Five Tools for Facilitating a Fair, Effective Internal Meeting

At Atomic, we often meet with colleagues in-person for recurring working sessions as well as targeted ad hoc meetings. I work with many experienced, smart people with diverse perspectives, great ideas, and strong opinions, and bringing everyone’s ideas together can be complicated.

Here are a few things I’ve found helpful when facilitating internal work meetings with more than four people.

1. A Physical Object as a Speaking Totem

This is an object that someone must be holding in order to speak if they’re not the facilitator. I like using something that is safe to toss between folks around the room. A soft ball or stuffed animal works well.

Here’s what I used at a recent meeting:

Using this will make it much easier to enforce the rule that only one person speaks at a time. People will be less likely to get sucked into back-and-forth debate. And folks will tend to offer more complete and structured input or questions if they know they’re about to yield the ability to say more.

As a facilitator, I’ve also found this approach a useful way to proactively include people who may be less likely to speak up. To encourage them, I simply hand them the object and prompt them to participate.

2. A Timer

My colleague Mike Marsiglia recently started bringing a timer to a lot of our internal team meetings, and I love it.

A good meeting timer is easy to position and set in a way where everyone can see how much time is remaining at a glance.

The audible alarm is a great neutral prompt for a facilitator to move the group on to the next agenda item. The group may also intentionally decide to extend the time for the existing topic.

3. A Progressing Agenda

Write the agenda on a visible surface in the meeting room. A whiteboard or large flip chart works great for this.

As each agenda item is completed, take the time to go to the written agenda and mark it as complete. Cross it out, give it a check mark, or do anything to visually signal the transition of topic or focus.

This not only helps the meeting to move along, but it also reinforces the legitimacy of the agenda. A nice outcome of this is that folks are more likely to hold off on topics they see further down on the agenda until you actually get to them.

4. Clear Expectations

Make sure people understand how you want them to engage. For example, do you want people to ask questions, give feedback, share direct observations, or suggest an action? If so, then direct your colleagues to do so, and politely correct them if they engage differently.

Open discussion can be great if that’s what you’re aiming for. But if you’re not, it’s an easy default for folks to fall back on when it’s not very clear how they’re being directed to participate.

5. Rules

Whatever previous ideas in this list or other guidelines you bring as a facilitator, make sure to do your best to enforce them.

It doesn’t take many examples of someone speaking out of turn or taking a conversation off-topic before other folks will follow suit or become frustrated.

As a facilitator, you need to make sure your enforcement of the rules is perceived as fair, or those rules can do more harm than good. Un-checked rule-breaking or bending can quickly make folks who’ve been following the rules feel wronged and generally less important.

If you do make a judgment call to allow someone to bend or break a rule, do acknowledge it right away to the whole group. Let everyone know why you’re making the exception.

What tools and rules have you found effective?