There are many roles to play as a process facilitator or as the leader of a meeting. I have a framework of eight roles that I teach: Party Host, Race Car Driver, Mechanic, Nurse, Trip Leader, Improv Comedian, Designer, and Rugby Referee.
In this post I want to highlight the role of the:
Continuously taking the pulse in the room and monitoring the energy levels of your attendees, recognizing when an injection of new energy is needed.
I came to from the anesthesia to see two nurses hovering right above me as the equipment above my headed beeped loudly and frantically. From the tone and tenor of their voices, I could tell that something was wrong. They saw that I was awake and encouraged me to turn over on my side. I did so belaboredly. That sent the machines into a frenzy and the nurses changed course, telling me to turn back over onto my back. I did and then slipped back into sleep or unconsciousness or some combination. The next time I awoke everything was calm. The machines were keeping tempo with a steady beep … beep … beep. The nurse looked at me, looked at the numbers on the monitor and smiled, “that’s more like it.” It turned out that my blood pressure had dropped dangerously low. There was medicine they could give me to boost it, but the medicine came with side effects and they really wanted to avoid it at all possible. I had just come out of anesthesia after donating my bone marrow to a stranger through the Be the Match bone marrow program. I was able to recover fully in a normal amount of time, but those first few hours were strikingly intense and I still remember them vividly.
As I think about how a meeting facilitator is similar to a nurse, I am struck by the way a facilitator is also always monitoring the vitals of the participants in the room. Just like with a nurse, it is important that you remain present and alert and keep a close eye on the participants in the room to monitor how they are responding to what is happening.
As a facilitator, you have lots of tools and techniques that you can use to intervene with a group when they are stuck or in conflict. However, every intervention has side effects. You do not want to use a larger intervention than you need, because you may create a larger effect than you intended.
One great skill is that a nurse has the ability to remain calm when others are uncomfortable; a great nurse provides a calm and neutral presence. As a facilitator, sometimes what the group needs to deal with is uncomfortable, and if you can’t handle it, it doesn’t give them the space to handle it. You keep your eyes on the vitals, stay present, but don’t jump in too quickly with calming medicine. Sometimes the medicine can mask symptoms and if you can’t see those symptoms the underlying cause can not be properly diagnosed.
Here are some practical ideas you can get from the Nurse for your next meeting:
- Identify what vital signs you are monitoring. Below are examples of what to observe:
- Body language – Open and relaxed body language is a sign of trust and open communication. Leaning forward or having body language that mirrors one another are signs of engagement. Crossed arms, leaning away, sitting far from each other, and repetitive movements (like pen clicking, or picking at nails) may be signs of discomfort, unease, and distrust. Note that crossed arms can sometimes be a red herring because meeting rooms are so often over-air-conditioned and cold.
- Eye contact – Are the participants making eye contact with one another? With you? Were they previously but then stopped after a particular topic was brought up? There are cultural differences in how people expect one another to engage in eye contact, but part of what you are looking for are patterns and the changes in behavior.
- Who is talking, for how long – If you have an assistant or if you are invited to observe the group before you begin facilitating, this is a very helpful behavior to observe and collect data on. I also find it helpful to change the meeting format (to small group discussions for example) and see if those who did not speak in front of the whole group can speak freely once in a small group. If so, they may just be introverted or intimidated by large groups. However, often introverted individuals will still speak up in a meeting when they are engaged in the subject matter if the group allows space for everyone to speak and makes it clear that everyone is encouraged to share their ideas.
- How the group responds to conflict or dissent – When disagreement or conflict is brought up by one person, everyone else falls silent.
- Anti-social behavior – Examples include: side conversations, working on phone or laptop during a meeting, leaving the room, openly antagonizing among participants
- If the group’s energy is waning but they are still showing positive attitudes and willingness to engage, just give the group a short break. You can get up and stretch for a short break or call for a 5-minute “bio-break” so that your participants can refill water and use the restroom.
- If you are leading a meeting longer than 90 minutes, build in a break. When I lead all-day sessions, I will also vary the agenda so that participants get to move around, go outside if possible, get quiet time to reflect and recharge, and have plenty of chances to take care of their own needs in terms of food, drink, and comfort.
- In order to maintain the energy in a group, do not tell people you will get out of the meeting early. Even if you are really ahead of schedule and you think it is a sure bet that you will be ending early, do not say anything like, ‘Well, it looks like we are going to get out of here early.” Trust me, don’t do it.
- It is very important to end meetings on time. Therefore, add in buffer time in case you need extra time or an extra break. It is always nice to end early if you can (but see the previous bullet!).
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