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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Stage fright: It happens to all of us!

In the same way that an actor can have a moment of stage fright before the curtain goes up, facilitators sometimes experience a similar sensation before taking our place in front of a group. Although we do not necessarily enjoy it, the truth is that pre-performance anxiety comes with the territory. The challenge is to recognize what it is and to be prepared with a few
coping strategies.

Let us first consider the positive meaning of stage fright. It is a sign that we are living beings —not robots— about to embark on a participatory process for which, by definition, we cannot predict the outcome. Even though we have done our best to plan an interactive agenda that will produce the results desired by the group and/or its leader, it is always possible that our plan will fail.

In the end, the group is in charge of its own destiny and is free to reject or radically transform our beautiful plan. ARRGH!

Faced with this level of uncertainty, a little stage fright is understandable. As long as the fear does not paralyze us completely, the adrenaline rush can be useful.

So what are the options?

In the moment

  1. Breathe. This is a good time to take a deep breath and remember why you are there. Connect your feet to the ground and give thanks for the opportunity to serve the group.
  2. Take Rescue Remedy. This mixture of five Bach flower remedies helps in any stressful situation in which you need to regain balance and get control of your anxieties.
  3. Activate your spiritual support network. Discretely invoke the images, colors or sounds that are your sources of calm and confidence, asking for their guidance in this difficult moment.

Preventative measures

  1. Establish a collaborative relation with the event organizer (your client). In conversations prior to the meeting, become familiar with the concerns and aspirations of the group. Get agreement on the agenda design well in advance, and to the extent possible, identify potential sources of resistance, conflict or other challenging situations that might arise.
  2. Establish a relationship of trust with the group. Clearly explain the parameters of the facilitator’s role and your intention to support the group’s process without intervening in the content they will work on. Ask them to help you do a good job. If a member of the group suggests ways that you could improve your performance as a facilitator, say thanks and if possible, immediately correct the error.
  3. Take classes in improvisation.

One last piece of advice

Remember this refrain from The Facilitator’s Prayer
Grant me the faith to trust the Process
Give me the love to trust the Group

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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Unmotivated people or badly planned meetings?

Our students and colleagues often ask us how to motivate people to attend meetings. If you face a “motivational problem” in meetings that you convene or facilitate, please take a few moments to ask yourself some important questions.

Recall a meeting to which you were invited and felt really motivated to attend.

What was it about the invitation that contributed to your motivation?

  • Did the topic interest you?
  • Was it clear why your presence was important?
  • Were the time and place convenient for you?

Then recall what happened when you arrived at that meeting.

What organizational and logistical elements motivated your participation?

  • Did you feel welcome?
  • Was the work plan (agenda and expected outcomes) clear?
  • Did the meeting room have natural light and good ventilation?
  • Was the coffee and refreshment table close at hand?
  • Did the session begin and end on time?

Finally, recall your degree of satisfaction at the end of the meeting.

What elements of the experience contributed to your feeling that this was a good use of your time?

  • Did you spend more time interacting with the ideas presented and the other participants than listening to speakers, or observing long, ritualistic protocols?
  • Were the results of the meeting and the next steps clearly articulated?
  • Did the meeting organizer express gratitude for the contributions of the group?

Now, apply the lessons from your own experience to the planning of the meetings that you convene or facilitate.

Personal motivation is directly related to the clarity and relevance of the initial invitation, the participatory dynamics during the event, and the usefulness of the meeting results.

IIFAC offers coaching to help organizers plan meetings that motivate participation and produce results. Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs.

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Co-facilitation: Mutual support or power struggle?

Sharing responsibility for the facilitation of a complex meeting or a large event such as a workshop or conference presents challenges and opportunities that are different from those we face when facilitating alone.

Benefits of co-facilitation

Diversity. Collaboration between facilitators of different gender, ethnicity, nationality, age, etc. sends a positive message about the value of diversity in leadership and brings a broader perspective to the group’s process.

Stress management. Long meetings can be truly exhausting for one facilitator. Rotating the facilitation duties is a good way to care for yourself and the group.

Letting go. If you tend to believe that “I have to do it all myself, or it doesn’t get done right,” practicing co-facilitation may help you break this pattern of control.

Backup. If one facilitator becomes overwhelmed, ill, injured or is called away for an emergency, the meeting can continue with the other facilitator(s).

Build confidence and capacity. Working with a more experienced facilitator, watching how they work and anticipating what you can do to make her job easier is a good way to gain confidence, especially in potentially intimidating situations, such as large or conflictive meetings.

Joy. Working in a team can be a delight!

Tips for successful co-facilitation

One leader. To simplify communication with the client or organizing committee, designate one person as the contact person and leader of the co-facilitation team.

Clarify roles/tasks. Co-facilitators should meet before the meeting to plan how they will work together. Who will facilitate first? What tasks will the others perform when not facilitating? How often will we exchange roles? What unobtrusive signals will we use to communicate our needs to each other during the meeting? If the facilitators are being paid, how will the money be divided?

