What Driving a Car Can Teach Us About Facilitating Meetings
When I was 16 years old, I was a terrible driver. Technically, I knew how to drive, I had passed all the tests and I intellectually knew all the rules. But I was still a terrible driver. If you rode with me as a passenger all those years ago, you would've been fearful.
Two types of drivers
Have you ever been a passenger in a car when the driver was driving recklessly? If not, try to imagine it.
Think about the environment inside that reckless car.
- Did the car feel like it was out of control?
- Was the driver making wild left turns and right turns?
- Was the driver braking hard, and then accelerating quickly, and then braking hard again?
- Was the stereo turned on and the music volume extremely loud?
- Was the driver's attention distracted from the road and the car's surroundings?
Think back to a time when you rode with a driver like that (if never, then pretend for a moment). Did you feel safe as a passenger? Did you feel like you would arrive at your destination without dying?
Or conversely, have you ever been a passenger in a car when the driver was driving overly cautiously? Again, if not, try to imagine it.
- Was the car traveling way under the speed limit, forcing other vehicles to veer around the car, with their horns honking?
- Was the driver too afraid to attempt a left-hand turn against traffic or too scared to change lanes because a car might be in their blind spot?
- Was the driver too overwhelmed with all the activity on the street to make any decisions at all?
Think back to a time when you rode with a driver like that (again, if never, pretend for a moment). What was the net result? Did you feel safe as a passenger? Did you feel confident that you would arrive at your destination safely?
The first scenario was chaotic and out-of-control. The second example was slow, a waste of time, and also out-of-control. Both situations were scary due to the mismatch with other "normally driving" vehicles on the road, and the chances of getting where you wanted to go were low.
A third type of driver
Now let's compare the first two drivers with an example of a "good" driver. A good driver is alert and aware of immediate danger. However, the driver is also relaxed and can interact comfortably with other passengers in the car. The good driver knows their destination and where they want to go. If they take a wrong turn, they don't panic, but expertly choose a new course. It may take a little longer, but the good driver knows that eventually they will make it to their destination.
And what about the passengers riding in a car driven by a good driver? They don't even pay attention to what is going on with the driver or the car because they feel safe and know that they will get where they intend to go.
Be a good "driver" of your meetings
As a facilitator of meetings you are like a driver of a vehicle. You and your passengers are together for a period of time, and they are trusting you to take them somewhere. However, in this analogy, their wanted destination is to achieve the defined purpose of the meeting, instead of being physically driven.
Let's not fool ourselves with false bravado. Leading great meetings is difficult and requires a tricky balancing act between structure and fluidity.
You don't want to be too rigid and harsh or you'll appear more like a dictator then a facilitator. You also can't be too soft and accommodating, or it will seem like the meeting has no facilitator at all and will likely quickly derail.
Maintaining this type of balance is not easy. Let's think back to my 16 year old self. Driving a car well is not one activity; it's actually a fluid series of confidently and rapidly making small decisions. Being a skilled facilitator of meetings is the same.
- When and how do you let participants talk?
- How long will you let them talk without coming to the point?
- When to cut a debate short?
- How to know when to finalize a discussion on a topic, or stop it and move on in the agenda?
- Who do you assign an action point to when multiple people are involved?
- How to defuse tension in a discussion topic?
- How do you confidently, yet nicely handle people that are disrupting the meeting?
There are no prescriptive answers for these questions. It takes time to build up enough experience to be a great facilitator.
Gathering feedback as a car driver is a simple task. Are your passengers fearful? Do other drivers appear annoyed with you? Did you hit anything with your car? Practice, gather feedback, and refine. It's how most of the people you see driving have evolved and matured their driving skills over the years.
When you apply this approach to meetings, things become more complex. Practicing leading meetings is not hard. Most organizations have more meetings than they need so finding a few to lead is not the problem. But feedback is another story.
In theory, gathering feedback about meeting performance is common sense and should be easy. However, in reality it's much harder. Don't let that stop you from trying! Getting feedback from colleagues can be a tricky process. Simply put, most people don't feel comfortable giving direct feedback to a colleague or manager, especially if it's criticism.
Here are a few suggestions for gathering feedback:
- If you have a trusted colleague or close friend in the meeting, pull them aside after the meeting and politely ask for feedback.
- When you ask for feedback, ensure you ask about the meeting and not about you. This distinction will make it easier for people to speak plainly.
- Why do you think the meeting was worth your time? If not, why not?
- Did the meeting achieve it's purpose?
- Instead of gathering feedback face-to-face, or via email, I've seen people set up simple surveys for their meeting participants using a free tool like SurveyMonkey or an equivalent tool inside the company. [Cautionary note: if you do use a structured survey, save it for important meetings and use it sparingly. It is common for people to see endless survey requests as harassment, especially if the requests come every few days or weeks.
- If the meeting is a recurring meeting, an excellent way to gather feedback is to perform a Retrospective!
Being a great meeting facilitator is a lot like being a great driver. It's hard to explain but you know it when you experience it. Finding the right mix of keeping a group of participants on track towards their goal, and keeping everyone relaxed, yet productive, is as much art as it is science.
Gathering feedback about how you're doing will help you refine which methods work best for your personality style and the work atmosphere in your organization.
Take care, and I'll talk to you next time.
Question: What ways do you use to gather feedback about your meetings?