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Top tips for facilitating a successful meeting


In August 2021, I was asked to facilitate a regional meeting that would involve presentations from experts, discussions, and then questions. The brief was to get everyone engaged on the topic of renewable energy.

I needed to ensure each panelist had equal airtime and then facilitate the panelists to respond to one another’s presentations after which I would facilitate questions from attendees. On top of all that, I had to manage it so that the online event started and finished on time.

That meant managing different tensions – the client’s outcome, the group’s interest, individual enquiries, and time – all while keeping everyone’s attention on the salient points of a big-topic discussion. Facilitating a meeting like this for me is like conducting an orchestra and as you can imagine, not easy.

Luckily for me, I was able to use both Clean Language and Systemic Modelling principles and behaviours to support me as I conducted my orchestra. Here then are my top three tips for successfully facilitating an event like this, which anyone can learn:

1. Repeat back key words

After each presentation by an expert panelist, I repeated back some of their exact key words. Exact repeating of words is known as a “clean repeat”. That means not paraphrasing and not introducing any of my own words, and only repeating back the panelist’s exact words.

For example, I said: “And wind power in Vietnam.” And later, “And in Indonesia, the potential of geothermal energy and biofuel”, after I heard the panelists use these words.

Doing a “clean repeat” had the benefit of letting the panelists know I was listening acutely to their presentation, and that I was helping attendees listen, too. By repeating back their exact words, I was making their words “sticky” for everyone else. Doing that meant I was directing the meeting’s attention to those words so that that is what attendees remember from everything else they may have heard from the panelist.

There was one other benefit of the “clean repeat”. Midway through the meeting, the client declared: “You sound like an expert on renewable energy yourself!” Clearly, I’m no expert on renewable energy. And using the experts’ exact words made it sound like I was!

2. Ask whose thinking is different

Part of my brief was to get the panelists responding to one another’s presentations. I did that by asking the panelists, “What are your thoughts about […]?” After hearing one response, I would repeat back some of their words as above, and then ask the other panelists, “And who is thinking something different?”

Asking “Who is different?” is a simple and effective way of encouraging participation and inclusion. It also signals that in this space, thinking differently is welcome. This has the effect of raising group intelligence by eliciting perspectives that others may not have thought about.

3. “Let me pause you there…”

Each panel speaker at this event was given a specific amount of time. And each part of the meeting also had clear time limitations so that everything on the agenda – presentations, discussions and questions – would happen as planned.

And as many of us know, experts who know a lot about a topic can and often will speak beyond their allocated time. And events do often end later than stated in deference to the experts or to how much more attendees want to say.

In Systemic Modelling, the facilitator’s allegiance is to the group and its outcomes, and not to any one individual - no matter their expertise or eagerness. So, when a panelist was sharing more than was possible for the time allocated, I said, “Let me pause you there, so that we get a chance to hear from the other panelists.” In one or two instances, I added, “And if we have time, I’ll come back to you on that point.”

“Let me pause you there” or “Let me just freeze you” is one way to respect the expertise in a meeting, while managing the group’s outcome against the limitations of time. It’s not always easy to interrupt and pause an expert, for sure. And what makes it easy is knowing that I have an allegiance to the group and its outcomes and that my responsibility is to that allegiance, and not to any one individual.

The result of doing all that was instant feedback from the client: "Well done – moving the panelists on!" and "Great time-keeping! We were behind and now we have finished on time."

With all of that …

Facilitating in this way meant that I could do a good job for my client and their meeting attendees. After the meeting, the client sent a note of appreciation: “Thank you for facilitating the session, and so expertly.”

I could not have facilitated in this way if I wasn’t trained in the late David Grove’s Clean Language and Dr. Caitlin Walker's Systemic Modelling. Both are facilitation processes that train quality attention on what is happening live in the room as well as on what needs to happen next in service of the client.

Clean Language and Systemic Modelling have transformed the way I listen and track when I facilitate. It doesn't just add value to how I am in the world, it adds value to what clients want and need.

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About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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