Facilitating a large meeting

When facilitating or chairing a meeting, your goal is to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, keep the meeting on track, and help the group make a decision everybody is comfortable with.

A good way of doing this is using an approach called the consensus method. In meetings using this approach, an issue is discussed until the group reaches a consensus about what to do. It’s slightly different to traditional meeting approaches, but in our experience it makes things easier for facilitators and participants alike.

A good facilitator means you’ll get the most out of your meeting. Be fair, be impartial, and be alert to how the group is responding!

Starting the meeting

Try to get everyone sitting in a circle where you can all see each other. It’s important that the facilitator can see everyone in the room.

Introduce yourself, then go round the circle and let everyone else introduce themselves. Try to remember names--that will help you later. Explain that you’ll be using the consensus method in the meeting, and talk the group through the hand signals that help these meetings work (see below).

Make sure somebody is taking minutes. .

Finally, introduce the draft agenda. Ask if everybody is happy with it, and if anyone wants to add anything. Make sure everyone is aware of the time limit for the meeting.

Hand signals

The consensus method uses hand signals so everyone can tell at a glance what the mood of the room is, without anyone having to talk over each other.

 

  • Someone wants to make a point: raise your hand. As a facilitator, try to remember the order in which people raised their hands!

  • Direct factual response: if someone has said something which requires a factual correction or clarification, the participant should point one finger from each hand upwards. They will “skip the queue” to speak and their point will be taken immediately.

  • Proposal: if someone has a concrete idea for how to move forward, they use both hands to make the shape of a letter “P”. The facilitator should acknowledge this immediately, but continue taking the points in the queue first. See below for how to deal with proposals.

  • Agreement: when participants agree with what someone is saying, they wave their hands in a “jazz hands” gesture.

Proposals

Proposals are concrete suggestions about what to do, for example an idea for an action, or a new way of running the group. Once a proposal has been made, open up the discussion and thrash out the particulars. Take “temperature checks” to gauge agreement, and encourage anybody who disagrees to speak.

Checklist for best practice

·         Watch the way you’re sitting and make sure you appear calm and impartial throughout

·         Don’t assess or judge the contents of each speech.

.        In order to ensure that those speaking stick to the topic, they should be reminded about the specific topic in discussion, and if the speech is not related, inform of other more appropriate platforms of debate and reflection.

·         Politely remind the group of the meaning of consensus when there are any “standby’s”, heated discussions, or if the issue being discussed gets significantly sidetracked.

·         Find the common ground, and any connections between seemingly competing ideas, and help weave them together to form proposals. Focus on solutions that address the fundamental needs and key concerns within the group.

·         Summarise what's been said so far can to move a group towards a decision. Outline the emerging common ground as well as the unresolved differences. Check with everyone that you've got it right.

·         Let participants know about everything that the group of facilitators discusses off the record in order to promote transparency.

·         Avoid announcing the closure of speaking time for each topic without giving enough time for reaction but also avoid unlimited speaking times.

·         Use a “positive language” avoiding negative wording that impedes continued constructive debate. This is a less aggressive and more conciliatory type of communication. It is convenient to start debating from the common points instead of the opposed ones.

·         Use an “Inclusive Language” which does not make gender differentiations.

·         Use a flipchart or a whiteboard to write up the areas of agreement and issues to be resolved.

 

Further reading

We’ve only got the space to give a short overview, but these resources are really useful for explaining the consensus approach and how to facilitate in more detail. They’re worth a read and will help you increase your confidence as a facilitator.

 

Seeds for Change: http://seedsforchange.org.uk/free/resources#grp