I intuitively knew I wanted to include meeting facilitation as one of the topics in the conflict management professional development certificate program I created here at Sonoma State University, but I hadn’t articulated why, until a student asked me,” Is the class session just about facilitating conflict situations?”
I immediately told her, ”No. Poorly run meetings are themselves such a big source of frustration and conflict. If you learn how to facilitate a meeting well, you can avoid all kinds of conflict at work or in other organizations and build good relationships.”
I added, ”I bet you’ve been in plenty of frustrating meetings that got nowhere.” She rolled her eyes and then nodded with understanding.
I hate meetings
Personally, I hate meetings unless I’m the one facilitating, or someoneelse who really knows how to facilitate, is running them. My biggest frustrations are meetings that do one or more of the following:
- Get off track.
- Push through agenda items too quickly.
- Insult or snipe at each other.
- Try to jump to solutions without really identifying the problem.
- Don’t allow everyone to discuss the issue in a respectful way.
- Are so busy following Roberts Rules that they don’t let people brainstorm or flow through possibilities, options, concerns.
- Allow discussions to spiral out of control with no time or will for clear decisions.
How can well run meetings reduce conflict and promote harmony at work?
A skillful facilitator starts working way before the meeting starts. They check in with all the people who are going to be part of the meeting to see what important items need to be covered and how and what are the priorities.
Then they set up a realistic timeframe for what items can be addressed and how long each will take.
And then move through the agenda, monitoring the room and the time to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to share.
Here is one example of how skillful facilitation transformed a conflict ridden committee.
A contentious budget committee
During the time I was a tenured professor and department chair, shared governance, which gave faculty some decision making power, began in California community colleges for the first time. This included some power to set the budget for the whole school. The CFO and I were co-chairs of the budget committee and it was a terribly contentious meeting at first.
Terror, anger, suspicion, mistrust, victimhood
The administrators were terrified that the instructors were going to spend way more money than the budget could support on academics and instruction.
The faculty, were angry and deeply suspicious of the administration because of the past. They had had no say in budget decision. They believed the administrators had padded their budgets and salaries at our expense, and then lied about it. And the third group, the support staff, felt like victims who were powerless and undervalued. No one trusted anyone else’s intentions or actions.
The CFO for the college was a kind and smart numbers cruncher who had no facilitation skills whatsoever, so we set the agendas together and I ran the meetings.
I set aside my own strong feelings about academics, to follow the overriding imperatives of good facilitators: to hold the “container” of the meeting, honor the process, and ensure that everyone felt heard and respected.
As we dealt with agenda items and looked at spread sheets, I gently encouraged all of them to set priorities about what to address first. I called on people in turn, respectfully but firmly reminded people not to interrupt, and I asked people who hadn’t shared for a while if they wanted to contribute something. I also did a lot of neutral summarizing and restating.
At first accusations were flying around and no one could listen to each other. But as people begin to see my deep commitment to all of them being heard and respected, and saw the work I did to make it so, they began to trust the process, if not each other, and to settle down. They were able to share their perspective, their truth, without fearing backlash. Then, we began to be able to make real progress on our shared goals of wanting the college to thrive and be solvent.
Trust in the process
Although this process didn’t make for easy resolution of all the problems, it’s certainly gave us a far better vehicle to come up with approaches and solutions and also promoted collegiality instead of dissension. We started getting a lot more done and moving forward.