Overcome the Worst Facilitation Fears of Introverts (and Everyone Else)
By Nancy Settle-Murphy
Thursday, 3rd August 2023

Admit it; You’ve done your share of commiserating about some perfectly awful meetings you’ve had to endure.

In fact, you’ve been such a vocal critic of poorly-run meetings that your manager anoints you as the perfect person to facilitate a do-or-die budget planning session with your team, group VP, CFO and a few other high-level decision-makers. If you can’t help gain consensus for your team’s proposed budget, you know that significant cuts are inevitable.

Finally, here’s your opportunity to demonstrate what a well-designed, effectively-facilitated meeting looks like. Suddenly you’re feeling a lot more charitable toward the meeting leaders you’ve maligned.

Some of us thrive in our role as meeting facilitator. For many others, especially those who tend to be introverted, this role can be intimidating at best and excruciating at worst. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If anything, those who tend to be thoughtful and reflective (read: introverts) typically make much better listeners, a key quality of a terrific facilitator, especially when visual cues are hard to come by.

This is a revised edition of a Communiqué co-authored with my colleague Dr. Keri Pearlson, formerly President of CIO advisory services firm KP Partners, and now a research group leader at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Here we answer a few common questions from people who are thrust into the role of meeting facilitator and would prefer to do anything else.

I find social chit-chat to be incredibly painful. Must I encourage this? Essentially, yes. It’s often the only opportunity people have to get to know each other when they work form a distance. To make this kind of conversation a little easier, have at least one question ready to get things going as people join. (Examples: What’s outside your nearest window? What’s the weather like where you are? What’s your favorite part of autumn?) Open the meeting five minutes or so early to give time for a little social connection. Not everyone will participate, but it can warm up the group so they are ready to start the conversation, on time.

How can I establish credibility with people I’ve never met? When there’s a lot on the line, and you have no existing relationships with some of the key participants such as executive sponsors, key influencers, affected stakeholders or expected resisters, try contacting them in advance to better understand their perspectives. Have a few questions ready such as: What would you most like to have happen as a result of this meeting? What’s your greatest concern? What else should I know about this topic/team/project/etc. that will help me facilitate the meeting?

If I am out of my comfort zone during the meeting, how do I get help? Don’t try to project a bold, assertive, confident style if you’re not feeling it. Be authentic. Speak naturally and don’t be afraid to refer to notes. Make sure to have a safety net in place at all times by enlisting the help of a colleague to act as your “co-pilot” who can pick things up if you stumble. Let them know when and how you may need their help. (Examples: If no one speaks when I ask them about X, can I call on you to go first? If we go too far off track, will you jump in and help redirect the conversation? Can you be on the lookout for people who seem bored or confused? If someone needs technical help, can you help them offline?)

I’m no good at getting people talking. What are some tricks? The best way is to ask great questions, and then sit back and listen. A good question stimulates creative thought, generates curiosity, and invites people to share their thoughts. Both close-ended and open-ended questions have their place. Close-ended questions usually require less time to answer, and can be a great way to quickly hear from everyone. (Examples: On a scale of 1-10, what’s your enthusiasm for this idea? Fill in the blank: If only we could do ____, this project would be guaranteed to succeed.) Open-ended questions encourage deeper thinking, so use them sparingly if you’re tight on time or have many people on the call. (Examples: What lessons can we apply from the last project? What are some actions we must make sure NOT to do if we want to be successful here?) The more provocative and unexpected your questions, the more you’ll get their attention.

What if I panic and suddenly freeze up? If we don’t feel at least a few butterflies, that’s a sign we’re probably not all that jazzed about it, which can be a problem. If we are feeling excited, or even a bit anxious, our participants are likely to have heightened anticipation of what’s to come. If you suddenly freeze, try quickly reviewing your notes to help you get you back on track. It’s perfectly okay to say that you need a quiet moment to think about how best to move forward. If you have a co-pilot, you can always send them a private message to ask them to lead this next part, or you can buy time by asking something like this: “Juan, can you summarize the key points the team just made?”

How do I get a talkative person to take a break without seeming rude? If you’re using video, you can make a “timeout” sign as you apologize for interrupting, explaining why you’re jumping in, summarizing the speaker’s points, and then asking someone else to weigh in. Here’s an example: “Bonnie, sorry to interrupt. You have some great ideas, but I am concerned that we may not have enough time to hear from others. Let me summarize your key points…” Then ask others to share theirs. “Jack, since you seem to have a similar situation, what do you think we should do about X?” If the talkative person resists letting go of the virtual mic, try using an “idea parking lot” that you will return to later on so all can agree how and where to continue the discussion.

How do I get quiet people (like me) to speak up without putting them on the spot? Give people fair warning right at the outset that everyone will be asked to actively participate throughout the meeting. Good prep questions help draw people out. A “warm” question (“Suzette, can you share some of the ways that your group was able to overcome this hurdle?”) works far better than a blunt: “Suzette, you’ve been awfully quiet. What do you think?” Keep track of who’s speaking so you can make a special effort to engage those who have been quiet. Give people the option to respond or ask a question out loud or in chat. This gives more reflective participants a chance to contribute without feeling pushed.

What should I do if I encounter dead silence after asking a question? Try offering to paraphrase the question, saying something like: “I probably wasn’t as clear as I could have been. Let me try another way of asking.” If our reworded question is still followed by silence, pause and then say something like: “Wow. I’m not sure what to make of this silence. Can someone help me out?” And then – remain perfectly quiet, resisting the inclination to fill the void. Chances are great that someone will jump in, and others will follow suit. Remind them they can use chat or respond verbally. Keep in mind: There are times when you’ll want to intentionally build in periods of silence to give people time to think and reflect before speaking, which can be especially important for introverts or those who speak another native language.

What’s the best way to close out the meeting? Make sure you set aside at least 5-10 minutes for a wrap-up, depending on the objectives and duration of the meeting. Summarize a few key points (e.g., decisions reached, issues surfaced, or actions assigned). Gain agreement as to how progress will be reported and tracked and where meeting notes can be found. State the next meeting date and time, objectives, and participants. Alert people as to when they can expect a follow-on email, meeting request, or link to your shared portal. Circle back to any parking lot items and agree how and when they will be covered. Thank people for their time, attention and energy, and acknowledge their contributions. Always remember to end your meeting with a clear “goodbye,” with a smile on your face.

Most of us are not born facilitators, but with practice and preparation, anyone can do a great job. Enlist a colleague who can help you plan and lead your meeting, so you never feel like you’re dangling over the abyss without a safety net. If needed, practice role-playing before the meeting for situations you may find the most intimidating.

Ask colleagues for feedback right after the meeting ends so you can make continuous improvements. One tip that always works: If you plan your conversation around the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) from your participants’ perspectives, you’ll keep people focused, engaged and involved, making your job as facilitator much less stressful.

Founded in 1994 by Nancy Settle-Murphy, Guided Insights (formerly Chrysalis International) is a facilitation, training and strategic communications consulting firm based in Boxborough, MA - just 35 minutes from Boston, MA and 20 minutes of Worcester, MA.

The company's virtual team of seasoned facilitators, organizational development professionals, trainers and strategists is committed to helping teams achieve desired results more quickly by collaborating more successfully. A special area of focus for the firm is helping virtual teams who work across various cultures, functions and time zones.


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