The Right Facilitation Skills Make Meetings Meaningful


We’re all challenged for time. If you wonder why members aren’t more engaged with your association, that’s one big reason. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

When you want volunteers to serve on a committee or support an initiative, it’s critical to give them a rewarding return on the investment. A skilled facilitator can make those experiences meaningful enough to be worth repeating.

How many meetings have you attended where—

  • the desired outcomes weren’t clearly defined;
  • the group got side-tracked from the agenda;
  • negativity and cross-talk ruled;
  • one person dominated the discussion;

or worse,

  • there were crickets?


No one enjoys those frustrating experiences. Yet they happen fairly frequently.

Given the importance of group dynamics, it’s surprising that associations don’t put greater emphasis on training employees and volunteers to successfully manage collaborative initiatives. From large gatherings to team huddles, learning to run a productive meeting takes practice. Now that those activities occur more frequently in the virtual world, strong facilitation skills are increasingly necessary.

Leading a short meeting, conducting a retreat, or managing a training program, require different levels of expertise. .orgSource facilitators frequently help teams articulate their vision or coach boards toward better governance. The following techniques are easy to learn and can help less experienced staff members or volunteers gain confidence guiding groups toward success.

Understand Your Role

The facilitator’s priority should be the process. This approach puts the responsibility and ownership of the outcome with the group. Your job is to create a structure where everyone shares information, learns, and participates in objective problem-solving. How you accomplish that goal will vary depending on the circumstances.

Bringing these attitudes to the meeting contributes to establishing the right environment.

Project Enthusiasm

Kevin Ordonez, .orgSource President and Managing Director Digital Strategy, gets a group off to a great start.

You don’t need overwhelming charisma. In fact, there are a variety of reasons why introverts make good facilitators. Be yourself. Let your body language, tone, and facial expression convey positive energy. Confidence puts others at ease and makes them eager to participate.

Stand up straight, look people in the eye, and speak clearly. This advice may sound simplistic, but I have seen CEOs slouch over the podium or mumble into a microphone more than once. That disengagement influences the group.

Remain Neutral

Leave personal baggage and opinions at the door. The facilitator needs to be Switzerland. Any biases will prevent you from being an effective moderator. If you are unable to be objective about the outcome of the meeting or the opinions of its participants, find someone else to take your place. This is not the time to advance your agenda.

Practice Generosity

Everyone likes to be rewarded. Find opportunities for praise and recognize positive achievements. When you call out behavior that advances the discussion and contributes to success, people are likely to follow that example.

Demonstrate Curiosity

If you don’t understand a comment or an idea, chances are others are also confused. Asking questions is a critical part of the facilitator’s job. Questions are the clues that clarify fuzzy thinking, generate new ideas, and lead the group toward consensus. They put everyone on the same page.

Listen Carefully

To ask the right questions, you need to really hear what people say. Good listening is one of the skills that introverts bring to the table. The tendency to thoughtfully analyze a response before speaking is another. Don’t allow your inner voice to prejudge or color how you perceive the dialogue. Remember you are Switzerland!

Be a Learner

If you are a curious person and a good listener, chances are you are also eager to learn. Good facilitators create an environment that supports professional growth. To accomplish that goal, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the techniques that make learning easier and more fun.

Set the Stage

In addition to these personal qualities, there are practical strategies that make it easier for facilitators to help groups do their best work.

Promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Get off to the right start by ensuring that everyone in the group feels included and can participate equally. Equality means the same rules apply to us all. Equity, however, ensures that those rules are fair and just. It refers to the quality rather than the quantity of an experience.

Sharon Rice, .orgSource Managing Director of Digital Strategy, highlights an idea.

To make your meeting a positive event for all participants, identify whether special physical accommodations are required. Meeting venues should be accessible for the entire group. If there are flights of stairs, there should also be an elevator. Provide food and beverage options that are clearly labeled and that include people with dietary restrictions. Check the calendar to avoid scheduling on a religious holiday.

Over Prepare

Most collaborative activities call for a certain amount of spontaneity. Careful preparation will give you the confidence to deliver a great off-the-cuff performance. Have options ready. If your icebreaker douses the room in cold water, be prepared with an additional warm-up activity.

Learn as much about the participants as you can. Ascertain whether you should be prepared for conflict or negativity. If so, develop strategies to defuse tension. When participants trust you, it’s easier to help them overcome differences. If you are new to the group, their confidence will be based on your behavior and credentials. If you are a colleague, your reputation preceded you.

Have a clear understanding of participants’ goals and create an agenda in service to those objectives. It isn’t always easy to predict how a timeline will unfold. Build flexibility into your planning.

Make sure that electronics are functioning flawlessly, meeting materials have been received, and slides, if you have them, are in order and complete.

Consider Comfort

No one does their best thinking when they are uncomfortable. Hard chairs, glaring lights, and an icy room might get results on Law and Order but won’t take you to the energetic place you need to be. Worse still, the group may blame you for making them shiver. You can’t always control the surroundings, but do your best to provide an environment free from physical distractions.

Set the Ground Rules

Think about what behavior will deliver the most successful outcomes; then, provide clear instructions and guidelines. You may want to set time limits for comments, rules regarding cell phones, reminders about crosstalk, and advice about feedback such as asking participants to avoid repeating what has already been said. After you outline the parameters, ask if there are objections. If not, request the participants’ consent to the ground rules.

Promote Active Listening

I emphasized the importance of being a good listener earlier. Sharing these techniques can be helpful for the group, especially for participants designated to lead breakout sessions.

  • Use mirroring or repeating exactly what someone said to build rapport and trust. Mirrored speech should be delivered in a warm tone without mimicking the speaker.
  • Paraphrase to summarize a statement, provide clarity, and demonstrate understanding.
  • Track and summarize all ideas that are presented to emphasize the validity of multiple perspectives.
  • Use non-verbal affirmations such as smiling, nodding, and maintaining eye contact.

Hone Skills

These tips will put you in the zone, but good facilitation skills require practice. It can be helpful for employees who interact frequently with groups to receive professional training. There is a significant return for this investment in staff development. After one meeting misstep, members aren’t likely to give you a second chance. On the other hand, a meaningful interaction is an experience that makes connecting with your association worth repeating.



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