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Why every great meeting needs a great facilitator

8 tips to help you run better, more productive and engaging team meetings

September 22, 2021

Meetings don’t run themselves — or at least they shouldn’t. Without a meeting facilitator, meetings are more likely to get off track, run long, and lose sight of their intended purpose.

If you’ve ever used any of these phrases to describe a meeting, chances are it could have benefited from having a facilitator.

“We talk about this every week”
“This isn’t going anywhere”
“I wish more people would speak up”
“What are we talking about again?”
“My topic always gets punted to next week”
“This could have been an email”

In this post, we’ll go deep on the role of a meeting facilitator, offer guidance for how to choose one, and share tips to help any teammate run meetings like a pro.

What is a meeting facilitator?

A meeting facilitator is a designated person in the room assigned to keep things on track and spark more productive discussion during meetings. Having a facilitator can help fuel greater teamwork during meetings by using tools to foster trust, collaboration, and engagement.

A meeting facilitator is different from a meeting sponsor or team leader. They help the group reach a decision point, but do not make any decisions for them. Ideally, the facilitator role should be held by someone who’s seen as a neutral party to help balance power dynamics. For instance, if you’re meeting to brainstorm new ideas for a big launch project, the project lead should be in the room but wouldn’t be the best person to facilitate the discussion because they already have a high stake in the outcome. They might also have biases or preconceived notions about what the outcome should be already.

What does a meeting facilitator do?

A meeting facilitator has a few key roles and responsibilities.

They keep the meeting on track — The meeting facilitator is a stickler for the agenda — they may be involved in creating it, but their primary role is to make sure it stays on track. Before the meeting, the facilitator will make sure each agenda topic has an owner and an allotted amount of time. During the meeting, they’ll keep time, set a reasonable pace for discussion, and ensure conversations aren’t going over or getting sidetracked. The goal is to keep people focused on the things that matter — either tabling tangential and side conversations or taking them offline for a follow-up.

Tip: The key to being an effective facilitator is knowing what to say to get folks back on track without distracting or offending. Check out our meeting facilitation cheat sheet for some go-to responses you can use for different challenges.

They set the stage for active participation — The meeting facilitator sets the stage for an engaging meeting. This starts the moment folks enter the room, by promoting a sense of presence and purpose () among attendees. This might look like greeting folks as they arrive, ensuring technology is working well for any remote team members, and stating the goal of the meeting and any rules of engagement upfront so everyone’s aligned.

They promote open discussion — A facilitator is a great conversationalist who actually does very little talking themselves. They ask questions and use tools to get everyone else in the room to open up and get to the crux of what they’re saying. During the meeting, the facilitator will use words and body language to guide discussion — modeling active listening, asking speaker’s questions to clarify points, posing questions to the group or to different individuals in the room to facilitate conversation, and carving out space for everyone to speak.

They lead the group towards decisions — Debate and discussion is great, but at some point it’s easy to start talking in circles. It’s the facilitator’s role to identify when conversation become no longer productive and then lead the group to narrow the conversation and steer towards a decision point.

Tip: Not a notetaker. If possible, your meeting notetaker and facilitator should be two different people. Both roles take a lot of focus, and it can be hard to do both well at the same time.

How to choose your meeting facilitator?

When choosing your meeting facilitator, you’ll want to pick a teammate who can comfortably guide conversation and effectively keep things on track. It’s important for the facilitator to understand that they’re primarily playing a supportive role — asking questions to engage the whole group and sussing out concerns, without influencing what’s actually being said.

Here are a few traits to look for when choosing your meeting facilitator:

  • Asks good questions and can engage the whole group
  • Active listener
  • Can manage conflict if it comes up
  • Solid time management
  • Neutral party — someone who doesn’t have too much skin in the game on whatever’s being discussed

Facilitation is a skill, so having some training or guidelines in place for this meeting role can be useful too.

8 tips for smoother meeting facilitation

  1. Make sure the agenda is ready beforehand: Check in to make sure agenda topics are clear and allocate an appropriate amount of time to each. If there are topic owners for certain discussion topics, check in with them to make sure they’re ready to go.
  2. Give the team ways to prep: Share the agenda and any prep materials or pre-reads with the team beforehand (we recommend at least 24 hours in advance) so folks have time to prepare for the discussion.
  3. Create a comfortable meeting environment: Environment is everything. When folks are uncomfortable or stressed out, they’re less likely to fully engage. Managing details like choosing an accessible location or meeting platform, providing food or drinks when necessary, and equipping the space with whiteboards, printouts, or other visuals can help make everyone feel at ease and ready to tackle the issues at hand.
  4. Kick off the meeting with an icebreaker: Studies show that folks who speak during the first few minutes of a meeting are more likely to remain engaged throughout, so try kicking off the conversation with a lightweight icebreaker question to get the whole room fired up. Your icebreaker could be related to the discussion you’re about to have or a way to get to know each other and build psychological safety beforehand. (Here are 60 ideas to get you started.)
  5. Establish some ground rules: There’s usually a mix of introverts and extroverts in any given meeting — and it can take some practice to create a format that effectively engages both. Setting (and enforcing) rules of engagement for the discussion can help everyone align on what participation looks like so folks won’t feel like they’re being unfairly called out if they’re asked to contribute a little more or a little less.
  6. Ask clarifying questions: If something is unclear or if folks around the room look confused, ask the speaker to clarify their point so it can be better understood and accurately captured in notes. If someone is just sharing a new idea (like during a brainstorm) try asking follow-up questions to probe a bit deeper or posing a related prompt to the group for everyone to riff on.
  7. Be mindful of remote or hybrid participants: Managing a virtual or hybrid discussion can be even more difficult than an in-person one. All the more reason to have a facilitator in the room (or Zoom). To facilitate a great virtual discussion, make sure to test the audio and video beforehand, and familiarize yourself with whatever technology you’re using so you can help troubleshoot questions quickly if they come up. During the meeting, present your screen to the group so everyone can follow along with the discussion. If your group is hybrid (some in-person, some over video), make sure to call on video participants to speak just as much as in-person ones, and keep an eye on the screen to check in on body language and any cues from your virtual audience just as much as you would the in-person group.
  8. Use Range to streamline facilitation: Range takes work off the facilitator’s plate and makes it easy for any teammate to facilitate like a pro. It’s easy to collaborate on your meeting agenda, assign topic owners, and follow along in real-time together during the meeting. (And you’ll never go over time because Range’s topic timer keeps track for you.) The spinner tool and built-in icebreaker questions help foster more open discussion by giving everyone an equal chance to share and speak up. And for teams using Zoom, Range integrates seamlessly with the technology so it’s one less thing the facilitator and participants have to worry about.
Facilitate your next meeting with Range
Why every great meeting needs a great facilitator
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