Making meetings effective: Facilitation techniques

  • Craig Schafer
  • 18 May 2015

Paper notes by Bernie Anderson
In my last article, I outlined how a good agenda and minutes can make meetings a better investment of people’s time. The effectiveness of meetings can also be improved by adopting some basic facilitation techniques. These can also help to minimise non-creative conflict. There is nothing wrong with conflict per se in a meeting: differences of opinion allow ideas to be tested and refined. But, because of our sinfulness, such conflict can often turn in ungodly and unhelpful directions. While people are responsible for their own behaviour, it would be more loving to create an environment with fewer temptations and better outcomes.

The following are just some of the basics to keep in mind when facilitating a meeting.

Use your reflective listening skills

  • This helps people articulate themselves more effectively.

  • This also lets you rephrase things in more diplomatic language when necessary to diffuse potential conflict.

Use a whiteboard

  • This helps keeps people focused on the issue at hand and ensure that we are all “singing from the same hymn sheet”.

  • This also helps us poor souls who are ‘visual people’ to stay with it.

  • In discussions where the potential for disagreement and passion is high, a horseshoe of chairs focused on a whiteboard also seems to depersonalise some of the discussion, helping to tame conflict.

Think theologically

  • Some people seem to check their theology at the door when they enter a church committee meeting. As leaders we need to take responsibility for ensuring that pragmatics do not squeeze out dogmatics (Rom 12:2).

Know what to deal with in the meeting and what to keep for later

  • For any particular issue, decide which aspects can be effectively dealt with in this meeting and which are best dealt with by specific individuals or a sub-set of the meeting group later.

  • Does the discussion involve all participants, or is it only relevant to a few of them? Don’t use group time for something only a few people are involved in.

  • Do the people at the meeting have the data they need to actually make a decision on this issue? If not, it’s for later.

Keep people focused on the issue

  • Use ‘acknowledge/but’ approaches. This lets people feel heard, but keeps the whole group focused on key issues.

  • Tell people when they are off-track, and pull them back to what the (properly phrased) agenda says they should be discussing.

  • Ask “Ok, so with that in mind, what do you think is the answer to the question [insert closed question here]” to help get people back from a tangent.

Use your negative people

  • There is a temptation to ‘squash’ negative people because the meeting is over quicker without their endless objections. But quick does not always equal effective. Sometimes your negative people force you to think about things that you would not have thought about otherwise.

Use the right facilitation technique for the meeting objectives

  • For example, you use different approaches for idea generation (maybe a brainstorming activity), evaluation (a pro/con activity, a SWOT analysis, or a devil’s advocate technique) and prioritisation (maybe a forced ranking or simply consult and decide).

  • Sometimes you have different objectives in the one meeting, so you will need to use different techniques.

  • It’s best to have thought through the appropriate approach for each agenda item in advance.

  • Sometimes it is important to facilitate for ‘creative conflict’.

Make use of silence

  • Get used to ‘uncomfortably long’ silences and let someone else fill them. For some people the fear of silence is greater than the fear of being wrong, and they will kick-start the discussion.

To be an effective participant in someone else’s meeting

There are plenty of things you can do to improve the way a meeting runs without being in control of it. Be an encouraging brother or sister in Christ and set the standard for helpful contributions.

  • Be on time.
  • Read the agenda in advance.
  • Resist red herrings (even the enticing ones).
  • Focus on ideas, not people.
  • Ask dumb questions.
  • Be ready to be wrong
  • Use ‘conflict diffusing’ language.
  • Apply your theology to your decision-making.


Photo credit: Bernie Anderson