This informal CPD article No ‘mute’ point: Facilitation skills for virtual meetings was provided by Hannah O’Sullivan of Host Media Consultants. Hannah is a specialist personal impact and presentation skills coach, media trainer, and communication specialist for leading organisations including The Bank of England, John Lewis & Partners, Tesco, P&G, Nestlé, and the Department for International Trade.
‘I take charge!’ … ‘Read them and understand them!’ So went the chaotic Handforth Parish council Zoom meeting that provided one of the few highlights during lockdown. A well-run meeting requires thought.
In a previous article I have outlined the importance of clarity at the outset with the Invitation where roles are defined early on. Are they invited to be informed or are they decision-makers? An agenda is crucial. Equally, it is important to avoid accepting all meeting invitations blindly without checking how you can help support the objective.
My clients and colleagues, and my personal experience of lockdown, are showing a gradual internal shift. Having more time to think can reveal new perspectives; it can improve our patience, our listening skills and our ability to be ‘in the moment’ and enjoy simple pleasures more deeply. On the other hand, small things can be blown up out of proportion when we are left to our own thoughts. That is why feelings of being ignored can be caused by badly run virtual meetings.
Many of us have been spending working days in virtual meetings with varying output. On a basic human level, we need to interact with our colleagues, so it is important to ringfence these moments separately. When I reference facilitation here, I mean it in the context of inviting, chairing, and attending a business meeting.
The invitation is the first opportunity for clarity and is the most useful tool to support facilitation. The agenda, the roles of the attendees and the outcome must be explicit in the invitation. I would also suggest we avoid being tunnel-visioned about using virtual platforms. A few of my senior clients still prefer the telephone for one-to-one conversations where the messages may be challenging.
So, firstly, it is worth thinking about the right platform for the best outcome: emails and telephone calls are still valid for one-to-one conversations. Plan for shorter meetings, as people have shorter concentration spans in virtual meetings and a defined timeframe focuses our thinking. If you are issuing an invitation to the meeting, ask everyone to submit their thoughts and questions in advance: Addressing these at the opening of the meeting shows that you have listened and are responsive.
As an invitee, question whether you need to be in the meeting: Select a ‘Tentative’ response to the invitation and ask how you can specifically support the outcome if it is not clear.
Once the meeting has begun, remind everyone how long it is scheduled to last. It is a softer facilitation technique to reference the time when colleagues are departing from the agenda.
If the meeting is to brainstorm an idea or a problem, people will want to share it straight away and virtual platforms are not designed to have several people talking at the same time. The ‘chat’ function on some platforms allows people to text an idea to avoid talking over their colleagues and sounding rude.
As Handforth parish councillors will tell us, the key to an effective online meeting is clarity of purpose: Ask questions and check understanding and agreement at the start. Don’t assume everyone is feeling the same as you. Don’t assume everyone knows as much as you or thinks like you.
As the facilitator or chairperson, be clear about the objectives. If your colleagues decide to ignore the guidance, use the clock to bring them on track without crushing them: ‘That’s also an important point which deserves our attention, so I suggest we park it for another time as we have half an hour left to agree today’s issue’.
When things get heated, address the emotion with ‘You’re clearly upset’ or ‘I understand why you would feel that way’ and link to a positive point.
Facilitation means steering conversations away from ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ to ‘knowing’ and ‘believing’. Use strong signposting to bring colleagues back to the agenda and the benefits of agreement.
Summarise everyone’s input at the end and agree next steps using the agenda as the focus and remember ‘The Clock is King’ – facilitation is much easier when it is less personal. Blame a shortage of time to move the meeting to a close.
Finally, the golden rules for surviving in the online space and avoiding Zoom fatigue: Be patient and kind to your colleagues. Be patient and kind to yourself.
I have found it important to take frequent breaks when working on my own throughout. Taking a lunch break at a regular time can bring a welcome sense of routine. A walk outside, even for five minutes will leave you feeling refreshed and can bring new perspectives. I have also learned that I should schedule sessions and meetings for no longer than two hours to exploit my clients’ optimum concentration.
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