Meetings are almost always more productive and enjoyable when someone facilitates. In the beginning, people will naturally look to you, the one who called the meeting, to lead it. So, like it or not, you are the most likely facilitator. The job can be shared around in subsequent meetings if there are others willing to take the role.
Perhaps the most important parts of meeting facilitation happen before the meeting, and at the beginning of a meeting or series of meetings. It may be tempting to “play it by ear,” but a lot of problems and frustration can be avoided if you take the time to do these steps.
Before the meeting:
Be clear about the purpose of the meeting, and make it clear to those invited. Examples:
To create a vision for our neighborhood
To plan the block party
To begin working on Disaster Preparedness
Make an agenda. The items on the agenda should reflect the purpose that people are coming to the meeting to accomplish.
For each agenda item, make sure it is clear what the goal of the item is. For example:
to brainstorm ideas
to come to an agreement
to share information
to get volunteers for various tasks, etc.
Have a time limit for each agenda item.
Have a specified ending time for the meeting.
At the beginning of the meeting or meeting series:
Get agreement on as many of these as are relevant:
Desired outcomes (“By the end of this meeting we will have….Are we agreed on accomplishing that?”)
Agenda (“Does this agenda look all right? Are there any additions?”)
Roles, if applicable, such as facilitator, time keeper, and recorder. Getting permission to facilitate is especially useful. (“Do I have the group’s permission to guide the discussion, and interrupt if we are getting off track?”)
Decision-making process. Normally in neighborhood meetings it is best to strive for consensus on decisions affecting the whole group. You can have an agreement to “fall back” to a majority vote if after much discussion you just can’t come to a consensus.
Ground rules. Some good examples are:
Everyone gets an equal opportunity to be heard.
We treat all persons, ideas, and opinions with respect even when we disagree.
We start and end on time.
We honor confidentiality when it is requested.
Another excellent thing to do at the start of each meeting is to have a check-in. People will be more present and connected to each other if they each speak for a minute or two about how they are doing. You can use a countdown timer to remind people when they’ve reached the time limit.
During the meeting:
Make sure the group is clear about, and agrees to, the process being suggested. For example, in a brainstorm, no ideas are critiqued, while in a discussion they might be.
“Are we in agreement to brainstorm for the next 3 minutes on (topic) without critiquing ideas?”
Focus on agreement, not disagreement.
“We’ve already agreed to three important points: 1) where we’re holding the event, 2) how much money we will spend, and 3) who will bring the tables. Am I on track here? OK, let’s focus now on other activities for the event.”
Help the meeting get back on track when people are confused, spinning their wheels or participating in counterproductive debate.
Ask the silent ones to speak, and don’t allow anyone to dominate.
Always make time for planning next steps, even if you haven’t finished other agenda items. For each step, identify who is responsible for the follow up.
Don't dream of the perfect facilitator. You are good enough! Ask the group to take responsibility for getting what it wants.
In any group, it is likely that at least one person at some time will speak or act in a way that you find difficult. 90% of the potential problems can be headed off fairly easily if you have a clear purpose and agenda, and agreed-upon ground rules. The group will be with you as you remind the person of something that all have agreed to.
Sometimes, though, a concern will come up in the group that can only be dealt with by diverging from the agenda. For example, if several people seem to be feeling uneasy about a proposed action, it may be important to pause and allow time for them to air their concerns.
When this happens, the good, nonjudgmental listening that you demonstrate will be one of the most important things you do as a neighborhood resilience leader. After all, there is a reason that our neighborhoods are not already more resilient: most people have fears about sharing their lives with their neighbors. By simply listening to these fears, we can begin to dissolve them.
For additional tips on handling particular challenging behaviors, see the sheet, “Coping with Challenging Group Behaviors.”