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.

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.


  • 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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How to get participants back in the room after a break?

IIFAC facilitators are firmly committed to the importance of breaks during meetings. (See April Coffee Break, Why your meetings need breaks.) We also recognize that getting participants back in the room after a break can be a challenge. Here are some strategies to consider.

1. Clarify the expectation. At the beginning of the session, propose the ground rule “Return on time after the breaks.” Explain that the purpose of this agreement is to

  • Optimize the use of the group´s time
  • Benefit from each person´s presence in the room

Verify that the participants are willing to respect this agreement. People generally will say yes, whether they mean it or not. Then ask, “Is there anyone who knows that he/she will not be able to return promptly (or not return at all) after the breaks because of other commitments?” If anyone admits that they might not return on time, ask the whole group if they are willing to make an exception for this person. Again, it is unlikely that anyone will object. Finally, thank the person for letting the group know and ask them to return as soon as possible. This quick process sends a clear message about the importance of post-break punctuality, while recognizing individual circumstances.

2. Announce exactly how long the break will last. Before participants leave the room, specify the exact time that the group process will resume. Be specific. Write the time in the agenda or some other visible place. Repeat three times, loudly.

3. Mention what will happen immediately after the break. Referring to what comes next on the agenda reminds people why they are meeting and the importance of moving forward together.

4. Give a three-minute warning. The facilitator or helpers should walk around the areas where people are taking their break and remind them that the next session is about to begin. Ringing a bell or other instrument can help.

5. Offer incentives. Promise a prize to the tables that have all of their members seated and ready to work at the established time. (Obviously, this strategy only works in situations where participants are seated at tables.) Distribute chocolates or caramels to the winners and then get started.

6. Impose sanctions. Some groups require that the last person to enter must sing a song. Variations include tell a joke or pay a fine. The threat of this public humiliation is enough to get most people back on time. (Note: Ana has used this strategy to good effect. Bea finds it to be insulting and more of a distraction than a help and does not use it. Be sure to consider both the culture of the group and your own willingness to enforce this norm before proposing it.)

Need help with time managment in your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Coffee break snacks: More important than you think!

We have written in the past about the importance of scheduling breaks during meetings. Now we want to go a step further to investigate what is on the table beside the coffee pot and hot water for tea.

Sometimes the answer is, nothing!

Often the only food offered is a box of inexpensive cookies or a bag of donuts, high in calories and low in nutritional value.

Clearly, no one has put much thought into how the presence or absence of snacks can affect the productivity and good will of meeting participants.

Sharing food is a way that human beings say “Welcome”, “We value your presence” and, in the case of meetings, “We need you to be focused and alert, so we have provided some treats to fuel your mind and body.”

We must remember that food and water are basic human needs. When these are neglected, people can become quarrelsome, impatient, uncooperative and unable to think clearly.

Another factor in the “food equation” is the diversity of individual food preferences and requirements of meeting participants. Vegetarian? Vegan? Kosher? No salt? Dairy free? Nut allergies? Gluten free? No sugar? Organic? Locally grown?

And remember, we are only talking about the refreshments served during the breaks, not the main meals!

Here some suggestions for turning the snack table into a source of positive energy for the group:

  • Offer a variety of beverages, including
    • Regular and decaf coffee
    • Black, green and herbal teas
    • Milk and non-dairy creamer
    • Water
    • Fruit juice
  • Offer a variety of snacks, such as
    • Energy bars
    • Fresh or dry fruit
    • Raw vegetables (depending on the time of day)
    • Nuts
    • Popcorn
    • Hard boiled eggs

For special occasions, consider these options

  • Local specialties, preferably not laden with sugar
  • Home-made treats prepared by meeting participants
  • Chocolate!

Key message: Put some thought into the snacks offered at your meetings. Poll the attendees about their preferences and dietary needs. Vary the selection to surprise and delight your participants.

What are the refreshments you love (or hate) to see on the Coffee Break table?

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

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Are your large meetings and conferences trapped in the middle ages?

Consider the language we use to name the elements of most large meetings:

  • Dignitaries on a podium (raised platform) in the front of an auditorium
  • Plenary sessions that everyone is expected to attend
  • Agendas packed with speakers

“Podium, ” “auditorium, ” “plenary,” and “agenda” are words with Latin roots that come to us from the European academic and religious institutions of the late Middle Ages.

Embedded in these ancient words and practices is a hierarchical, one-way communication model that no long serves the needs of contemporary organizations. In today´s world there is no justification for bringing people together, subjecting them to lectures from the front of the room and then expecting learning or change to take place.

Nevertheless, otherwise intelligent people, charged with the responsibility of organizing large face-to-face meetings, still default to the medieval model.

