Are Facilitators useful in non Business Meetings?

I was privileged to be invited to a social meeting recently.  It was an established monthly social organisation with very good objectives at its heart. The agenda for the meeting looked straight forward enough and it was scheduled to last for two hours.

Half way through the agenda items, a particular “Update” item, which was only meant to last for two minutes generated surprising debate. A member, who had been tasked with the responsibility of implementing an agreed action from a previous meeting, reported her progress and concluded that the delivery of the external services and products would be completed by the next meeting.

This was indeed a successful outcome. However, I was astonished to observe the amount of debate, questions and observations that this generated.  Everything was being challenged from the members ranging from the “What”, “Who”, “Why”, “Where”, “How” to the “by Whom!” A two minute agenda item turned into a free for all with many members keen to participate in the debate, and continued for 20 minutes.

I watched fascinated and observed a few things:

  1. There wasn’t an independent meeting co-ordinator who was facilitating the smooth running of the questioning, challenging understanding and summarising the observations from members in a structured manner;
  2. Some members were so interested in airing their views that they virtually failed to see the similarities in their opinions with what they thought they were challenging;
  3. The Secretary of the meeting was furiously trying to document all the views and opinions of the members for the minutes that she had no time to analyse whether the questions being poised had already been discussed in previous meetings… which would have expedited matters.

Finally, after 20 minutes of this, it was left to the President of the organisation and Chair of the monthly meetings to interject with a reminder to the members of the origins of the actions. It transpired that the decisions and allocations of responsibility to the said member giving the update had been agreed and implemented some six months previously and documented in the minutes then! However, in speaking, it was plainly obvious that he felt disappointed and let down by members for revisiting this debate and as such the impact of his eloquent summary was lost. The perception was that he was responding from an emotional standpoint given that the questions were challenges to his decision making ability and leadership.

The debate continued for a further ten minutes (i.e. 30 minutes in total) before someone pledged that even if the decision, taken six months previously, was wrong, it was a bidding decision, with bidding actions which were nearing completion, and as such should be upheld accordingly.

The other agenda items continued and eventually the meeting came to an end – an hour behind schedule. I was told that this wasn’t unusual.

So, would the services of a facilitator have been useful especially bearing in mind that this was a social meeting and not a business one? My view is “absolutely yes” for the following reasons:

  1. By being an “uninterested” party in the outcome of the proceedings, a Facilitator would be emotionally detached  and thus focus on promoting mutual understanding of the views, highlighting  the similarities of opinions and steering members towards addressing the opposing  views or misunderstandings;
  2. The Facilitator would have quickly analysed the situation and gotten to the origins of the action being updated by the member. Indeed, in preparing to facilitate the event, she would have researched this beforehand so as to provide the background to all agenda items especially one which is billed as “Update to…” As such she would have spared the Chairman his blushes and advised that as the decision had already been taken and agreed upon months previously, any further debate on the whys and wherefores was surplus to requirements at this stage and unhelpful;
  3. Most importantly, because it was obvious that the Facilitator had no emotional connection to the opinions proffered (and therfore no “axe to grind”) her co-ordination of the proceedings would have been universally accepted and the agreements reached as a result, mutually agreed…and sustained.

Finally the Facilitator would also have made sure that the meeting ran to time. This is not a tall order; it is after all what they do in business meetings where political motives are often at a pitch which social meetings can only dream of.

So, think creatively. The next time you need to co-ordinate or chair a non business meeting, would the services of a good Facilitator be useful?

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