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An actionable guide to facilitating meetings

Last updated

23 January 2024

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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In the US alone, there are approximately 55 million meetings each week. To participants, many of these meetings will feel pretty pointless or confusing.

If you play a key organizational role in your meetings, better organization, taking a more proactive managerial approach, and even practicing new strategies can increase their value.

You can cultivate an environment of collaboration, shared purpose, and action by learning how to facilitate a meeting. But switching from being a passive participant or even a central decision-maker to a meeting facilitator takes work.

In this article, you’ll learn how facilitating a meeting differs from the approaches you may be most familiar with. You’ll also find a step-by-step guide that you can follow to start facilitating effective meetings instead of simply running them.

The difference between running and facilitating a meeting

The right approach to a meeting’s processes depends on its purpose. It may be appropriate to run a meeting on some occasions and facilitate it on others.

Running a meeting puts you in control of the meeting as the main speaker, organizer, and decision-maker. This is appropriate for purely informational meetings, like those that involve

  • Quickly sharing new information and processes

  • Moving through detailed agenda items that don’t require collaboration

  • Assigning tasks

Bear in mind that it may be appropriate to replace the meeting with a prerecorded video or email if you can successfully run it without collaboration or sharing the floor with other speakers. In this scenario, it’s a better approach than booking time across listeners’ calendars.

A team meeting that will involve brainstorming, sharing ideas, and decision-making from multiple stakeholders requires a facilitator.

Facilitators manage the meeting process—not the outcomes or information. When facilitating a meeting, you’ll invite speakers, set the context of the conversation, and ensure it stays on track. You might also organize resources before and after the meeting for participants to use.

As a facilitator, your role is to make sure the meeting stays on topic, is as productive as possible, and ends in a decision or next steps. Note that you might be completely neutral on what specific decisions are reached.

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How to facilitate a meeting

Many managers and meeting sponsors struggle to leave the mindset of running a meeting behind. Those meetings may start to feel messy and unorganized if they verge into brainstorming and collaboration sessions—processes that better suit a meeting that is being facilitated.

Read through the steps below to learn more about facilitating a meeting.

Facilitation tasks before the meeting

Decide on the meeting’s purpose

  • Why do you need a meeting?

  • What is the objective or the end result you’re after?

  • What key decisions should you reach by the end?

It’s important to think in these concrete terms instead of simply establishing what the meeting is “about.” For example, you might have a meeting about an upcoming product release—but is the purpose of the meeting to discuss the rollout, refine the timeline in light of new delays, or something else entirely?

Before you even schedule a meeting, fill in the blanks of the following sentences:

  • The purpose of this meeting is to [ACTION].

  • By the end of the meeting, we will have [RESULT].

This will add more clarity to your meeting facilitation, and all meeting participants will also have a clear idea of what they need to accomplish.

You don’t have to complete this step of the meeting process alone. Work with other key project stakeholders or subject matter experts to establish the meeting’s purpose. Be sure to communicate the purpose when you send out invites and while kicking off the meeting itself.

Book a room or virtual venue

Next, decide how or where you’re hosting the meeting. Will it be a conference room or a virtual setting?

Virtual is best for many organizations with remote teams and employees. You could even end up with some participants in person and some participants joining remotely.

If it’s virtual, make sure you send out the meeting link, code, and clear instructions for how to join. If you’re meeting in person, make sure you choose a central location with enough space for everyone.

In both circumstances, record the meeting if possible so people who can’t attend can watch it later.

Invite the right people

Choosing the right attendees is critical for a successful meeting.

Remember, facilitated meetings are intended to be more collaborative, meaning everyone present should have a chance to contribute.

You don’t want the meeting to be too big—that will make it too hard to keep on track. Similarly, not everyone involved in a project is a decision-maker, so some people may just want to view the meeting or meeting notes at another time.

You don’t want the attendee list to be too small, either. If a decision can’t move forward without a certain person’s go-ahead, that person needs to be in the room. High-level decision-makers often have busy schedules, but their presence will make the meeting more effective. Consider this carefully, as it might make it difficult to organize the meeting.

Share the meeting agenda with the invitation

This is a great strategy for any type of meeting, but it’s especially important for collaborative meetings. Sending a meeting agenda with the invites has several advantages, including the following:

  • Busy stakeholders will know the purpose of the meeting and will be more likely to attend.

  • Attendees can prepare for the meeting, especially if you’re discussing data or recent developments.

  • You can set expectations for the meeting and be more prepared when it’s time to keep everything on track.

  • Proactively sharing the purpose of the meeting helps you be more efficient when the clock starts.

During the meeting

Empower everyone to contribute and share ideas

As a meeting facilitator, your objective is to fulfill the purpose of the meeting—not to achieve a specific outcome.

For example, if the meeting’s goal is to finalize a specific department’s budget, it has nothing to do with how much you think the budget should be.

Maintaining this objectiveness and remaining a neutral party can be a challenge, but it helps meetings run smoothly and efficiently.

One of your core objectives for facilitating the meeting is to ensure everyone contributes—or at least feels comfortable doing so. This means making sure everyone has an opportunity to speak. You can do this by asking for other opinions or specifically asking attendees questions by name.

This also requires you to ensure people don’t dominate the conversation. Handling this diplomatically takes practice, but managing big talkers will improve your meetings by allowing for more varied input.

