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Editor’s introduction: Elaine Cogan is a founding partner in a consulting firm that specializes in planning issues. In her nearly forty years’ of practice, she has found her professional background in communications invaluable to successfully designing and facilitating hundreds of public meetings.
For many years, Elaine has also drawn on her experience by writing more than fifty incisive articles for the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now PlannersWeb.com. I also recommend — if you haven’t yet done so — downloading her excellent booklet, Now that You’re on Board: How to Survive … and Thrive … on a Planning Commission, and getting her APA-published book, Successful Public Meetings.
Facilitating meetings successfully takes skills and techniques that are rarely taught in planning school.
Planners often are expected to bring people together in public settings, usually to discuss policies or programs people want to know more about or are asked to support.
Facilitating such meetings successfully, whether with 10 or 100, takes skills and techniques that are rarely taught in planning school. Most of us probably can think of one or more examples where matters went horribly wrong. Hopefully, we can recall others where the results were satisfactory for all.
Not every planner can be an outstanding facilitator, but most can be at least adequate for the job. One can learn by doing, and while experience can be a good teacher, there are many tools that may be valuable. These tips may help.
1. Do not attempt to be the know-it-all. The most effective facilitators are familiar enough with the subject to keep the meeting on track but not too much versed that they become the expert. The best role to play is as the neutral convener who gains the respect of all parties.
Attendees should not be led to believe they will have a chance for a dialogue or discussion and then find that it is a “show and tell” meeting where they are expected just to listen.
2. Agree on the purpose or goals of each meeting and design the announcement, publicity, and format accordingly. Is the primary purpose to inform the public about a specific project or decision or engage people in helping solve an issue?
Hand out an agenda with the expectations clearly stated. Attendees should not be led to believe they will have a chance for a dialogue or discussion and then, when they get there, find that it is a “show and tell” meeting where they are expected just to listen.
The facilitator’s job is make everyone comfortable in whatever the setting, but it is more difficult or impossible if people believe they were deceived about the purpose of the meeting.
3. Choose the most appropriate environment or venue. Each community has one or more meeting places where people feel the most comfortable. Schools, libraries, community centers, and some churches often are the most welcoming environments while City Halls or County Courthouses can be the least. Having to go “downtown” can be intimidating to just the audience you want to reach, especially if you are dealing with people whose first language is not English. Find out where your target audience is accustomed to gather and set up your meeting there.
4. Start and end on time and stick to the schedule. Choose the time most convenient to your attendees, not yourself. Here again the agenda can help. Indicating the timing for each item helps people keep track and is an invaluable aid to the facilitator who can politely, but firmly, keep the meeting moving by reminding people the clock is ticking. …
Other tips covered in the article:
5. Do not expect one format to fit all circumstances.
6. If this is a discussion type meeting, give everyone an opportunity to participate but allow no one to dominate.
7. Use a microphone if there is any chance people in the back of the room will not be able to hear you.
8. Review the visuals of your speakers or presenters before the meeting.
9. Respect each questioner.
10. Avoid jargon.
11. Give each speaker or presenter a time limit and enforce it.
12. Do not allow people to clap, shout or otherwise show their feelings in ways that disrupt the meeting.
13. Promise only what you can deliver.
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