To transform today´s meetings and conferences we need to focus less attention on the podium in the front of the room and think seriously about the sea of people seated in the audience. In fact, we must stop thinking of them as “audience” (those who listen) and consider ways to convert them into active participants in the discussion.

We need to stop accepting a 10-minute question and answer session at the end of a long speech as a substitute for meaningful interaction with speakers and their ideas.

We must recognize that a standard panel discussion only engages the panelists, relegating everyone else to the category of passive listeners.

We need to question the usefulness of meeting in a space where the chairs are bolted to the floor, making it impossible to create small groups.

We should explore ways to integrate technologies such as keyboards and tablets into the proceedings, using them to generate ideas or document results.

We should look carefully at highly interactive methods such as World Café and Open Space as ways to stimulate meaningful conversations and dynamic interactions among those present.

With a deep bow of respect to the past, we need to bring our meeting practices into the 21st century.

Need help updating your large meeting or conference design? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Boredom: The tragic result of poor meeting planning

We believe that meetings should be meaningful, dynamic, interesting, engaging, productive – or cancelled. Too often, however, everyday business meetings are neither interesting nor cancelled, they are BORING.

Too many people have come to accept boredom in meetings as an inevitable fact of organizational life. For IIFAC facilitators, boredom is the business equivalent of a medical emergency. Immediate, effective action is called for! The group is suffering a life-threatening loss of time, energy and enthusiasm!

Hold yourself to a higher standard of performance

If you are the person convening the meeting,

  • Insist that each meeting have a clearly defined purpose.
  • Ensure that those invited understand what that purpose is and why you need them there.
  • Limit agenda items to issues directly related to the meeting purpose.
  • Define expected outcomes, responsibilities, and next steps.
  • End on time – or early!

Notice the verbs in the above list: Insist, ensure, limit, define, end. They are actions, not vague intentions. They show respect for the colleagues you are calling together and promise to use their time productively.

Break the mold

Other strategies for declaring an end to “business as usual” meetings:

  • Vary the time and place for the meetings.
  • Close the door at the announced starting time and do not allow latecomers to enter.
  • Eliminate chairs and tables in meetings billed as “quick check in”.
  • Use a countdown clock to measure elapsed time. Stop when it runs out.
  • Post the agenda on the wall and stick to it.
  • Do not allow anyone to speak twice on an issue until all have had the opportunity to speak once.
  • When arguments begin to recycle, stop the discussion and ask for proposed solutions.

Next month we will share more tips on how to make your meetings more productive. Meanwhile, tell us what bold measures you have taken to keep participants engaged.

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

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The art of closing a meeting

To conclude this cycle of articles that has been focused on the human factor in meetings, we want to reflect on a meeting moment that everyone eagerly awaits but often no one has planned for very well: the closing.

Closings can be formal, ceremonial, creative, extended or brief, but above all they must transmit a very clear signal that the event is over and the participants are free to leave.

Not planning the closing activities carefully and/or not respecting the specified time for ending are lost opportunities. The group loses the chance to pause and recognize the significance of what they have accomplished together. The meeting convener loses the opportunity to be warmly appreciated by the group. Instead, the participants feel trapped, frustrated and embarrassed as they try to slip away unnoticed. And the facilitator is silently wondering, “Where did I go wrong?”

Keys to creating satisfactory closings

  • Discuss the convener´s expectations about the closing when you begin planning the event.
  • Clarify the difference between closing activities and the moment when people can leave without apologizing.
  • Include “closing activities” and “closing time for the entire event” as part of the agenda.
  • Review the time set for closing at the beginning of the meeting.
  • If for any reason the closing time is modified, announce the change and mark it on the public, written agenda.
  • Respect the agreed-upon closing time.

How to conduct a simple, ceremonial closing

  • If you have run out of time with a with a group of 30 or fewer participants:
    • Invite everyone to stand in a circle and then, as the facilitator, look around the circle and simply say “thank you.”
    • Or form the circle and then make a silent gesture of thanks.
  • If you have a few minutes to spare:
    • Make a circle and ask each person to “check out” with one word that describes “How am I feeling now, as I leave?” or “What am I taking away from this meeting?
  • Avoid the temptation to enter into more discussion about what is said.

What about closing speeches?

In more formal events, the organizers often want to summarize the conclusions produced during the meeting or ask the authorities to “say a few words.” These situations easily lead to long, pointless speeches that cause participants to head for the door. To prevent this scenario, during the agenda-planning phase, propose ways to make the closing meaningful to all those present, not just those in the front of the room.

If you lose this argument, assign a time limit for the closing speakers and before the event, explain to each of them the importance of respecting these limits in order to close at the agreed-upon hour. Then politely but firmly enforce those time limits. The group will be grateful!

