Facilitating a useful and friendly discourse among co-workers is one of the hardest things a manager can do. There’s so many disparate forces at work in a brainstorming session, or a presentation, or a planning meeting. Egos need to be massaged, ideas need to be explained clearly, and everyone needs to feel that they had the time to talk. Run a meeting well and the group will have a great idea of everyone’s strategy going forward; run it badly, and everyone exits confused, possibly even hurting morale.
There’s seven easy steps to facilitating conversation well—we’ve written about them here at SYPartners. Follow these and you should be able to run any meeting with ease. But before you call a meeting, be it with a group or a single employee, make sure it passes this easy checklist:
- You can articulate a clear purpose for the conversation
- You have a plan for timing and flow (though it should be flexible)
- You’re aware of your own biases around the issue
- You’ve prepared an icebreaker to set the tone
- You know how to set up the space properly
- You’ve prepared for conflicts that may arise
Here’s a little more detail on what goes into that checklist:
Make a Safe Space
Any conversation won’t work if the participants don’t feel comfortable taking part. The point of any meeting should be clear to everyone involved—if not, you can use an exercise or a story to set the tone early on. Do people need to get to know each other? If they already do, is the point of the meeting to get them excited? No matter what the meeting, you’re going to want a particular kind of participation from people, anything from note-taking to an exchange of ideas. Set those ground rules early.
Meetings usually aren’t about you. Don’t let them be! Set up the ground rules of the conversation, get ideas flowing, and then get out of the way—do as little as you need to do and try and get everyone else involved. Recognizing when it’s time to elevate other perspectives is critical to any good discourse, as well as to long-term employee morale. Make sure that quieter, less extroverted people get a turn to shine; encouraging sharing in small groups is another way to get more people to talk. A meeting shouldn’t be an opportunity for you to prove something—it’s good to get everyone involved.
Listen More Than You Talk
It’s good to talk, but it’s even better to listen, especially in a meeting where it’s so easy to look like you’re staring into space. People won’t feel fulfilled by the conversation if they don’t think they’ve been heard, so remember the easiest ways to show that you’re paying attention. Look at people when they’re talking, use open body language and reference the things they just said in replying to them. Don’t be afraid of silence, though—sometimes it’s good to leave a pause after someone says something, just to invite more conversation (rather than drowning it out).
Read the Room
Energy can change quickly in a room. The air can go out quickly, perhaps after a sharp word is spoken, or an idea doesn’t generate much conversation. Keep an eye on how things are going and intervene when you feel you have to boost things up or slow things down. Sometimes conversation can get out of hand, sometimes it needs a little more encouragement, and that’s up to whoever’s leading the meeting. Make sure to check in and see how people feel—they’ll usually know best as to what they need going forward.
Spark Collective Discovery
You can give people advice. But it’s more important to help them find their own direction. That’s where listening (and thinking) come in handy—you can lead people forward by asking questions, by talking about their ideas, and by following where they lead. Play back what you’re hearing and pose it as a question, letting people interrogate their own ideas. Don’t just lead everyone down your own garden path—never start a question with “Don’t you think?” Try something more open, like “What do you think about?”
You can try and anticipate what’s going to happen in your meeting. But not everything is going to be that predictable, nor should it. It’s good to know your material cold, but don’t go into a meeting reading every line off of a script. Present your ideas, or lay out the meeting’s theme, and then feel free to improvise; it’s better if you know all your details because it makes it easier for you to riff on them with everyone else. If you’re too attached to how you think the meeting should go, you might make it less helpful for everyone else.
Finally: Watch the Clock
But don’t be slavish to it! You want to leave enough time to cover everything you have planned for the meeting. But if one topic is going in an interesting direction, let it happen for a little while longer. Conversely, if things get bogged down and you need to switch topics, it’s fine to intervene. Don’t force your agenda just for the sake of it; valuable conversation is the best thing you can hope for from any meeting. But do keep one eye on how much time you have left. You’ll be thankful later on when there’s space to cover everything.