Use collaborative tools

You can use a range of collaborative tools to keep engagement high and keep the meeting moving in virtual settings. You might use the following:

  • Whiteboarding tools so you can display ideas in real-time

  • Chats so people can submit questions or details—these can be added to the meeting notes or addressed if there’s time

  • Polls, enabling you to quickly move through multiple decisions

  • Breakout rooms to form quick sub-committees

Not only do these technologies enrich the meeting, but their interactive format can generate strong engagement in the meeting’s topic and purpose.

Pro tip: it’s also beneficial to have someone take meeting notes. This can be a team member or an AI tool. More people will contribute if they know you’re taking notes. They will know their ideas and contributions will be recorded, even if they don’t end up as part of any final decisions.

Use a framework to get ideas flowing

As part of your initial agenda or meeting invitation, create an outline of the points you need to cover. Link to this living document in your meeting notes and fill out as much as you can before the meeting. A basic framework might look like this:

  • Objective 1

  • Problem

  • Suggestion 1

  • Suggestion 2

  • Suggestion 3

  • Objective 2

  • Problem

  • Suggestion 1

  • Suggestion 2

  • Suggestion 3

  • Key takeaway 1

  • Key takeaway 2

  • Key takeaway 3

  • Action item 1

  • Action item 2

  • Action item 3

  • Date and time of next meeting

Fill in the objectives and problems before the meeting begins, but leave the other fields blank. This way, you implicitly create a structure for the meeting. Attendees will understand that the meeting’s objective is to fill out the framework. They can also follow along with the basic structure of the meeting and know what’s coming next at each point.

A framework is a far better approach than having a blank sheet for meeting notes or everyone using an individual format.

Ask questions and facilitate conversations

If the goal of the meeting is a conversation, keep it flowing through active listening. Ask follow-up questions or encourage attendees to agree or disagree with the previous speaker.

While the ultimate goal may be to reach a decision, it’s important to encourage speakers to add more details or clarify points.

Have a list of questions ready with open-ended questions like:

  • How can we implement that?

  • What steps do we need to take to make that happen?

  • How would that impact [department or team]?

Preparing this list ahead of time is a useful facilitation technique that helps prevent the meeting from stagnating.

Keep conversations on track to avoid wasting time

Your meeting could run into the opposite problem: a lot of off-topic or unhelpful chatter. This can easily happen if

  • You have some talkative, confident people in the group.

  • People don’t know the meeting’s core objective.

  • Other challenges divert attention away from your objective.

  • A negative personality in the room is making people reluctant to speak or creates a power imbalance.

Consider using the following strategies to keep the discussion on track:

  • Establish ground rules at the start: if the meeting is about brainstorming, ensure attendees know that negative responses to ideas (even impractical ones) are inappropriate. You can also set rules about muting microphones, not talking over people, and keeping comments short. Establishing the decision-making process is also helpful.

  • Keep the room positive: set the tone for your meeting through your own words and body language. Thank people when they share ideas and note them down. Explicitly call out problems and remind people to be courteous. Reaching the meeting’s objectives isn’t the only aim—you want the meeting to be inclusive and for everyone to feel comfortable.

  • Use your notes to indicate when someone’s being helpful or unhelpful in relation to the common goal: this is a subtle but helpful cue. When someone is giving on-topic information, add their ideas to the sheet. Once they go off-topic, stop typing. You can also use the framework and notes to show when you’re moving on to something else.

Power dynamics and effective facilitation are hard to manage at first, but it becomes easier as you facilitate more brainstorming meetings or collaborative sessions.

Take notes to keep track of decisions and action items

Meeting notes are more than an in-meeting organizational tool. They are the product you create as a result of the meeting.

You or your appointed note-taker can write down the main ideas or decisions the group agrees on. By the end of the meeting, you can briefly summarize the notes, ask for any last-minute decisions or changes, and save the notes within the meeting invitation.

Be sure to share the notes with all invitees within 24 hours of the meeting. You can also allow all the attendees to leave comments and reactions on the notes (but not edit the notes document directly).

Maximize efficiency by agreeing on the next steps in the meeting

Reserve the last five minutes of your meeting to decide the next steps. These may include individual next steps for different people, lingering decisions, and whether or not another meeting is required.

This approach facilitates a seamless transition into action where everyone knows what is expected of them.

After the meeting

Make it easy to look back on ideas from your meeting online

A clear set of notes with organized ideas, takeaways, and action items is a rich resource everyone can refer back to after the meeting. Ideally, the document should be complete during the meeting, but you might take a few minutes after everyone leaves to clean up the document and highlight key decisions.

Once the notes are ready, email everyone a copy, make sure they’re accessible via the meeting invitation, and add them to the project board or related tasks. You can also ask for meeting feedback. What was a waste of time? What did people enjoy most about participatory decision-making?

What makes a good meeting facilitator?

Being an effective facilitator doesn’t come naturally to everyone immediately. It takes practice to be confident, encourage speakers seamlessly, curtail distractions, and end the meeting on the right note.

The more meetings you facilitate, the better you’ll become. You’ll find it helpful to practice your active listening and meeting facilitation skills.

Organizing meeting resources and notes before it begins can also help. A key objective, meeting framework, and outline are support structures that effectively facilitate a productive meeting.

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