to the same “issue” time and again, especially when it seems to be irrelevant to the points under discussion.

Question for the organizers: Have you talked to that person apart from the meeting to find out what their intention is by repeating their message – that apparently has little or nothing to do with the purpose of the meeting – and to explain why you ask they do not?

Example 2. The group itself, and/or its leaders, are afraid of conflict and they do not know what to do when it arises. Instead of embracing different opinions and exploring them with curiosity, they tend to not allow those who bring up conflict to speak.

Question for the organizers: Have you got the tools to face conflicts calmly, confidently, and creatively?

The following five steps help cool down emotions and allow group members to listen to each other:

  1. Recognize there are opposing points of view.
  2. Remind the group what the issue under discussion is, and the expected outcome of the meeting (i.e., collecting ideas, prioritizing options, making a decision, etc.).
  3. Summarize the issues that are not controversial.
  4. Point out the issues yet to be resolved.
  5. Jointly find a process to work those issues out.

There are many options for dealing with point 5, but if you cannot come up with one at the moment, you can always ask the group for suggestions, saying, “So what should we do? What are the next steps to explore these different opinions?”

IIFAC offers coaching to help facilitators cover the challenges of working with groups. Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs.

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Establishing a meeting “time budget”

Making optimal use of the group’s time is one of the critical success factors in any meeting. So how do you decide how much time to allot for each issue on the agenda?

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Keep in mind that each meeting represents a unique opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile. Agenda planning, therefore, should not be viewed as a “cookie cutter” process in which every meeting follows exactly the same process.

These guidelines are intended to provide agenda planners with a starting point for designing meetings that both satisfy the organization’s needs and leave participants feeling that their time was well used.

How much time do you have?
Start by determining the duration of the meeting. Be realistic! If you know that in your context meetings typically start 20 minutes later than the announced time, consider that when planning the agenda.

Include time for Beginning and Ending.
The issues to discuss or decide are only one part of an effective agenda. Time is also needed to open and close the meeting. Dedicating 5-10% of overall meeting time to each of these aspects can greatly enhance the success of the meeting.

Here are some examples of these elements and the purpose they serve.

Remember to add breaks.
If the meeting will last more than 90 minutes, you need to set time aside for breaks. (See: Why your meetings need breaks).

Calculate the time available for discussing and deciding.

Prioritize the issues for discussion/decision.
Make a list of topics proposed for discussion/decision in the meeting and classify them by level of urgency, controversy, complexity or other criteria relevant to the group. A matrix like this may help establish priorities.

In general, issues that are complex and/or controversial require more time for discussion and/or making a decision. Information-only items (such as reports) often take a lot of meeting time without adding much value. We recommend finding other ways to share information that is not directly related to discussions or decisions on the current agenda.

Sub-divide the time for each item for discussion or decision.
For example, if you have a total of 20 minutes available for an issue, consider the following use of that time.

If this seems like too little time to produce the desired outcome, then look for ways to reassign time from other agenda items until you have “balanced your time budget.”

Words of caution
If your meetings usually have a long list of undifferentiated agenda items (what we sometimes call the “laundry list”) with no specific outcomes identified or time limits assigned, the group is setting itself up for boredom, frustration and other forms of needless suffering. Changing these habits takes a firm commitment on the part of the meeting conveners and facilitators. Implementing the agenda-planning practices described here can have a positive effect on team morale, meeting productivity, and lead to better results for the organization and those you serve.

IIFAC offers coaching to help you plan your meeting agendas. Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs.

Related articles
Why your meetings need breaks
Take a moment for the soul to arrive
The art of closing a meeting
The “laundry list” syndrome and how to counteract it

Free resource
Guide to Excellent Meetings at Work

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Are “meeting” and “conversation” synonymous?

Quick answer: No.


Here are some typical distinctions between these two formats for human interaction.

Meeting Conversation
Formal Informal
Set time and place Spontaneous
Conference table Kitchen table
Protocol-driven Arise from shared interests
Organizational Personal
Obligatory attendance Voluntary attendance
Hierarchical Horizontal
Planned agenda Free flow of ideas
Written summary of results and next steps No written record-keeping

Note: Not every meeting or conversation exactly matches this list and sometimes the same characteristic can be found in both formats.

What might happen if we transformed meetings into what our colleague Larry Dressler calls “high quality conversations?” Could this shift improve the way we engage in group conversations, deliberation, and decision-making?

