Why is meeting facilitation training important?

A young businesswoman facilitating a budget meeting in the boardroom

According to an article on MIT’s human resources blog, over 25 million professional meetings are held every day in the US. That’s a staggering amount of time spent away from the rest of the work employees are paid to do. Combine that quantity with the qualitative change in attitudes brought about by the pandemic and the Great Resignation, and business-as-usual in meetings—which shouldn’t have been usual in the first place—needs to change.  

Too often in business, leaders assume that unless the meeting is very high-stakes or includes very senior people, certain meeting behaviors are inevitable. This can include tuning in and out of the conversation, multitasking on devices, conducting side conversations, or an individual derailing whatever is being said in the moment in order to focus on what matters to that person. Well, that’s actually not true. Those meeting behaviors are a symptom of disorganized or misguided meeting planning and facilitation, and they can be avoided with preparation, planning, and intent.  

Think about the meetings your organization usually conducts. Whatever minor fallout you’ve detected in the form of resentment or disengagement will only feel more acute in the coming months and years. This will happen as new employees filter in and longstanding employees are reluctant to give up the focus and efficiency they achieved while working remotely.  

Let’s look at some meeting scenarios and what the fallout might be for your organization.  

Problems with Meeting Planning 

Let’s say you have a touch-base meeting every Monday morning at 9:00. When that meeting is canceled for whatever reason, are your attendees happy about it? Do they miss the bagels but not the business? Assuming they are all serious about their work and want to get it done efficiently and effectively, this shouldn’t be the case. Good employees should want an effective meeting. Here are a few things related to planning that might be undermining that recurring meeting: 

  • It’s held out of habit, and nobody considers week to week whether it’s really necessary. 
  • Because the meeting is held regularly, the facilitator has not reiterated the meeting’s purpose or the week’s specific objectives for a long time—maybe ever. As a result, new employees cycle into the meeting and make assumptions about its purpose that may be way off track. What often ends up happening is a round-robin of everyone reporting in on things that are not really news or could easily be handled via email. No one is quite sure what’s actually supposed to be achieved. 
  • In the same vein, problems occur when the meeting doesn’t have an agenda from week to week. Big things may be forgotten, and small things given a lot more attention than they require. Also, the meeting doesn’t have a clear endpoint, and answers to “Does anyone have anything else to discuss?” can go on forever and skip haphazardly from topic to topic. 

The result of recurring meetings that lack specific direction is that the meetings become more of a social custom than a business need. Further, “We talked about it in the weekly meeting” turns into code for “We can say we discussed it, but we had no clear objective for it, so we’ll discuss it again next week and probably not move forward then, either.”  

Even ad-hoc meetings on more urgent topics can go awry because the meeting leader didn’t plan in advance. Too often, the kind of meeting—a kickoff meeting, a status update, a debrief—is assumed to have a built-in agenda that everyone implicitly knows and agrees on. However, people’s perceptions rarely align completely or reflect the same priorities. In cases where something has gone wrong, and people need to troubleshoot or put out fires, “FIX IT” becomes the sole agenda item.  

In all of these situations, even a few minutes of thought and some key points scribbled on a napkin would make the meetings more effective. With real planning time and effort, meetings can be essential tools for moving projects forward, remediating errors wisely and completely, and increasing the odds of best-case outcomes. When meetings feel well planned and meaningful, people pay attention.  

Problems with Conducting Meetings 

Of course, even a well-planned meeting can go sideways if the person leading it doesn’t have the skills to guide the conversation, manage Q & A, and ensure that everyone feels their input has been heard and taken seriously. Here are some of the challenges that can happen when facilitation is weak or half-hearted: 

  • When the timing attached to the agenda is not enforced, the first few items can eat up the meeting time, and people lose the opportunity to talk about other agenda items important to their work. 
  • When the facilitator doesn’t understand how to manage dominant personalities in the room, quieter people check out and can start to feel resentful.  
  • When people are talked over or excluded, and it seems to be because of their gender, ethnicity, age, work role, or status, they will definitely feel hurt, and they may even pursue legal recourse. Strong facilitators can manage this situation; weak facilitators may not even notice it’s happening.  
  • When there’s a broad agenda of topics but no plan for how to approach them or capture what’s being discussed, there’s no shared set of notes for future reference. Further, the strategic and the tactical get mushed together. What this means is that if the goal of the meeting is to build a house, some people are interviewing architects while others are picking out drawer handles. Priorities are skewed, and the team is out of sync. 
  • When Q & A descends into pedantry, unhelpful tangents, or a dialogue between the facilitator and one person, the meeting may as well be over. Poor management of open discussion or Q & A often leads to chaos in the form of half-baked answers, hypotheticals that get taken too seriously, or one person driving decisions. 
  • When the facilitator doesn’t know how to set meaningful, achievable next steps for the days and weeks after the meeting, participants feel like the meeting time was wasted, and they’re going to have to spend even more time figuring out how to proceed.  

How to start fixing your meetings 

When you think about sending out a meeting invitation, do you consider the following questions? Most of us don’t unless we’ve had training or are especially mindful about our meeting-planning practices. 

  • Why does this need to be a meeting? Too often, in a business setting, the impulse is to bring everyone together to hash things out. But is that necessary? Would a well-crafted email do the trick? A quick poll on Survey Monkey? A Slack channel devoted to the topic? You may need to hold a meeting down the line, but you may also benefit from ensuring that you’ve reached the point where no other form of communication will do.  
  • Who needs to attend? Of course, this is one of the first things you think about. Often we’re so afraid of leaving someone out that we invite too many people or people who are only peripherally engaged in the meeting topic. Instead, think as hard about who not to invite. There are other ways of communicating relevant meeting outcomes to those who have limited interest. 
  • What needs to get done in the meeting? If your agenda draft starts with words like “discuss . . . “ or “talk about . . . ,” you’re only halfway there. What about “decide,” “assign,” “schedule,” or “generate”? These words are more active and indicate a definitive goal for each item. They also cue the appropriate methods of capturing the information generated in the meeting and making sure it’s useful going forward. 
  • What needs to happen next? Where do you expect the team or the project to be three hours after the meeting? Three days? Three months? This kind of thinking makes it easier to tighten the focus of the meeting, manage tangents, and call on appropriate attendees to address key points. 

If the scenarios discussed here are painfully familiar, we’d love to talk to you about your specific situation. Contact us to learn how meeting facilitation training can help your organization conduct meaningful, effective meetings that get work done.  

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