Inefficient and ineffective meetings can leave people feeling drained, exhausted or discouraged, rather than inspired and energized. Good meetings help build strong, effective organizations and successful projects. Even organizations with great meeting process inadvertently perpetuate barriers to full member participation and access to democratic process. This happens through group dynamics of power, privilege and oppression that often marginalize women, people of color, queer, trans and gender non-conforming folks, people with disabilities and those with limited access to the cultural cues and financial resources that come with class privilege.
Whether or not you tend to act as facilitator at meetings you attend, building your facilitation skills will help you make your meetings better, more inclusive, and more fully democratic! Here are some foundational tips and suggestions that can have big impacts on your meetings!
Facilitation ensures that the group is empowered as a whole.
Facilitation keeps an eye on time, and juggles it with the (ever present) need for more time.
Things like community agreements, an agenda, an available chart of your group’s decision making process, a place to store important topics for future conversations, next steps, etc. are important foundations for a meeting—we call them “containers.” They act as visual tools that participants and facilitators can come back to throughout the meeting to help keep the group focused, on track, on the same page. They also offer direction for moments when things get sticky or tense.
Community agreements help define your role as facilitator and clarify the group’s expectations of you. One of your big responsibilities to the group is to make sure these agreements are upheld. This isn’t about creating rules—it’s about creating and clarifying agreements and expectations that allow everyone in the group to participate. In order for these to be meaningful, they need to come from the group itself. Once a group creates its agreements, they can be used over and over. As a facilitator, you get to contribute to this list, too.
Here are some community agreements that can be helpful in meetings, to get you thinking:
ONE DIVA, ONE MIC
Please, one person speak at a time. (It can also be useful to ask people to leave space in between speakers, for those who need more time to process words, or are less comfortable fighting for airtime in a conversation.)
NO ONE KNOWS EVERYTHING; TOGETHER WE KNOW A LOT
This means we all get to practice being humble, because we have something to learn from everyone in the room. It also means we all have a responsibility to share what we know, as well as our questions, so that others may learn from us.
MOVE UP, MOVE UP
If you’re someone who tends to not speak a lot, please move up into a role of speaking more. If you tend to speak a lot, please move up into a role of listening more. This is a twist on the on the more commonly heard “step up, step back.” The “up/up” confirms that in both experiences, growth is happening. (You don’t go “back” by learning to be a better listener.) Saying “move” instead of “step” recognizes that not everyone can step.
WE CAN’T BE ARTICULATE ALL THE TIME
As much as we’d like, we just can’t. Often people feel hesitant to participate in a workshop or meeting for fear of “messing up” or stumbling over their words. We want everyone to feel comfortable participating, even if you can’t be as articulate as you’d like.
BE AWARE OF TIME
This is helpful for your facilitator, and helps to respect everyone’s time and commitment. Please come back on time from breaks, and refrain from speaking in long monologues...
We make better decisions when we approach our problems and challenges with questions (“What if we…?”) and curiosity. Allow space for play, curiosity, and creative thinking.
NOTE: There are a few community agreements that participants often bring up that we don’t tend to use or bring with us. Two of the most common ones are “assume best intentions” and “default to trust.” The reason we don’t use these is because when someone is unable to do this (say they’re feeling untrusting of someone, or unsafe), having a community agreement telling to do so isn’t going to change anything. Put short, these agreements aren’t always possible, especially when we take into consideration that when people have been harmed by sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, they/we build up necessary tools to take care of and protect themselves/ourselves. Agreements we offer instead that capture the spirit of these are “we can’t be articulate all the time,” “be generous with each other,” or “this is a space for learning.”
The Magic of an Agenda
There are many different ways to build an agenda to match the style, culture, and needs of each group or meeting. However you do it, a clear and well-constructed agenda that all participants can agree to is a crucial step for an efficient, inclusive, and awesome meeting. The facilitator’s job (generally) is to keep the participants on track by following the agenda as well as paying attention to when the agenda isn’t working and changes need to happen. Here are some best practices regarding agendas:
Garden/ Bike Rack/ Topics for Future Meetings
Whatever your group chooses to call it, have a sheet or ongoing list to write down ideas, questions, and topics for future meetings that come up. Often in the course of talking about one topic, really important things surface that need to be addressed, but are not on the current meeting’s agenda. Unless they are urgent/time sensitive, it can really help keep the group on topic to have a space to note them so that they can be incorporated into future meetings (and not forgotten about!)
Next Steps/ Who, What, When, Priority
It can be very helpful to keep a sheet where you’re taking running notes on any next steps or tasks that are coming out of the meeting. We sometimes do this in three (or four) columns: one for who is doing the next step or task (this could be an individual or a group), what it is they’re going to do, by when they will have done it, and what priority level the task is (1-3, 1-5). You can end the meeting by reviewing this sheet and filling in missing details. You can also start your meetings by checking in with the sheet from the previous meeting.
Tools You Can Use
Some simple tools that can drastically shift the energy of a meeting, might help you hear new voices, and invite the perspectives of quiet, introverted, or more silenced participants:
Common Mistakes (Will happen. Keep an eye out!)
Red Flags and Dynamics to Watch Out For
What to Do When You Get Stuck