Remember, from the point of view of the participants, the closing is often one of the most eagerly awaited moments in the meeting. (Breaks are another.) If people do you the honor of attending, reciprocate by treating them and their time with respect, considering the human factor in every moment, from the opening to the closing.

Need help with making effective use of the opening or closing of your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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To gossip is human… to evaluate is divine – and requires facilitation

In the past few months, we have written articles on the importance of the “human factor” in the planning and facilitation of meetings. (See February, March and April issues of Coffee Break.) Now we would like to highlight another element that is often neglected when thinking of ways to engage, respect and treat people well: the evaluation at the end of the session.

We know that participants have opinions about the virtues and shortcomings of each meeting. If we do not ask for their comments before they leave the meeting room, these thoughts are expressed as hallway gossip, complaints in the cafeteria or —worst of all— the silent belief that there is no way to improve the group´s work sessions.

We recommend that you harvest these opinions when they are fresh – that is, before the end of the meeting. The challenge is to accomplish this when all people most want is to leave the room as soon as possible.

To overcome this resistance, the evaluation must be

  • Short
  • Dynamic
  • Participatory
  • Uncensored
  • Visible

10 specific tips

  1. Include “Evaluation” as an item in the agenda. If it is not in writing, it probably will not happen..
  2. Prepare in advance a large sheet of flip chart paper in this format:
  3. At the time shown on the agenda, make this announcement: “Before closing the meeting, we are going to conduct a short evaluation of today´s session. Your comments on what went well and what could be improved will help us in the planning and facilitation of future meetings.”
  4. Remind the group that comments can refer to any aspect of the meeting, including communications prior to the event, physical space, snacks, facilitation, participation, quality of the discussion, etc.”
  5. Take care to write down each comment, including those that seem like a joke. These “funny” observations usually contain some grain of truth and should not be ignored.
  6. Do not write down the name of who said what, only the comments.
  7. To make the process go faster, ask two people to scribe the comments, one on each side of the flip chart.
  8. If two people express opposing opinions about the same issue (for example, one says, “Attendance was good” and another that “Attendance could be improved”, write “attendance” in both columns.
  9. Do not permit the group to debate, discuss or give explanations about the comments. The idea is to end the meeting, not prolong it!
  10. At the beginning of the next meeting, review the sheet(s), pointing out which of the items mentioned have been modified. This reinforces the message that the group´s feedback matters and that evaluation is an instrument for positive change.
Need help integrating evaluations into your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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Why your meetings need breaks.

Breaks are strategies to increase participation and satisfaction in meetings. Let´s reflect for a moment about the meaning of this statement from the point of view of the three principal actors in a typical meeting.

The conveners (group leaders), who are mostly worried about the topics to be discussed, sometimes believe that breaks are not necessary, that they steal time from the agenda and that it would be best to keep working. Why not just bring the coffee to the table and keep going?, they ask.

The truth is:

  • If breaks are not scheduled, people get up and leave the room anyway to attend to their physical and emotional needs.
  • Many meeting participants are genuinely busy people who need time to attend to other aspects of their lives. If breaks are not scheduled, they will distract others by making telephone calls, answering email, consulting with colleagues, etc. during the meeting.

The participants are interested in the issues under discussion but they are also concerned about the time and energy that the meeting requires, especially if the agenda is long and loaded with challenging topics. By including breaks in the work plan, the leader sends the message that “our intention is to generate and maintain the full participation of everyone, awakening our collective intelligence and co-creating solutions; therefore we will take periodic “time outs” to refresh both body and mind.”

The facilitators, whether they are members of the internal team or external consultants, should be advocates for both the quality of the participant´s experience and for the processes designed to achieve the meeting´s goals. Including breaks in the agenda of any meeting that lasts more than 90 minutes is part of their responsibilities.

Guidelines for scheduling breaks

  • For multi-hour sessions, schedule a break at least every 90 minutes.
  • Breaks should last 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the group and the meeting context.
  • “Bio breaks” of 5-10 minutes allow participants time to go to the bathroom, drink water, and stretch their legs, but the leader must make it clear that this is not a long break and that the meeting will resume promptly,
  • When possible, serve refreshments outside the meeting room to give the participants a change of atmosphere,

What if some participants disappear during the breaks?

Sometimes people take advantage of a break to leave the meeting and not return. If this happens often in your meetings, it is probably because:

  • The meeting is too long, given the other responsibilities of the attendees;
  • Those who leave do not feel responsible for or interested in the topics to be discussed after the break;
  • They came primarily to “put in an appearance” and/or sign the attendance register, not to contribute to the expected outcomes established for the meeting.

In any case, the early departure of some does not justify omitting breaks from the agenda.

Need help integrating evaluations into your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

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