Facilitating effective project meetings can be something of a science and an art form for project managers, particularly when planning projects.
There are plenty of steps you need to take to make a meeting a success – that’s the science bit. But an artful application of skills is also required.
And these skills are not to be taken lightly. After all, project meetings are vital, particularly at the planning phase of a project. Requirements gathering and risk identification can make or break your project (find out more about project planning in the e-book Mission Controlled: The 5-Step Guide to Planning Projects).
Here are three facilitation skills you’ll need to hone before you get started on planning your next project…
1. Active listening and questioning
There’s a bad habit that many people often fall into that becomes a real problem for meetings and even day-to-day conversations. That habit is: thinking about what you are going to say next before the other person has finished speaking.
Clearly this presents problems with understanding – one of the key factors in a successful meeting (and life in general).
At best, you may be missing some vital information and, at worst, be causing confusion.
That’s one reason why an impartial facilitator for meetings is ideal – because they don’t have anything to add to the conversation; they are there to keep everything on track.
In reality, though, you won’t often have the luxury of this, as the project manager will have to assume this role. You’ll be going a long way towards tackling this habit by practising ‘active listening’ and asking probing questions. Doing it is actually quite simple:
- Feed back what the person has said, by restating or paraphrasing.
- Ask probing questions that require them to clarify or expand upon what they said.
- Summarise all the key points at the end.
By doing all three, you are not only clarifying important information, but you’re also showing participants that you value their comments, thus encouraging greater interaction.
Try practising active listening in other scenarios, such as during phone calls or one-on-one conversations.
Despite the negative associations, being assertive is not a bad thing, but it is a matter of degree.
If you are too assertive you could come across as a bully, but if you are not assertive enough, your voice won’t be heard.
For the facilitator, you need to reach that middle ground, of having the guts to keep meeting attendees in line, even if they are more senior, more experienced, or perhaps too assertive, and making sure the less assertive and more junior attendees have an equal say.
Being neutral as a facilitator doesn’t mean that you should be passive, otherwise you’re just a note taker. Your job is to be a police officer rather than people pleaser, and you certainly shouldn’t be imposing your views on the group, or favour one side or opinion.
It can help to establish grounds rules with attendees at the start and insist on them when a situation arises. Explain to the group that they should:
- Respect everyone’s views and opinions
- Only one person speaks at a time
- Listen to others input without dismissing their views
- Respect everyone’s time by sticking to the agenda and finish time
For those who are shy and struggle with being assertive, try practising in smaller meetings, then build up to bigger ones.
3. Making everyone feel comfortable
It’s not a skill you’re likely to put on your CV, but creating the right atmosphere where people feel comfortable participating in a meeting is perhaps one of the most crucial roles of a facilitator, but perhaps the least appreciated.
You could ask all the right questions, but if you’re getting no responses or people are holding back for they fear of being dismissed or ridiculed, then you’re not going to get the information or the decisions you need. Setting out the ground rules (mentioned above) will go some way towards this, but you’ll also need to soften the atmosphere and make everyone relaxed.
You’re also going to need to build rapport and trust, which can happen before the meeting even takes place. People feel more secure when they are talking to people they know, particularly those they know well. It’s worth finding opportunities to get to know stakeholders a bit better, which will lay the groundwork to a more successful meeting.
At the start of the meeting small talk can help to break the ice. And don’t underestimate the value of an amusing anecdote.
You can also help to build rapport by subtly reflecting the body language of the meeting participant who is talking. If they are leaning forward, lean forward yourself a little, but give it a few moments before mirroring the motions, otherwise it may seem forced rather than natural.
Also, don’t forget to thank everyone for making time to take part in the meeting – appreciation goes a long way, and their contributions will undoubtedly reflect well on you when you deliver a successful project.
To find out more about planning effective projects read the e-book Mission Controlled: The 5-Step Guide to Planning Projects.