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Vol. 37, No. 5

The leader as facilitator: Some tips for great meetings

by Marilyn Cavicchia

“Every minute that we poorly facilitate,” said Jeffrey Cufaude, president and CEO at Idea Architects, “we’re screwing around with someone’s time.”

What’s one way to make the most of that precious resource? Cufaude considers an agenda to be essential, even if it’s a very basic one—though he recommends putting a little more thought into it than that.

“If they’re only going to pay attention to the agenda, have you made it the strongest agenda it can possibly be?” he asked attendees at this year’s ABA Bar Leadership Institute. People often come to meetings from their myriad other tasks and responsibilities, he noted, so an agenda provides much-needed focus.

Focus can be extra difficult during a conference call; in fact, Cufaude said, “I assume on every conference call that no one is ever paying attention.” Besides an agenda, what helps? Every few minutes, sum up what’s been said and try to re-engage the group, he recommended.

Whatever the meeting’s format, Cufaude advised, look over the agenda to identify any “unsafe moments”—spots where the discussion could get particularly contentious and where some extra management and support might be needed to keep some participants from getting too heated and others from withdrawing from the conversation.

One way to manage those moments in advance, Cufaude said, is to acknowledge at the outset that there’s a lot of “passion and energy” about a particular issue, to remind the group of the rules for the discussion, and to establish a structure for the meeting, as detailed in the agenda.

‘You can’t facilitate and flip chart’

Cufaude offered wide-ranging tips on just about every aspect of facilitating a meeting; among them were:

  • Be aware of the differences between introverts and extroverts. Introverts need time to think; in fact, Cufaude said, they are “talking inside their head”—practicing what they’re going to say—while they’re thinking. Extroverts, on the other hand, “have to say something in order to make it concrete”—in other words, they think while they talk. Both styles are fine, but often, “by the time the introverts have processed, the extroverts have taken over,” Cufaude said; be aware of both types and look for ways to keep both engaged.
  • Accommodate styles other than your own. There’s a tendency, Cufaude said, “to facilitate the kind of meeting you want to attend.”  Make sure you’re thinking of what might help others, not just you.
  • In a new group, ask for past examples of great meetings. What made those meetings work?
  • “You can’t facilitate and flip chart.” Why? When you go to write a note, you’re no longer engaged with the rest of the group. Designate someone else to do the writing; introverts are often great at this task, Cufaude said.
  • Listen to what’s not being said. The facilitator listens more actively and deeply than anyone else in the room, Cufaude explained, and that includes noting any relevant points that have not yet been raised.
  • Help the group recognize its patterns of discussion. Is the conversation drifting toward voicing opinions as if they were facts? Are some people speaking for others (“Everyone thinks …”) rather than for themselves? Constructively and without blame, call attention to these disruptive patterns and encourage others to do so as well, Cufaude advised.
  • Prepare different ways of facilitating. That way, Cufaude said, “you’re not stuck if one thing doesn’t work.”

Everyone is a facilitator

If a “bully” begins to dominate the discussion and divert the group’s focus, Cufaude recommended saying something like, “Folks, how are we doing on how we talk about this?” or “I can’t hear you out when you talk this way.”

Ideally, he added, the group will manage itself to some extent and will speak up to the bully so it’s not just your responsibility.

And self-management doesn’t just relate to how the group handles bullies. “Everyone can—and everyone should—make facilitative contributions,” Cufaude said.  

That is, regardless of who’s leading a particular meeting, Cufaude explained, everyone in the room has both the right and the responsibility to speak up if there’s something that could help it go better.

A nonconfrontational, constructive way to do this, he advised, is to start a sentence with “I wonder if …” For example, I wonder if:

  • … we should take a break?
  • … we have enough history on this issue?
  • … anyone else is confused?
  • … we could rearrange the room?
  • … we can define some terms?

Limited air time

If you’re running the meeting and it’s clear to attendees that the discussion is just a formality—that you hold all the authority and your mind is already made up—you’ll likely end up with “compliance with the general outcome, but not genuine commitment,” Cufaude said. And you might not even know it, he added: It’s common to walk out of a meeting believing that everyone is as committed to an idea as you are.

Often in a meeting like this, Cufaude noted, the person who is in charge of it is having trouble switching from being a leader who has a certain stake in the outcome of a discussion to being a facilitator who does not.

“The president doesn’t always have to facilitate,” Cufaude reminded the audience, adding that if you have a real stake in the outcome of a particular meeting, and especially if you have a conflict of interest, you should ask someone else to facilitate it so you don’t sway the discussion.

If you are able to facilitate, Cufaude said, remember to think in terms of “limited air time”—that is, rather than leading the discussion with a lot of your own comments, you should focus on managing the discussion as it occurs among the other meeting attendees.

“If you need people to own a decision rather than rent yours,” Cufaude advised, “back off” from interjecting a lot of your own opinion.

Note: To learn more about the facilitator’s role, Cufaude recommended Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, by Sam Kaner.