Want to Improve Your Meetings? Become a Master of Facilitation

Running longer meetings that focus on bigger picture topics require more than just a simple agenda.

As a business coach, I spend most of my days running full-day or even multi-day strategic planning sessions for CEOs and their leadership teams. Over the years, I've learned that how I run these meetings is just as important-- if not more important-- as what's on the agenda.

When you are running long meetings that require participants to think deeply and collaborate closely with one another, these facilitation techniques can create a larger impact and get better outcomes.

1. Use a collaborative learning mindset.

First and foremost, take a collaborative learning approach to the meeting. You might have a solid plan and a strong idea of what you want to accomplish, how you want to structure things, and the desired outcomes, but you also need to give the participants a role and a say in these decisions.

This is not to say that you don't need an agenda. I strongly suggest an agenda but don't be overly attached to it. If issues arise that need to take priority or the team comes up with an alternative way of addressing an issue, be open to suggestions and willing to make adjustments.

2. Agree to the meeting goals.

I always start meetings with presenting a clear set of desired outcomes. I keep it simple and focus on three to five key points. These could be decisions, plans, directions, clarifications, or action items.

The point here is to set your targets. It also helps to make sure everyone has the same expectations. I sometimes start this discussion by asking what they want to get out of the meeting before I present my agenda just to make sure we are all on the same page.

3. Create the right context.

Context is everything for these types of meetings. If you want people to think long-term and big picture, you need to get them out of the day-to-day mindset. I typically hold strategic meetings off-site so that people are less likely to be interrupted. Even being on a different floor of the same building is helpful in eliminating possible disruptions.

You also need to shift their mindset. I start meetings with a mind sweep to clear their thinking so they are open to new ideas. I also start with fun team exercises to make them aware of how they are communicating and interacting as a team.

4. Engage people in the work.

When I first started facilitating these types of meetings, I ran myself ragged writing on whiteboards, capturing notes, and moving flip chart sheets around. I was working up a sweat and everyone else was just sitting in their chairs. I thought that I needed to be doing all of the work in order to be a valuable facilitator.

I now know that it's the opposite. I assign roles for the meeting and make them do the work. They write on the flip charts themselves, I designate a scribe to take notes, and I even assign someone to be a DJ to play music during breakout sessions. This keeps them engaged and moving around and it allows me to focus on observing the team dynamics and tracking the overall agenda.

5. Manage the team's energy.

One of the main issues with full-day or multi-day meetings is managing the level of energy in the room. Mental focus and blood sugar level will wax and wane dramatically throughout the day. It is important to keep the energy high and avoid running into ruts.

I like to start mornings and afternoons with a physical exercise. Anything that gets people out of their chairs and moving around is helpful. For example, I will ask people to stand around a flipchart to discuss rather than sit in their seats. You can also create exercises that get people moving around the room or even do breakout sessions outside so people can walk around. The idea is to keep them moving.

6. Land the meeting.

Closing these meetings well is key. Leave yourself plenty of time to wrap up and discuss what you've accomplished and explain what the next steps are. I typically close meetings by asking each person to summarize their key takeaways and their action items coming out of the meeting.

I also like to get people to reflect on the meeting and explain what they liked best and what they might change. This helps them remember everything we accomplished and gives me valuable feedback for future meetings.

Over time, you will develop your own techniques and tricks for meetings. You do need a solid agenda and well-designed exercises, but valuable meetings have a well-managed arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Mastering this art of meeting facilitation will enable everyone to address topics more deeply, think more strategically, and provide a more valuable outcome for the participants.

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