Post-meeting evaluation. Get together after the meeting to discuss what went well and what could be improved in the future.

Spirit of service. Be humble. Pay attention. Serve the group well.


Do not co-facilitate with a stranger. If you do not know a proposed co-facilitator, try to observe him facilitate and establish a collegial relationship before agreeing to co-facilitate. At a minimum, meet with the person in advance to get to know more about his experience and facilitation style. Discussing roles and mutual expectations can avoid unpleasant surprises for both the two of you and the group.

Recognize rank issues. If you are a very experienced facilitator working with a relative newcomer, resist the temptation to jump in and take over. Simply serve as the assistant. If you coach the person during the meeting, do so sparingly and discretely. If you are an inexperienced facilitator, spend time as an apprentice before you try co-facilitating. Trying to learn in the heat of a large meeting will not help you or the group.

Never publicly criticize or argue with your co-facilitator during the meeting. This behavior will only serve to damage your relationship and lose the trust of the group. If necessary, talk to the facilitator at a break or quietly ask the group to take a break so you can discuss an issue.

Do not change roles too often. It is important that the group have a sense of stability and continuity during the meeting. Changing facilitators too often can be confusing, especially if their styles are very different.

This article is adapted from “The Joys and Perils of Co-Facilitation,” published in the Bonfire Collection: a complete reference guide to facilitation and change.

Need help in developing collaborative relationships with a co-facilitator? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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What can everyday meetings learn from special events – and vice versa?

As consultants in participatory processes, we have observed that many organizations plan their special events such as conferences, workshops, forums, assemblies, etc. differently than their everyday business meetings.

We wonder, “What do these two kinds of events have in common? What are the differences between them? And “What can we learn from one to strengthen the participants’ experience in the other?”

The following chart invites reflection on the success factors for participatory processes. Put a ? to indicate the presence of these elements in your events and meetings.

Success Factor

Special Event

Every day meeting

Planned in advance



Has a budget assigned



Location is chosen with care



Organizing committee in charge



Invitation directed toward a specific public



Purpose is clear and shared with all



Program designed to stimulate interest in attending



Participants have ample opportunity to contribute to the discussion



Time is allotted for each activity and time limits are respected



Someone is responsible for preparing/leading each activity



Program is outcome-oriented



Physical needs and the well being of participants are taken into consideration



Relevant information is shared in advance



Results, commitments and next steps are promptly communicated after the event



Support roles (facilitation, welcome, translators, documentation, food, etc.) are assigned or contracted



Bosses, directors, decision-makers are involved in the planning and present at the event



Final thought: All your meetings, special or everyday, deserve both careful planning and an outcome-oriented focus.

Need help improving your everyday meeting or planning a special event? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs.

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Facilitator – Not super hero, not martyr

Facilitating a participatory process is not the job of one person. Even though those who are in the role of facilitator usually stand in front of the group where we can see and be seen by all the participants, | we should not be the only ones actively supporting the group process.

Consider some of the tasks that need to be attended to in order for a meeting to go well. In your experience, which of these are clearly the job of the facilitator? (Note: If you do not usually have a facilitator, who does these tasks?)

A. Planning the agenda
B. Issuing the invitation
C. Recommending meeting room size and layout
D. Reserving the meeting room
E. Preparing material to be shared during the session
F. Arranging the chairs
G. Controlling the room temperature
H. Welcoming people as they arrive
I. Keeping track of the time during the session
J. Focusing the conversation
K. Detecting and working with conflicts
L. Seeking agreement and carrying out the decision-making process
M. Taking photos of the group
N. Cleaning up the room after the meeting
O. Editing and sharing the meeting minutes

If any one person (including the group leader) is doing all or most of these jobs, STOP! Consider the negative consequences of this approach, including the following three possibilities.

  • Diluted focus. The facilitator’s energy and attention are diluted, making him/her less effective in the key parts of the job. (Which of the activities listed above do you think are among the facilitator’s primary tasks? See our answer at the end of this article.)
  • Lack of shared ownership. When other members of the group are deprived of the opportunity to share responsibility for their own process, they tend to become passive, apathetic and/or disconnected from the needs of the group as a whole. They think of themselves merely as meeting “attendees” or ”observers,” not as active participants in a collaborative initiative.
  • Burnout. Relying only on the designated facilitator to handle all aspects of the meeting process is unsustainable. Sooner or later, the facilitator becomes exhausted, frustrated, angry. Worse yet, this facilitator feels like a failure, which in a way is true. He or she has failed to grasp that effective facilitation is a team endeavor.

ACTION: Have a conversation with your team or group about the process-related jobs that need to be done before, during and after every meeting. Ask yourselves “Who is doing these jobs now? Who else could be recruited to help? What would be the possible risks and rewards of involving more people?”

Keep in mind that the role of the facilitator is to serve the group. No heroics. No martyrdom. Just good teamwork.

Answers: We think that the facilitator’s key tasks are A, C, H, I, J, K and L. Does this match your answers? Let us know in the Blog.

Want help sorting out your role in meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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