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 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 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. Effective facilitation:
The facilitator keeps an eye on time, and juggles it with the (ever present) need for more time.
Some things facilitators don’t do:
Things like community agreements, an agenda, an available chart of your group’s decision making process, and 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, and 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.
Below are some community agreements that can be helpful in meetings. Not all of these will be useful for every group, depending on the culture and preferences of the group and the individuals within it. (Some of these were developed/adapted by AORTA, others have been crowdsourced over time from our broader galaxy of facilitation colleagues.)
ONE DIVA, ONE MIC
Please, one person speak at a time. (It can also be useful to ask people to leave a few moments in between speakers, for those who need more time to process words, or are less comfortable interjecting in a conversation.)
NO ONE KNOWS EVERYTHING; TOGETHER WE KNOW A LOT
In any conversation, especially ones about systemic power (race, class, gender, etc), we know that each person is coming to the conversation with different levels of lived experience and embodied expertise. We also believe that each person has something to contribute to the conversation. This agreement asks that we all practice being humble, and look for what we have to learn from each person in the room. It asks us 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. In fact, listening is a frequently feminized skill that is often seen as a lack of something. On the contrary, choosing to learn how to listen moves both you and the group up.) Saying “move” instead of “step” recognizes that not everyone can take steps, while we can all move in body or spirit.
WE CAN’T BE ARTICULATE ALL THE TIME
As much as we may wish we could! 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 don’t feel you have the perfect words to express your thoughts.
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.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN INTENT AND IMPACT
We have noticed that most often in the spaces we facilitate, when someone does or says something that causes harm or supports the values of oppressive systems, it is not their intention to do so. But when we use our good intentions to deny (or avoid being accountable for) the harm, more harm is caused. The ask in this community agreement is that we each do the work to acknowledge that our intent and the impact of our actions are two different things, and to take responsibility for any negative impact we have. (This can be as simple as apologizing.)
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 them to do so isn’t going to change anything. These agreements aren’t always realistic, 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 care for 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 arise. 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.
Synthesis tries to get to the core of what someone is saying. You look for emotions and values.
This is one of the tools we use the most. It is helpful in many contexts, including:
What can synthesis do?
Even a “failure” is a success—you prevented a misunderstanding!
Synthesis statements often start with:
|1. What’s the problem or issue we need to address? (And is this important enough to use the whole group’s attention?)
|2. Oh! This is the problem/issue (Already we are building alignment! We agree there is a problem we need to address.)|
|3. How can we best address this issue/problem/challenge? (Divergent thinking! Don’t panic! Just let them talk.)|
|4. Narrow it down (NOW we are getting to proposal land.)|
|5. Decide (We agree we believe this is the best way to address the problem we have.)|
|6. Implement (Don’t stop at a decision!)|
Note that a proposal is step four.
Many groups have rules that they will not talk about something until a fully fleshed out proposal is brought to the group. This can get frustrating when what is talked about is not what the group needs to be talking about to best meet its needs and address the issues it is facing. Also, you may see that the people who hold formal or informal power in the group end up bringing the majority of proposals to the group. This can reify power dynamics, contribute to burnout, and leave others feeling disempowered.
If there’s conflict or tension, go backwards.
If a group is slipping into conflict or tension, it is often because they did not spend enough time in one of the areas beforehand, or did not spend ANY time on the areas beforehand. (Most often, we see that groups do not spend any time on identifying what the underlying issue is that they need to address).
Some simple tools can drastically shift the energy of a meeting, help you hear new voices, and invite the perspectives of quiet, introverted, or silenced participants:
Name it when it’s happening.
Refrain from saying things that people hear as name-calling.
Rather than what you just said is “racist.” You can say: “What you just said is hurtful to people.” Or ask questions.
Ask questions to support self-inquiry.
Support the leadership of marginalized voices.
Create space for those who we are not hearing from.