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Many people initially associate the word “moderator” with entertaining television and radio presenters. However, meetings typically have little to do with entertainment shows – without skilled facilitation, participants quickly tune out and the meeting goes nowhere. In the world of work, moderating is less about amusing entertainment and more about constructive, goal-oriented discussions. Nonetheless, we can learn a few things from good entertainers. After all, in essence the aim is to pique the interest of participants and encourage constructive conversations.
Why does a meeting need facilitation in the first place?
People with different motivations, knowledge, perspectives, and personalities come together in meetings. What they share in common is that they’re working on the same project which they intend to complete as successfully as possible. The leader of a meeting has the task of involving the various participants so that they can each benefit from one another, with every individual being able to contribute to successful teamwork. But that’s easier said than done. For example, there are the attention-seekers who love to talk without saying much, the shy types who keep good ideas to themselves because they don’t like taking center stage, the unprepared, the latecomers, the naysayers, and the stubborn dogmatists.
If you want to conduct meetings efficiently, you need to ensure that as many participants as possible have an equal opportunity to speak and that no-one monopolizes the speaking time for themselves.Various facilitation techniques can help you achieve this with little effort. You can use them to divide speaking time fairly, bring rambling discussions back on topic, and encourage timid colleagues to get involved without leaving anyone feeling put out.
Moderation techniques are ways of conducting conversations that help the moderator to involve everyone in the meeting fairly. The various moderation methods can promote a positive atmosphere, allow speaking time to be divided equitably, and contribute toward deescalating any existing conflicts.
To understand where each moderation technique comes in and which are best suited for certain problems, you first need to learn the actual tasks of a moderator:
- Planning and directing the course of the meeting
- Defining the goal of the meeting and reminding the participants of it when necessary
- Summarizing facts so that all participants are on the same page
- Formulating follow-up questions with the goal in mind
- Motivating all attendees to participate
- Reining in any dominating speakers
- Including shy participants
- Preventing any conversations from straying too far from topic
- Deescalating debates (mediating between the parties if necessary)
- Creating an open and constructive atmosphere
If you succeed in performing the role of moderator, you’ll create the ideal conditions for a constructive meeting.
Moderation Techniques for Everyday Meetings
Time and again, people complain that meetings often drag on unnecessarily, without even delivering useful results or solutions after endless discussion. This can be due to a number of reasons. But a competent facilitator is able to counter many of them by applying the right strategy. Moderation techniques are considered to be among the soft skills that any manager should learn, as well as anyone who regularly conducts meetings.
Of course, not every technique is suitable for every meeting. It always depends on the participants and, above all, the purpose of the meeting. An overview of proven moderation techniques is presented below.Before choosing one of the methods, you should always ask yourself what the purpose of your meeting is and whether the facilitation technique is appropriate.
Round of Introductions
When people come together in meetings who have never met each other before or only communicated by email, it’s absolutely essential to introduce the participants. There are several different ways to do this. The simplest and most frequently used method are self-introductions. Here, the participants introduce themselves in turn by name, role within the company, and any other facts related to their professional career.
If you have more time and wish to create a more trusting atmosphere, you can also use techniques like partner interviews – where two of the attendees interview each other – or neighbor introductions, where each participant briefly introduces the colleague next to them. In the case of meetings at a small or medium-sized organization, where familiar coworkers quickly need a solution to an existing problem, it’s best to go without any lengthy rounds of introductions.
Before the meeting actually starts, the moderator can ask the participants about what they expect from the meeting, what answers and solutions they hope to find, or how they want the meeting to progress. This method is useful for quickly gauging topics that are especially important to the participants, or to weight the predefined topics. It is critical that the moderator makes no value judgments and treats all answers with the same level of attention.
This approach is particularly suitable for discussions in which the participants already know each other and have previously had meetings together.
Weighting of Topics
Sometimes, the timing of a meeting can fall apart if you wrongly assess the time to discuss individual agenda items as the facilitator. This can be the case if points originally seen as less important turn out to require more discussion time, thereby protracting the meeting considerably.
You can prevent this situation by preparing the course and timing together with the participants. Although you send out the agenda items beforehand, you define the order and priority together with them at the beginning of the meeting. To do so, write all the topics on a poster and ask each participant to mark the topics that are more important or interesting to them. You can use the traffic light system here, for example, or each participant can allocate a certain number of points to topics they find most relevant. This will give you a good picture of which topics should take priority, allowing you to adjust the sequence and timing accordingly.
If new ideas for projects are to be developed or internal processes improved in the meeting, brainstorming together continues to be the best way for reaching an outcome that everyone is happy with. At the same time, this method allows you to promote the creativity of participants and also involve more reserved colleagues.
In terms of the actual approach, there’s a huge selection of brainstorming concepts available. For example, you could specify a relevant starting term and ask the participants to call out their associations. Or you could define clusters of topics on buzzword boards and get the attendees to write their ideas as key points for each. If they write these ideas on flash cards, they can then be easily arranged, prioritized, and connected with one another.
After that, the ideas can be evaluated, discussed, and further developed – ideally transforming the most popular ideas into an outcome that everyone agrees with.
Finish by Evaluating the Results
In case you’re unsure whether all the participants are happy with the course and result of the meeting, you can simply ask them at the end. If just a few people offer feedback – or none at all – you can also use the points or traffic light system for evaluating the results. But instead of the agenda items, the discussed results should be rated. This way, you can be sure that all the participants will take part and you’ll get a good idea of how satisfied they are with the outcome of the meeting.
As explained above, you can see that successful moderation is primarily about asking the right questions at the right time to involve all the participants in the discussion. As the moderator, you should know how you can influence a discussion with different questioning techniques. Simply by deliberately choosing open, closed and goal-oriented questions, you can steer a conversation in the desired direction.
However, it’s always important to demonstrate social skills as the facilitator. This means staying neutral and objective when needed, and not trying to impose your own views. At the same time, you also have to be assertive and prevent discussions from becoming unfair or straying away from the topic at hand.
Special Case: Large Groups and Conferences
The facilitation techniques described above are intended for smaller project or team meetings of the sort that happen at work on a daily basis. But there are sometimes also large staff meetings in organizations or cross-company conferences with far greater numbers of participants. In these cases, reaching and involving all participants is a particular challenge and it takes special strategies. We briefly introduce the three most well-known below:
- World Café: The participants are divided into small groups of around eight people, each with a “leader”, and they discuss a set question within their group. After a certain amount of time, all participants switch group. They move to the next “leader”, who summarizes the question and discussion from the previous round and develops the group’s ideas for the next topic. This model allows large groups to effectively engage in clustering and brainstorming.
- Open Space: Likewise, in this model the participants gather in small groups to discuss questions. However, they develop these questions themselves. In other words, the groups don’t explore predefined topics. During the discussion phase, they can move freely from one group to the next when they have the feeling that they have nothing more to contribute toward a topic or if they want to get an overview or inspiration from another group.
- Future Conference: Here, the participants discuss their ideal vision of the future in small groups. For instance, this can relate to general processes in a company, approaches for dealing with socially relevant changes (such as political conflicts or environmental issues), as well as solutions to a specific problem in an organization.
With all these models, the groups’ ideas are collected at the end, providing a basis for a common solution that takes into account the views of the individual participants.
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