IIFAC Blog

Are “meeting” and “conversation” synonymous?

Quick answer: No.

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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.

Warnings

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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Technological support for facilitators

While the primary tool for a group facilitator is his/her own, integral presence expressed through gestures, tone of voice and gaze, other technologies exist that can make our work more efficient and effective.

Here are seven tools that we have used successfully.

Planning
World Clock http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/ to find out the local time for participants in different parts of the world.

Doodle http://www.doodle.com/ to offer a range of options for the date and time for a meeting and find out the participants’ availability for each – without generating an avalanche of emails.

Time management
Time timer http://www.timetimer.com/store/category/1/timers

Timer for iPhone and iPad https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/timer-by-timeanddate.com/id478835051?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D4

Meeting software
Lucid Meetings. http://www.lucidmeetings.com/ Interface available in several languages.

Audio conferences
Skype. http://www.skype.com
Webex. http://www.webex.com

Need help deciding what facilitation- technology to use? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Why and how to say “thank you” in meetings

When people think about working in groups, they often focus on unpleasant aspects such as conflict, boredom or rampant egos. They almost never mention saying “thank you” as a memorable feature, probably because it so rarely appears on the agenda.

Common “thank you” protocols

Gratitude is typically expressed at the beginning of a work session (“Thank you all for being here today”) and after presentations, speeches or reports (“Thank you for those inspiring words,” etc.). Spoken by the group leader, these words are necessary, and omitting them would be a serious breach of protocol. But they rarely touch the heart.

In a similar way, the leader or facilitator usually says “thank you” after each person’s comment and at the end of a discussion. The main purpose of these words is to signal that the speaker or the topic under discussion is about to change.

Increasing the human dimension

If we want to introduce a little more human warmth into meetings, however, we need to create spaces where all the participants —not just the leader— can contribute to the “thanks-giving” experience,

One strategy is to include “thanks” as a topic in the agenda. Inserted after reviewing next steps and before the formal close, this is an opportunity for people to thank those whose contributions to the meeting were especially helpful, and also to colleagues and family members who made it possible for the speaker to attend the meeting.

Ideally, participants stand in a circle for the round of thanks. This allows them to see each other and also encourages them to keep their comments brief. Participation is voluntary and in no particular order. When all who want to speak have expressed their gratitude, the facilitator or the leader announces the formal close of the session.

The heartfelt words spoken in this circle can open new paths of communication and contribute to a sense of belonging within the group. People feel heard and seen. Sometimes even the boss or leader of the group receives recognition from team members that otherwise would be unlikely to occur.

Need help buiding the “human factor” into your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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How to “facilitate” a content expert

In the context of a meeting, the content experts are those who have knowledge and experience related to issues under discussion. They can be members of the group or invited guests. In either case their principal role is to share information and express their points of view.

While content experts can make valuable contributions to the group’s discussion or decision-making process, they present a special challenge for the group facilitator. Without meaning to cause harm, content experts can destroy a carefully prepared agenda by ignoring time limits set for their interventions.

Here are some steps that the facilitator can take to make content experts feel welcome and prevent them from usurping the meeting.

Before the meeting

  • Call or write the speakers to remind them of the date, time and location of the event and confirm their attendance.
  • Send a copy of the agenda, highlighting the time allotted for their presentation.
  • Ask if they plan to present any slides and/or distribute written materials.
  • In the case of written materials, find out if they will bring the copies or if the meeting organizer is to provide them. In the latter case, explain where to send the documents and the date by when they must be received.
  • If you do not already have it, request a brief (one paragraph) biography from each speaker.
  • Clarify with the meeting convener/host who will introduce the speakers. (Hint: recommend that it be the person who invited them and, presumably, knows them best.)
  • Decide with the meeting convener/host where the speakers will sit when they are not giving their presentations.
  • Plan a participatory process to engage the other members of the group in a discussion of the ideas presented.

On the day of the meeting

  • Personally greet the speakers, introducing yourself as the meeting facilitator.
  • Briefly review the room set up and schedule, answering any logistical questions.

THIS NEXT STEP IS CRUCIAL!

  • Ask how much warning they would like before their allotted speaking time is up.
  • Indicate where the timekeeper will be positioned and the cards to be used to indicate the remaining time.

Usually these precautions are sufficient to prevent content experts from exceeding their speaking time. If, however, they ignore all the warning signals and continue to talk, simply rise and move close to them. Your silent presence will remind them of their previous agreements with you and they will bring their remarks to a close.

Politely but firmly enforcing the time limits with the first speaker sends a clear message to any subsequent speakers that you are serious about keeping the agenda on track.

Finally, make sure that the meeting convener/host understands and agrees to the time limits and the strategies you will employ to get the content experts to comply with them.

In the end, effective “time management” in meetings is based on clear expectations, equitable enforcement of previous agreements and establishing trust with the convener and all participants, including the content experts.

Need help dealing with people who like to talk a lot – and the timid, silent ones? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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