As a RA there are going to be numerous times when you will need to lead a meeting. The size of the group may vary from only a few residents, to your floor or living area, to the entire building in which you live. While each of these scenarios may require slightly different methods of facilitating, the general questions that you should ask yourself and the process that you should follow will be very similar.
Think about meetings that you have been in…what made those meetings good, bad, boring, exciting or even memorable? Hopefully, when thinking about meetings of which you have been a part, you desire to facilitate a meeting that people will enjoy participating in and remember in a positive light. Some questions to think about when you start to plan your meeting include: What is the purpose of the meeting you are planning? How do you encourage group participation? Do you have a goal or outcome you hope to accomplish or that the group hopes to accomplish?
Some things to consider – The Planning Stage:
After considering the above questions, you need to spend some time on perhaps the most important part of being able to facilitate a good meeting: pre-meeting planning. It is crucial to have a basic outline of the meeting and a general idea of how the flow is going to happen. You accomplish this through planning. Going into a meeting with nothing will leave you looking unprepared, unmotivated, disorganized and perhaps lazy. Conversely, going into a meeting with every minute mapped out might not allow for good conversation or spirited discussion. Working toward a compromise of those two ends of the spectrum leads you to the question; how much structure do you need? A famous quote one of my education professors used to tell our class was that “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail,” and although she was talking about our teaching careers, facilitating a meeting and facilitating learning in a classroom are not that different. Before walking into the meeting space, you should have 1) an outline of the order of activities or topics, along with 2) an estimated timeframe for each agenda item as well as the overall length of the meeting.
I imagine a question being asked is; how do I know what to plan? Although there is no perfect answer to this question, the answer stems from the questions listed above – the purpose of the meeting as well as the outcomes or accomplishments the group desires or needs will determine what you plan and will guide your planning to ensure that the group meets the goals set forth.
Some things to consider – Facilitating the Meeting:
As the facilitator of a meeting, you are seen as a leader in the group. With this in mind it is important that you try and keep the majority of your personal opinions to yourself. For the most part, when facilitating a meeting your goal is to get the group to work together – to learn, to process and to achieve a goal. You can’t do this if you are continually stating what you would do or how you believe the group should do something. By definition, facilitation means to “help along” – and you need to continually balance the process/product needs of staying on track and making forward progress with allowing for dialog and full-group participation. This process also helps others develop their own leadership skills.
Every meeting you facilitate should have an opportunity for people to introduce themselves. Individuals can feel very uncomfortable in a meeting room full of people who do not know each other, especially when they are trying to communicate or interact with one another. ‘Hey you’ isn’t that effective in building good working and living relationships. As RAs and paraprofessional staff, we have all learned a good way to get people to know each other is to utilize icebreakers. This is key: think what would happen if you walked into your first floor meeting and just started telling all of your residents the rules. Would they really listen? The same holds true for meeting facilitation. Let them loosen up, have them interact, share stories and work with each other in a relaxed fun atmosphere. (By the way, if you’re wondering what icebreakers might work, just look on the RA page in the Icebreakers area of www.reslife.net and you will find a plethora of great ones.)
Let people know the meeting agenda so they have an idea of what will take place. You can post the agenda on a wall or whiteboard, provide small handouts, or even tell the group at the beginning what the plan is. People want an idea of the order of the meeting along with how long they can anticipate being there. Even if you don’t provide a specific length of time, by reviewing the agenda participants will get a sense of how you are progressing through the meeting components. Along with this, remember there are different styles of learning. The most notable style difference is auditory vs. visual. If you only tell people the schedule aloud, some people will quickly forget, whereas if you have it posted on the wall (or provide handouts) and then tell everyone, there is a greater chance that everyone will understand, anticipate and be comfortable with the agenda, and will more likely participate.
Get your group involved! Don’t expect that people will enjoy sitting through an hour meeting only listening to you talk. There might be times when you need to explain some things for a longer period of time. If so, think about how you can incorporate others. Have time for discussion, use the group to act something out or help demonstrate an idea, policy or point. Be sure you are continually looking for and asking for feedback and group input. Ask open-ended questions – questions that can’t be answered “yes” or “no.” Will there be times you are sitting quietly with no one responding? Yes, but remember to give plenty of “wait time” before you try and fill the empty space. It may be uncomfortable for you to allow the room to go quiet, but I guarantee that the quiet will likely prompt someone to take the initiative to respond. Another way to get your group involved is to have breakout parts of the meeting, where people work, think of ideas, or brainstorm in small groups. This serves several purposes: 1) it allows people to get to know others more intimately in a smaller group, 2) people are more comfortable speaking up in a small group versus a large one, and 3) people are less likely to rely on someone else to come up with the idea – thus you end up with more ideas generated.
There are a couple of other things you might want to avoid when facilitating a meeting.
One is the opposite of being overly directive: being too passive or indecisive. You want to demonstrate that you are comfortable in front of a group and in your role as facilitator, but you don’t want to come off as power hungry or too controlling. This might seem like a hard line to walk, but in reality there is a lot of area in the middle.
Another thing to consider is length of “process time;” allowing adequate time for participants to discuss an idea or agenda item is important, but at the same time don’t beat the proverbial dead horse. College students are busy people and don’t want to feel as though they are wasting time coming to a meeting, so make it worth their while and let them see results from the discussions you have.
There are many things you can do to ensure your meetings run smoothly and that people feel as though they have accomplished something. By planning ahead, preparing an agenda, outlining common goals, encouraging participation, strategically involving others, focusing on the group’s experience, and balancing your active/passive leadership style, you will likely be successful in facilitating the meeting.
Submitted by Sarah Smoldon, Resident Director, Western Washington University