Seven Steps to Painless Meeting Facilitation

United Students Against Sweatshops
Date Published: 
December 1, 2006

The Lovely USAS Facilitation Guide


Seven Steps to Painless Meeting Facilitation

  1. Ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak.

A facilitator has to play referee, ensuring that we don’t just have folks shouting stuff out and speaking out of turn. The most common, and possibly most effective, way to make this happen is by taking stack.

When you take stack, meeting participants signal to the facilitator when they have something they’d like to add to the discussion. The facilitator writes their name down, and then goes through the list calling on people. That’s just what taking stack is—we’re going to talk a lot more about how folks can use stack too further the other goals for the group.

So now let’s go back to the goal of giving everyone a chance to speak and think about exactly what that means. We’re talking about creating a space for folks who normally aren’t big talkers to step up and say their piece. Part of that is getting those folks who tend to dominate meetings, either through the way in which they communicate or how frequently they speak, to take a big step back.

So what is this actually going to look like for you as the facilitator? Well, in the context of one meeting, it might make sense to just ask someone their thoughts, remind the whole group about step up/step back, or giving them preference on the stack. The third idea, of giving them preference on the stack means that if they signal to you, you would bump someone to the top of the stack who hasn’t spoken yet, or bump someone to the bottom of the stack if they’re talking a whole lot.
If you’re facilitating a small meeting, you might not need to actually write down a stack—but try to keep a stack in your head, and keep track of who has been talking and who hasn’t been and call on people accordingly.

  1. Ensure that all voices are heard.

Although you’re going giving everyone a chance to speak, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be heard. Often times, people who don’t speak as much at meetings, or folks who are simply not male enough don’t get their voices heard. It’s important that for you as the facilitator to go back and ensure that ideas don’t just get lost in the discussion because of who presents them.

One effective tactic for ensuring that voices are heard is saying something like “gee, that’s a really good point, Allie, and I think it fits in really well with Camilo’s idea to do X.” The idea is to bring the discussion back to the idea that a person brought up. If that doesn’t work, it might be a necessity to flat out say that someone’s idea is being forgotten, or talked over, and that it’s crucial to come back to it. This sort of thing happens a lot with discussions of group dynamics.

  1. Empower group members

It’s important that someone feels like what they say matters and that they’re given credit for it. It’s the job of a good facilitator to ensure that ideas aren’t co-opted by group members whose voice carries more weight. When a person is given credit for an idea, and the idea is put into action, they feel empowered. They become invested in the group, and feel as though their contributions matter, so they will contribute more. It’s important to capture and foster these moments in the meetings, because that’s where a lot of the formal empowerment and development of leaders happens.

  1. Assign tasks

The purpose of a facilitator is not to dictate orders. So when an idea comes up, it’s not the facilitator’s job to say you do X, you do Y, and you do Z. As the facilitator, your job is only to encourage group members to step up and get stuff done.

Your other role in the assigning tasks game is going to make sure that the division of labor is fair and reflective of our principles of unity. Make sure that you don’t just have the same folks always doing the empowering work, and make sure that you don’t have the same folks doing all the onerous work. Also, check the race and gender dynamics of the work breakdown and don’t be afraid to point out how things are not reflective of our principles of unity.

  1. Frame the discussion in the context of a bigger picture.

Often times at our meetings, we can neglect to hit on the big picture of our work, and get caught up in a series of small tasks. It is important, both for keeping the group excited and committed, as well as to keep the group committed to the broader goals of the organization.

To keep things in perspective, it often times helps to keep a list of the organizations goals. It can be helpful and effective for us to reference those goals and frame our work in their context.

  1. Finish in a timely manner

Another problem that meetings have, especially meetings with dumb old liberals, is that they can drag on indefinitely, with one or two dummies blabbering on about this or that. It’s important for us to assign times to agenda items at the beginning of every meeting. You don’t have to firmly stick to these times, but it’s important to at least use them as a guide. In the event that things start dragging on, you can institute a one-minute rule for speaking, so that folks can only say what they’ve got to say in a minute.

It’s imperative that we respect time constraints of folks at meetings, because we want to keep them coming back. We’re already asking folks to make a pretty substantial commitment to our work, and to violate their other commitments by having meetings that drag on is obscenely disrespectful.

  1. Ensure that folks walk away from the meeting feeling good about the work that they just did.

Sometimes meetings will get pretty heated, especially if folks don’t feel like they got to say their piece, or if they feel like a decision got railroaded through them, or if there was just a hot argument. It’s important to keep folks in a positive mood for the meeting so that they keep coming back.

One way to make sure that this happens is to not let the discussion get to a point that it starts being destructive. For example, if folks are jumping on each other, and not even finishing their sentences, it makes sense to require a 2 second break between one person speaking and the next. If a few fucked up and destructive things get said, then it might make sense to have folks take 15 seconds to reflect on the conversation that’s been happening.

At the end of the meeting, if things have been intense, it’s a good idea to have folks do a go-round of something good and something that could be improved about the meeting.

That’s all folks…good luck facilitating!!