Facilitating From the Side – There’s Hope for Bad Meetings


I worry a lot about people who attend meetings. I worry because many tell me how bad they are. I am totally spoiled. I simply don’t attend others’ meetings unless I know they will be well run. Most of the time, I am facilitating them or facilitating from the side without permission.

What about those of you who are at a workplace with no trained facilitators and you HAVE to attend meetings? My deepest sympathy. 🙂 The worse part is you might think there is nothing you can do about it. So in this blog, I share 7 things you can do. Even if you are a participant not remotely in charge of planning or running the meeting, there is hope.

Here is my question: how can you influence the meeting when you are not the meeting facilitator or worse, there is no designated meeting facilitator? In my facilitator circles, we call this “subversive or stealth facilitation”, or “facilitating from the side”. Please do not tell your meeting leader or boss that you learned these tricks from me! For those of you who are running the meetings, please do everyone a favor and check this list. Can you say “YES” to every question? … If not, what will you do to improve your score?

The source and inspiration for this blog were Recent ToP Facilitation Methods course attendees answered the following question (it was a demonstration of a great consensus-building tool called The ToP Workshop Method):

How Can I, a “Mere Participant”, Ensure Productive, Energizing and Engaging Meetings?

I am taking their 7 ideas and telling you how to facilitate from the side for each common meeting component. This blog is for anyone – facilitator or not… these 7 questions give us all a good template and reminder to follow for everyday meetings:

Did you know the purpose of the last 3 meetings you attended? Were you absolutely clear about what was expected as outcomes? If it is not clear, ask the meeting leader before the meeting: “what will be the key outcome of this meeting please – I’d like to prepare for it?” Or, at the beginning of the meeting say “Sorry – I am not clear what the most important thing is for us to accomplish today. Could you tell us that again?” When people know why they are attending a meeting, they are more likely to be prepared, committed, and engaged at the meeting. If you do not receive an answer, you could “test” what you think is the meeting purpose: Find out what the three key topics that need to be discussed that day and find a related theme. You might say “It seems like the most important outcome from the meeting would be to decide on our product schedule. Is that right?” You could also ask other meeting attendees – “Hey Sarah – what is the purpose of this meeting? You might know by now that I like to include two kinds of purpose statements: 1) the product or tangible outcomes known in the ToP methodology as the rational aims (e.g., decisions to be made, agreements to be reached, lists to be created, schedules to be set, etc. And, 2) the experience, mood or feeling outcomes known in ToP as the experiential aims (e.g., reducing worry or uncertainty; collaborating; aligning; increasing motivation or confidence in product/program;etc).

This also seems really obvious to me but very few written meeting agendas have timing on them! So you are not sure how much time will be allotted to which items. And, maybe you do not have 30 minutes to dedicate to an item you are not responsible for and on which have nothing to offer. You can say “It would help me to stay engaged to know how much time we are allotting to each topic. Can we take a few minutes to agree on that before we start the first agenda item?” Other questions to ask innocently from the side: “which of these topics is urgent to resolve today – I wonder if we might spend more time on that item and start with it first?” Or, even better, (but it takes a lot of guts) “I realize that the most important item to everyone else is not very applicable to me, so I’d like to excuse myself for that part of the meeting. What might be a good reason for staying?”

You want to feel indispensable vs. disposable – so does everybody else. Perhaps the meeting leader does not regularly do this, but you could get to the meeting a bit early and warmly greet everyone who comes in. If you notice someone is not participating, you might say “I am wondering what you, Lin, are thinking about this idea?” or, later on, “Vinisha, you are a creative thinker :), and I always appreciate your ideas, anything you can add here?” And, at the end of the meeting, you can share what you liked about this meeting and ask others to do the same, e.g., “I just have to say I liked the quick pace of the meeting- it was fun and lively. I wonder what others thought was good about the meeting?”

In other words, you are trying to create a sense of value and contribution for everyone.

I know some workplaces that allow their dogs to come to work. They are there at every meeting! A meeting that a dog would love would be calm, friendly, laughing, feel safe, have food and water, unexpected loud noises would not be constant and there would some appropriate levels of touch – handshakes, high fives, hugs, smiles, back rubs, etc. Could you initiate …a high five?… An appropriate level of humour/joke … sharing a personal moment time? You might one day bring fun stickers for everyone. Ask the meeting leader if regular meeting participants could share a food treat once a month – something relatively healthy so no sugar crashes (dried or fresh fruit; nuts; healthy baking; cut up veggies, dark chocolate?). One office I know has a specialty coffee shop bring in their latest flavour of coffee to the meeting.

One thing that can be uncomfortable and create ill-will is when conference call participants don’t have their audio adjusted. One is too loud; the other too soft. Also, these participants do not have the visual cues to know when to stop talking. You, the “mere” participant, can call them ahead of time and help them get their audio settings right. You also can give them cues about when to stop talking (e.g., “Hey Mike- I need some clarification but see everyone here is wanting to move on. Can you summarize for me your key point in a few seconds?”) You can also suggest everyone create a guideline for answering questions – e.g., we will all try to answer a question within 30-60 seconds.

A family member told me that her team once forgot to invite her to the meeting when she was responsible for the topic they were discussing. It was because they were in a different department than hers and her role was new. Luckily one of her team members noticed and they went to see if she was available. Luckily she was. If you as a participant notice someone critical missing, you might say “I wonder where Juan is?” Does he know about this meeting? Shall I see if he can join us? If Juan is not available, you might take courage and suggest the meeting be postponed until he is available. Juan will not be happy if he is left out.

This means that you see the agenda in advance of the meeting and you know what is expected of you. If you have been asked to lead an activity, you know how long you have to present. If you find out you have a big role ONLY at the start of the meeting, you can say, “I need some help figuring this out because I was not aware of my role today. Let me think outloud with you and ask some questions”. (Here are your 5 go-to questions of the group if you are “put on the spot” and asked to do something at the last minute):

  • what do you already know about this topic?
  • what would you like to know? (answer what you can)
  • who can add to this knowledge?
  • what is important about what you just learned?
  • what shall we do next to move this forward?

Here is your final exit statement and question: “Based on this meeting decision, I think I am responsible for doing this with these people by this date. Is that right?” Or, better still, you could jump up and create a table on a flip chart mapping out outstanding issues – who will handle and by when (same thing can be done on your laptop which you send out after the meeting). The “awe-struck” part is really just for alliteration but really, are you amazed and awe-struck at how good that meeting was? It ran well. Everyone participated. You did not waste your time.


In summary, you can take charge of your “leaderless” meetings even if you are merely a participant – Value your time! Taking charge requires that you ask questions, be kind and generous, be respectful but do it. Choose one or two things that really bother you about the meetings you attend. Adapt the related ideas I describe above for your particular country or organizational culture. Try it and let me know! Life is too short to have one more bad meeting.

Final tip: Try one of our Meetings That Rock courses below if you are actually asked to lead the meeting and do not know as much as you’d like. We have a special on for six weeks. Go for it! If you cannot afford $45.00 US (the current special) and 1-2 hours to measurable improve your meetings, read our suggested blogs.

No matter what role you play in the meeting, how you show up in that role is critical to the meeting’s success”. -Emily M. Axelrod, Let’s Stop Meetng Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done



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Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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