Another quick answer: Yes.

The defects and dysfunctions of most meetings are well documented (too long, too boring, too unproductive, etc.). These bad habits are deeply engrained. Fortunately, most of us have experienced the satisfactions of thought-provoking, inspiring, motivating conversations. We just do not expect them to happen in the context of a meeting. Given the opportunity to contribute to a high-quality conversation, however, we can bloom like flowers in the desert!

To bring the benefits of conversations into your next meeting, try making these changes:

  • Break the routine. Vary the meeting time and place.
  • Change the venue. Move to a more physically comfortable space that offers flexible seating arrangements, natural light and no interruptions.
  • One powerful question. Ask one important, thought-provoking question to focus the conversation (and eliminate the laundry list of other topics).
  • Explore the question from all points of view. Stay open to doubt, dissent and new ideas. Do not rush to a premature decision.
  • Avoid “false consensus”. Before making the final decision, verify the individual levels of commitment to the emerging proposal. Do not assume (or require) that everyone be equally convinced or enthusiastic about the pending decision. Taking the time to do a reality check on the degree of support for the proposal —and, if necessary, to further modify it— will improve the odds that the decision will be implemented.
  • No observers. Invite only those who have something to contribute to the conversation, especially those who will need to implement any decisions taken.

In essence, making meetings more conversational means making them more participatory which, done properly, in turn leads to a better return on the investment in bringing people together.

Need help planning your meeting agendas? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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How to be inclusive without being boring?

With the good intention of “being inclusive”, meeting organizers sometimes propose dynamics that are more boring than productive.

Some typical examples of these mistaken practices include:

  • A round of introductions in which each of the 100 participants say their names and what they expect from the event (one hour or more in total).
  • Discussions in which one participant after another is asked to express their opinion on a subject, even though many repeat what others already have said.(If there are 20 people, this could go on for 30-45 minutes.)
  • Each one of 35 experts is given five minutes to make a PowerPoint presentation in plenary (almost 3 hours in total), with no time for discussion or questions.

The error in these examples lies in the belief that requiring everyone to speak, one by one, IN PLENARY, is a show of respect that will create a feeling of belonging to the large group.

The truth is that after the first few interventions, participants stop paying attention. Although they remain seated in their places, they do not take in new information. They do not remember what colleagues have said. They get distracted and endure the situation until the seemingly interminable activity comes to an end.

As group facilitators, we have the opportunity —and the responsibility— to question these practices and propose alternatives.

Here are some options:

Introductory rounds in groups with more than 12 people

  • Introduce and integrate. Ask that only new members introduce themselves in plenary and then integrate them into small, mixed groups (veterans and new arrivals) for a discussion of a burning question to which they all contribute.
  • Move! Propose a dynamic that is performed standing, preferably with motion. For example, play music with the instruction that everyone walks randomly. When the music stops, each participant introduces himself or herself to the person who is standing closest.

Sharing opinions

  • Listen, pause, summarize. Give the floor to 4-5 people and then pause and summarize. Then ask if anyone has a different perspective from those already expressed. Repeat until no new ideas emerge. Identify the areas where there is apparent agreement and where there are divergent points of view. Work with the group to decide on the next steps.
  • Non-verbal survey of preferences. Write all the ideas under discussion in legible print on flip chart sheets. Then give participants one or more sticky dots, and ask them to affix the dot(s) next to the option(s) that they like most. (This may be done also drawing a ? instead of using the sticky dots.) Review the results in plenary and work with the group to decide the next steps.
  • Work in small groups. Ask groups of 3-6 participants to share ideas and then emit a collective opinion.

Presentations from many experts

  • Breakout session. Group the experts by topic and ask that they share their knowledge with each other and with other interested attendees in a breakout session.
  • Art Gallery. Ask the experts to prepare a summary of the main concepts they want to share (preferably with pictures) and mount them on 50 x 70 cm posters. Then the experts stand next to their posters and answer questions from the rest of the participants who tour the exhibits as if they were in an art gallery.

In summary, do not oblige participants to suffer through long, plenary sessions in which their principal contribution is to listen. A much more inclusive and productive strategy is to give people the opportunity to express their opinions in small groups, working on a subject of common interest and then merge those contributions in plenary.

Uncertain about how to eliminate boredom in your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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