Quint's Column: 12 Ways of Effectively Lead Large Groups

Large Group Meeting and Discussion

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve written about the benefits of large and small project teams. In the first column, I discussed how large groups provide a rich variety of ideas and perspectives and increase buy-in, while smaller groups are great at narrowing down action items and executing. Then, in last week’s column, I gave some tips for facilitating a great small group meeting.

This time I’d like to circle back around to the subject of large groups. Just as with small groups, how you manage them makes all the difference. Here are a few tips:

  1. Before the meeting, get really clear on what you want to get done. In putting together an agenda, you might want to survey people before the meeting to get their ideas or do an assessment to identify problem areas or what they want to leave with. Share results at the beginning of the session or before the session is held. This way people will have a chance to get their best ideas out and process others’ ideas. (This is especially helpful for introverts, who may not speak up if they don’t have a chance to think things through ahead of time.)
       
  2. Go over “housekeeping” rules up front. Let them know what to expect (when breaks will happen, etc.). It’s really important to stay on time. Narrate that this is important and thank them for their time. Don’t just say, “We are going to take a 15-minute break.” Tell them exactly what time to be back (i.e., say, “Be back at 10:15”). Have someone who can help get people back to their seats on time after breaks.
       
  3. Ask people to be aware of communication styles (their own and others’). Remind people to be mindful of different styles so everyone has a chance to be heard. Ask them to focus on what they are saying and how they are saying it. Content does not trump communication. To involve those who are less assertive or shy, or who simply can’t speak up quickly enough, you can simply ask their opinion — but make sure to let them know it’s OK to take time to think about their answers first.
       
  4. Room set-up matters. Round tables of six work nicely, or arrange seats in a U-shape. You want people up close where you can easily engage with them, so force them to the front. One way to do this is to place “reserved” signs on back chairs.
        
  5. Job #1 is building a sense of community in the room. If you want people to contribute, it’s important to put them at ease. Especially if most people in the group don’t know one another, it’s your job as the leader to establish a comfortable atmosphere and set the tone for the discussion.
       
  6. Do table activities early in the meeting. A great table activity is asking for one question per table. Each table writes what question they have and these are collected at the break. Collect the questions even from the tables that do not get called on.
        
  7. Don’t think of it as running a meeting but as facilitating a discussion. This means you have to pay very close attention to what’s happening in the room. Recently I was facilitating a large group discussion and I quickly realized that while I came there to teach, what I really needed to be doing was building bridges and connecting the people in the room in a way that builds relationships. They needed to work together after I was gone to make anything work.
       
  8. Know who is in the room. Try to get a list of who is attending and a little about them. This allows you to say more personal things and connect a few people in order to build social capital. If time allows, get people to introduce themselves.
       
  9. Ask great questions, even if you know the answer. Better if the ideas come from the group, even if you are the expert.
        
  10. Build in interaction. It won’t happen on its own. This way, everyone can learn from the different perspectives, experiences, and ideas of the participants. Sometimes it’s hard to get high levels of participation. Only a few (the “big mouths”) really end up participating. Breakout sessions are great for sparking interaction. Give really clear instructions on the exercises. Consider putting them on a handout so the group can see them in writing. Assign one person in each group to report back.
       
  11. Look for ways to keep people engaged. For example, ask people their names and pull them into the examples. Have fun stories ready to recapture their interest.
       
  12. Anticipate getting stuck on things and prepare some pivots for when things get stuck. I was in a neighborhood meeting where things weren’t moving forward. I asked them to tell me what was good about their community (bright spots), and the whole meeting turned around.

Big groups can be incredibly valuable in moving your organization forward. It’s a gift to have access to so many minds and voices. Be sure to use it to the fullest advantage.

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