Meeting Facilitation Cheat Sheet

Go-to responses for when your meeting goes off the rails

Jean Hsu,Yellow Squiggle

A well-facilitated meeting can truly be a pleasure to attend.

In my years of facilitation and training facilitators, I’ve aggregated a few of the most common issues that arise in meetings, and how you, as a facilitator, can easily deal with them. Think of this as your personal meeting facilitation cheat sheet to keep in your back pocket.

Facilitating a meeting can feel like a huge and difficult responsibility. You want to give people space to speak, but not too much space to dominate the discussion. You want to be firm and keep people on topic, but also respectful while people are speaking.

With a few handy go-to principles and phrases, being a facilitator doesn’t have to feel daunting.

First, a few core facilitation principles that will show up in the rest of the cheatsheet.

Serve the meeting’s purpose

Every meeting should have a clear purpose. The purpose of a sprint planning meeting might be: Build team clarity and alignment around two-week plan. The facilitator’s role is to serve that purpose. Sometimes that means giving some agenda topics a little bit more time than others, or cutting someone off because they’re taking the conversation in a direction that’s not productive for the purpose. Be willing to change the meeting if it’s not serving the meeting’s purpose.

Name what’s in the room

A lot of meeting inefficiency comes from people not being willing to acknowledge what’s happening. By naming what’s in the room - whether that’s misalignment, alignment, rat-holing, etc. - you can address it head on, and get the most out of your time together.

Drive efficiency

Synchronous time is incredibly valuable, so do what you need to make the most of it. That might mean cutting people off if they veer into a topic that’s not relevant to most of the people in a room. It might mean aggressively prioritizing agenda items if time is running short. Keep the meeting on track, serve the meeting’s purpose, and end the meeting on time (or early).

Horizontal rule

The key to being an effective facilitator is knowing what to say to get folks back on track without distracting or offending. Here are some of my go-to responses to different challenges:

Common Meeting Challenges

Someone hijacking a topic to talk about something else

New topics are sometimes necessary, but it’s helpful to keep them organized in the agenda, and not overriding other topics.

  • “That sounds like a separate topic. Would you like to add it to the agenda?”
  • “This was Sean’s agenda item. Sean - do you need anything else to resolve it? Feel free to add separate agenda items to the end of the agenda

Topic that becomes irrelevant to most people in the room

If it’s only relevant to a handful of people, try to get the right set of people to take it offline.

  • “Sounds like Steph is the right person for you to coordinate with. Can I capture an action item for you two to sync up outside of this meeting to come up with next steps for this project?”

Topic doesn’t serve the meeting’s purpose

This can happen if someone uses the meeting as a convenient gathering of the right people to talk about something different, (i.e. while we’re all here anyways…)

  • “I want to make sure we have time to get to <desired outcome>. Let’s table that for the end if we have time”

Meandering topics with no definitive end

Often, agenda items need a bit of prodding to re-focus and finish up.

  • “Let’s check back in with Ryan. Ryan - do you have what you need for this agenda item?”
  • “What do you need to resolve this item?”
  • “Is there a next action I can capture that will move this forward?”

Running out of time!

Oftentimes, naming what’s in the room (not enough time) can be enough to influence people to stop their poor meeting behavior.

  • “We have 15 minutes left, and 8 agenda items. Are there any that can be addressed offline?”
  • “We have 15 minutes left and 8 agenda items. Let’s keep this concise.”

Everyone has an opinion about a topic

Oftentimes this means it’s super important. If there’s space and time to discuss together, and you feel that the team would benefit from the live discussion, by all means go for it. If it feels like everyone just wants to throw in their two cents:

  • “Sounds like everyone has something to say about this. What’s a concrete next step we could take to move this forward?”
  • “I want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to chime in. Let’s capture an action item to capture feedback asynchronously” - assign someone to the action

Facilitation can feel awkward at first, especially when you lean into the role and interrupt or re-direct people, but it’s worth the momentary social discomfort. With a bit of practice, you’ll soon find that being an effective facilitator is in service of everybody’s time and energy, and other attendees will be grateful for your facilitation.

When you’re not the facilitator

Being the explicit facilitator gives you a lot of leeway to do things like interrupt or re-direct people without seeming unprofessional. But often, more ad-hoc meetings don’t have an explicit facilitator, or the person who called the meeting (and who is assumed to be the facilitator) is not really doing a great job facilitating.

Here are some go-to phrases you can use to try to salvage a meeting when you’re not the explicit facilitator.

  • “What do we want to get out of this meeting?”
  • “We have 20 minutes left. How do we want to spend that time?”

At the end of the meeting, you can also volunteer to facilitate or create an agenda for the next meeting.

Happy facilitating!

I'll also be running some virtual Effective Meeting sessions where attendees will learn more about and experience a well-structured and facilitated meeting — if you'd like to level-up your meeting facilitation, reserve your seat now.

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Meeting Facilitation Cheat Sheet
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