Ann Weiser is part of Action Linkage, serving as the communications liaison. She is also a trainer for an introspective skill called focusing and is the editor for the Focusing Connection. She lives in San Francisco.
IT ISN’T HARD to facilitate meetings; it just feels hard when you’re new to it and everyone’s looking at you! These are the kind of tips I wish someone had given me when I was starting out. Like the "household hints" in the newspaper, they’re meant to add to the useful things you already know. Those that don’t fit you or your situation, of course you’ll skip. Just use the ones that fit.
Start on time. Those who are already there will appreciate not waiting and wondering when the meeting will start. Everyone goes to too many meetings that start late. This is especially important if your meetings are ongoing, because if people know you start late, they will arrive later each time. You aren’t being unfair to those who come after the starting time; on the contrary, you’re doing them the courtesy of assuming that they know what they’re doing and don’t need to be there at the very beginning.
Take a moment to be. As a group session begins, there’s a shift from individual interactions to being together as a group. It’s good to acknowledge that shift. It could be through a moment of silence together, through a formal attunement, or simply by saying, "Well, here we are," and looking around at everyone.
Invite the group’s help with time. If you have a limited time for something, tell them. You can phrase it in a positive way, like, "We’re hoping we can finish introductions in half an hour so we can all have a nice long time for what comes next." Then say specifically what that means for each person: "So if each of you could take no more than two minutes for your introduction, it will work fine." Then, once you’ve said that, relax. Now time is everybody’s responsibility, and unless exceptional circumstances arise, it will feel better for everyone if you are not the watchdog.
(It may also be a good idea to introduce yourself first, or to do first whatever the task is, and model the time you hope people will take. You’ll be modelling other things as well – openness, for example.)
Say what you want to happen – and then wait. A lot of new group facilitators worry about being overbearing, so they don’t give the leadership that their group needs. There is a balance between giving too much structure and giving too little. Don’t be afraid to give structure; you’re making it possible for the group to do what it needs to do. One of the easiest ways to do this is to say what you want to happen. "I’d like us to bring this discussion to an end sometime soon, and turn to the next item." "I need a break – how about you?" "Maybe we could go around and each say our response to that." Then, after you say something like this, look around at people and wait. You’ll find out whether they are happy with what you’re suggesting, or whether there’s something else that needs to happen. (The two commonest pitfalls for people who are nervous about leadership are either not making suggestions, or rushing into action after making a suggestion without looking around for reactions.)
In seeking agreement, ask for disagreement. If you want to know whether everyone agrees to a certain course of action, don’t say, "Does everyone agree?" You’ll see some nodding heads but you can’t be sure if you’re seeing every head. Say: "Is there anyone who has a problem with doing this now?" Then if there’s silence, you and everyone else in the group know that you really are in agreement on this.
Don’t let a few people occupy the group’s time if you’re not sure that’s what everyone wants. You’ve seen it happen hundreds of times: two people get into a discussion or a wrangle when the rest are eager to move on to something else. It’s the facilitator’s job to help the group move beyond this kind of entanglement, or you’ll have a very frustrated group of people on your hands. Try this: "I’m wondering if we want to save this discussion for later so we can get back to deciding the agenda." Or: "I’m aware of the time and it seems like this might go on for awhile. Could we maybe cut this short and let you two take it up at a later time?" If you’re right in your sense of what the others want, you’ll get support immediately.
Keep track of what needs to be done, and remind people of it at the appropriate time. There may be decisions to be made. It may be you just need to set the time for the next meeting. If it doesn’t get done when the group is together, there’s going to be a lot more work for someone – probably you. So ask for it to happen (”When is our next meeting?") when there’s still time.
Enjoy yourself. Everything goes better when the facilitator is having a good time. Besides, what are you doing this for if it isn’t also fun for you! So enjoy – and if there’s something you need in order to enjoy more, like help with some parts of the meeting, try asking for it. You may even get it!