Techniques for successful group meetings
To ensure good thinking, clear process and meetings in which everyone can feel confident and comfortable, we recommend a range of simple techniques. All the techniques listed below are easy to learn and easy to use, and after a bit of initial practice, can be easily incorporated into most situations where people are thinking, learning and working together. Try them out! Thanks to Andy Langford, Edward De Bono, Tony Buzan and others. Session in progress...
Think and Listen
Work in pairs for a Think and Listen. For half the time one person is the thinker and the other is the listener. The thinking turn is for the thinkers benefit. It is a time for the thinker to collect and develop their thoughts at their own pace, in their own way and using their own language if they choose. The listener makes no comments and asks no questions, but does make encouraging sounds and movements to indicate that their attention to the listener is active.
Common time periods for a Think and Listen are between two to five minutes each. What the thinker speaks about and how their thinking develops is confidential, unless otherwise agreed.
When you are the thinker remember: the time is for you and you do not need to appear bright or knowledgeable.
When you are the listener remember: look at your partner and be active in your listening, do not interrupt or ask questions.
In a Go-Round everyone gets to speak for a short, equal time, taking turns, often going round a circle of people. In meetings the facilitator can offer topics or headings to guide contributions, such as "Say your name, where you are from and how you are feeling today."
It is common for people in meetings to speak about themselves using "You/Them Statements". That is they may say something like "People won't make changes like that" when they really mean "I would find it difficult to make changes like that myself" Watch out for participants talking generally about "other people" or "someone" or saying "you" or "one" instead of "I".
A facilitator will need to know how the participants at a meeting are doing. Is their energy level OK? Do people need a break? Can people keep going for another 10 minutes so we can finish this item before lunch? Are people warm/cool enough. Is fresh air needed?
As an alternative to hearing from everyone as when using a go-round for a check in the 'thumbs' method is a swift alternative. Example for knowing the energy level of the group: show your thumb up for good energy level. Thumb down if you need a rest and your thumb anywhere in between to show how you are.
Items in a meeting which are not presented for action or decision-making but rather are presented for people to think about. First thoughts or responses may be shared in the meeting with the understanding that the item requires more time for contemplation and will become an agenda item at a later date.
The agenda for a meeting should be visible at all times. For example, written up in a Mind Map form on a flip chart, sheet or blackboard. Alterations to the agenda can then be made in full view of all the participants.
Mind maps are freehand diagrams that start from a circle in the middle and have 'arms' or 'branches' radiating out at all angles. Mind maps give a visual representation of the whole of a subject and allow the main points to be easily identified. They are a flexible way of presenting information that allow for alteration and making connections between topics much more easily than linear text.
At the beginning of a meeting the facilitator draws up a mind map showing the items that participants want on the agenda. If a pre-prepared agenda was issued before a meeting it should be clearly marked as a draft to show that the agenda to be worked with will be generated at the meeting. A Think and Listen can be used to generate items. The facilitator guides the meeting to categorise each agenda item as requiring long, medium or short amounts of attention. Given the time available for the meeting a rough calculation can be made that deduces for example that short is 5 minutes, medium is 10 minutes and long is 20 minutes. The group is now ready to decide which order to take the items in. Covering short and easy items first in the meeting creates a sense of getting things done.
During the meeting the facilitator will draw participants attention to progress against the plan. Adjustments can be made. For example an item that was allocated a medium amount of time but now appears to need longer may gain some time from items that have taken less than their allocated time or the group may decide to give it the amount of time proposed and then move it on to the next meetings agenda. Constructing an agenda at the meeting allows all participants to own the content, order and general management of the meeting. The method allows negotiations for time and space to be conducted in the open.
No one speaks twice until everybody has been given the opportunity to speak once
This method can be used to bring structure to discussions. It is particularly useful when there is the possibility of arguments developing between two people or where certain group members dominate the discussion. The facilitator is able to use the method to encourage quiet people to contribute. Note that the system does not mean that everyone has to speak on a certain point, but that they are offered the opportunity to do so before others speak for a second time.
Beginnings and Endings
Begin and end meetings and events with simple Go-Rounds.
Beginnings can be as short and simple as "say your name and one thing about yourself" or as long and detailed as you put time aside for. Beginnings can also include a question about why participants have come to the meeting, or whether they have any special needs that other people should be aware of such as "I'm deaf in my left ear".
Endings are useful places to get feedback about how the meeting or event has gone for participants; "say your name, something you have enjoyed about the meeting and anything that you would have done differently."
Original text from Permaculture Association website  used with permission