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As facilitator, your role is to keep the group on track to accomplish its goals. You help move the meeting along, but the group provides the content. As a trainer, you may also be sharing information, but there should still be space for the wisdom of the group to emerge. Here are some ideas about how to help the group move through the different stages of a meeting.
Starting the meeting
Consider starting with an opening reflection or activity that sets the tone for the session. This can be a poem, a song, a ritual, silence, a prayer, or a quick game — whatever helps people reflect on what they are about to do. Activities that help people get to know each other, sometimes called "ice breakers," help people feel more relaxed and ready to participate in group discussions.
For an example of an ice breaker activity, see The strong wind blows.
At the beginning of the meeting:
- Ask for a volunteer to take notes on what the group discusses and agrees upon.
- Review the agenda with the group and ask if there are any other items that need to be added. If there are, adjust the agenda and time to include the new item. Get the group’s agreement that the agenda is complete before proceeding.
- Check for "hangovers," or left over feelings or questions from previous discussions, before beginning a new session. Ask people to share how things have been for them since the last meeting, and if there have been significant changes. Ask if they have talked to anyone about the group’s issues and what happened. Take time to address hangovers, even if it slows down the new agenda.
Create group agreements
If this is the first meeting, remember to make time at the beginning of the meeting to create group agreements for everyone to follow. This way, if someone is talking too much, or personally criticizing another participant, you can remind them about the agreements the group has made.
Follow the agenda and address unplanned items
Your role as a facilitator is to help the group follow the planned agenda and to help them avoid becoming stuck or distracted. Before moving on to a new topic or the next step in the agenda, be sure to summarize the discussion and any decisions that were made. Ask the group if there are concerns or questions that need to be addressed or kept track of for future discussion.
Even with the best planned agenda, unplanned issues come up, or an agenda item needs more time for discussion than anticipated. If this happens, as the facilitator, you can suggest a change in the agenda to the group and ask for their agreement about this change. Or you can ask the group if they would like to change the agenda based on what they feel is most important.
During a meeting, the group will need to decide what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and who will do it. Help the group agree upon how it will make decisions — does everyone have to agree, or does the majority rule?
Voting can be a long process, and sometimes people are reluctant to vote, especially if they are undecided. To gauge whether people are ready to vote, do a "go around" in a circle and have everyone share their opinion, or take a "straw poll" (an unofficial, preliminary vote) by raising hands so everyone can see who is in favor or against and how close the group is to agreement. When making decisions by voting, it is best to try to reach a decision that everyone can live with. If there is an even split or a very small majority, the group may want to take time and further discuss the issue before voting.
Much of a group’s work happens between meetings. So it may also be important for the group to decide how decisions will be made between meetings. Will there be committees to make decisions, or will specific people be assigned responsibility for decision making?
Closing the meeting
Try to conclude each meeting in a way that fosters reflection and evaluation.
It is valuable to have participants share what they have learned during the meeting, how they feel, and to reflect on how it relates to their life. If people are comfortable sharing these reflections with each other, it can help the entire group to move from reflection to action. Head, heart, hands is one example of an activity that helps a group do this.
Evaluating the meeting is also important. If people can give honest feedback about how they think they have worked together, and the new ideas and strategies that have emerged, they can better identify next steps in their learning and organizing work.
Remind everyone about the spiral process, and how group reflection and analysis of our experience is essential to plan for new action (see Organizing is a process).
There are many ways to create closure and affirm the unity of the group at the end of a workshop or meeting. You can encourage people to share appreciations of each other and what they have learned. Or consider ending with a closing poem, refection, or song, or whatever fits the group’s needs.