How to facilitate – as opposed to dominate – your meetings

One of the most common traps leaders fall into is to dominate, not facilitate.

It shows up in meetings. It rears its head when a team is faced with a complicated calamity. And we often see it when assessing the merits of an innovation. This dynamic can even be present when leaders and their direct reports have one-on-one meetings.

Why is this pernicious problem so prevalent? I think it mainly comes from common myths and outdated mental models we’ve assimilated about leadership.

Here are just a few:

  • I have to have all the answers and solve this problem (on my own)
  • Leadership is about steering the ship and telling my team what to do (this one is half true, but it’s overused)
  • My team need me to be out front, all of the time
  • My voice is the most important voice

This last assumption is often an unconsciously-held belief. I’m pretty sure you don’t think this is you. But are you absolutely sure your actions and behaviour aren’t showing up like this in the way you lead?

Somewhere along the line, we unconsciously adopted these outdated assumptions about leadership. Maybe it’s what we were taught. Maybe it’s what we’ve experienced, so we assume this is how we do it.

But from what I see (and, as a leadership coach, I have a front row seat to what is really happening in our workplaces), these outdated assumptions – even if they’re unconscious – are still showing up in leadership practices all over the place. And they’re damaging – not only to team performance and dynamics – but also to how leaders are perceived.

The best leaders know when directing, telling and talking are needed. They know that there are occasions when the situation requires them to take the lead, show their team the way, be directive and yes, even when dominating the airspace is required. They know when their voice is needed – out front, first and clear.

But – perhaps more importantly – the best leaders know when facilitating team discussion, asking a powerful open question, ensuring all voices in the room are heard and active listening are what the team needs. They know when they need to facilitate, as opposed to dominate.

This latter approach is needed far more often than you think.

What can you do to guard against the ‘dominate not facilitate’ penchant so common in leadership?

Here are some ideas:

When you and your team are faced with a problem:

When you’re next faced with a problem or challenge, before leaping into generating solutions… pause. I know you will have some great ideas, but first, ask your team some – or all – of the following questions, and don’t add your voice until your team members have had their say:

  • “What exactly is the problem we’re trying to solve here? What are the markers of success in this situation?” Slow down for a moment to identify the real problem, not just the one that is presenting itself and may instead simply be a symptom. This will save you time and reduce the risk of solving the wrong problem altogether. See here for further tips on that.
  • “What are our options? Let’s hear from everyone. Don’t worry if you think your idea is stupid or not fully formed. Let’s just start with what we have on top…”
  • “Can you build on someone else’s idea?”
  • “What are other people’s perspective?” “What do others think?”, followed by encouraging eye contact with those who have not spoken yet. This questioning makes sure you bring quieter voices in the room into the discussion. These people usually bring in a different perspective – the unseen, yet powerful perspective and, sometimes, the possible solution. These questions encourage the collective intelligence in the room to emerge.

Only add your voice and opinion at the end – and only if it’s necessary! More often than not, the best leaders merely summarise themes, outliers and potential solutions and then help move the team forward with the next steps.

When you’re running your next meeting:

Think about how you currently run meetings and try out different approaches, especially if your facilitation tendency is towards general discussion.

When you have unstructured general discussions, you often lose the magic of group problem-solving at its best. It can result in disillusionment, missed opportunities and frustration. With general discussion as one group, the same voices will be heard, introverts will shut up and likely those with the most power in the room (probably not minorities) will be heard. You may lose the best idea because someone is less inclined to speak up and put their thoughts forward.

Your job, once again, is to harness the collective brilliance of your team. It’s not always the loudest voice that has the best solution or idea. It may not be the people in the room who look or think like you that have the best perspective to move forward either.

Try some alternative approaches:

  • Get your team members to do a silent brainstorm before the meeting, and come prepared with their top three ideas. Then, in your meeting, hear from everyone (limit time for them to speak – ie: each person has one minute to provide their top line idea).
  • Notice if the same perspectives are showing up. Honour that, but also seek outliers. You could say, “I hear this is what the majority of the team think. Let’s pause and play devil’s advocate. What are the risks of this approach? What are we missing?”
  • Pose a question or problem, then break into smaller groups for 10 minutes to discuss before getting each group to report back major themes or ideas.

When one of your team members comes to you with an issue

The next time one of your team members comes to you with a problem, resist jumping straight into telling them what to do (unless it’s a true emergency). Here are a couple of questions you could ask instead. It may feel like this will take longer or create more work but, by asking these questions, you save time in the long run and encourage reflection and better problem-solving.

  • What do you think?
  • What are our options?
  • What’s the real issue?
  • What are we aiming for here? And given that, what are your ideas for how to get there?

This is what I call spot coaching. It can take less than five minutes. Try an open question as your first response, followed by active listening for a minute or two. Follow this with paraphrasing what you think you’ve heard. Then ask them to make a call, and only then – add your thoughts, perspective or advice. This approach can take the same time as telling them what to do, but it helps your direct report improve their problem-solving abilities – and probably results in them thinking you’re a better boss. ?

My final tip to avoid the ‘dominating not facilitating’ affliction?

Shut up.

If you’re a CEO or are the person who has the most power in the room through status, position or responsibility, active listening becomes a critical skill. But often, the more status, the less this happens.

If we were a fly on the wall in your meetings:

  • How much airspace would we see you taking up? How often are you dominating the conversation?
  • Are your sentences a good balance of statements and questions?
  • Are you listening to reply or listening to understand?
  • How often do you ask a follow-up question when someone makes a point?
  • How often are you paraphrasing to check your understanding?

When in doubt, shut up and listen. Listen with everything you have. Put down your phone. Stop looking at your watch. Notice (and distance from) your internal chatter and just concentrate on the person in front of you and what they are saying. Listen to understand, not to reply or solve the issue.

This is perhaps the most powerful thing you can do, when it comes to facilitating not dominating.


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