Facilitating When Senior Leaders Are in the Meeting

Power-Imbalace 1

We’ve all been in meetings where our direct boss is attending or there are very senior leaders in the room.

That’s a real facilitator dilemma. You the facilitator should have full control of the group, but you may not feel you can do this with senior leaders in the room. This is a common question I hear from relatively junior meeting facilitators. But believe me, every facilitator faces this dilemma because ultimately your client is in the room. Your client has hired you and paying you if you are an external consultant. You are trying to do the best possible job for the group and organization. So like it or not, we all have a lot of internal work to do to build our confidence around bringing out the wisdom of both the group AND senior leaders in the meeting.

I’m not going to talk about difficult personalities. In my view, it is not helpful to think of your boss as having a difficult personality or behavior style. Sometimes there’s something in the system that doesn’t allow your boss to be the best they can be at the moment. I will, however, share some resources and mention a few techniques about dealing with difficult behaviors in meetings. But, that’s not the main focus. Rather, we are focused on power dynamics that are in the room and how that affects you, the participants, and the leaders themselves. How we deal with that can make or break the meeting. Unfortunately, when I searched on YouTube videos,  there wasn’t much I could find easily that specifically addressed this topic. The most direct ones I found are also in the Resource section. We have included a short video to summarize some of our thoughts.

Now let’s tackle that scary boss in the meeting dilemma!

The Best Case Scenario

There is not a strong hierarchy in this organization or team. You are confident in your meeting design. Participants are enthusiastic to talk about the topic. The senior leader in the room is genuinely interested in getting input and knows their job will be a lot easier if they allow this to happen. Well, although it sounds a little idealistic, I have encountered this kind of scenario.

What do you do?

In this best case, you just need to remind yourself  that you are an excellent facilitator, that you have prepared well, and that you’re going to treat the leader as a full participant. You may also want to ask the leader for their input specifically during break, e.g., asking them “What, if anything, needs to be different to get the input you are requiring to make a really great decision?”

The Worst Case Scenario

You do not necessarily have a safe, or any type of relationship with some of the senior leaders in the room. You don’t know what they are thinking. The conversation that is required  is very important and a lot of input is needed. People are generally intimidated by the senior leaders. And you suspect that there will not be a lot of genuine input until people know what the senior leaders are thinking.  You have also seen meetings where no one speaks in front of these particular leaders and generally the organization is hierarchically organized. Now that, is scary!

What do you do?

Ask for an in-person meeting,  generally if the session  is very high stakes and getting everyone on the same page is essential.  Do everything you can to find out what the senior leaders are needing at this meeting from participants. Ask questions like:

  • What information would you like participants to know before the meeting?
  • What information are you hoping to obtain from the participants during the meeting? 
  • How will the input be used after the meeting?
  • How would you like to participate during the meeting?

You might consider sending your advance questions to them in a SurveyMonkey and let them know their answers are anonymous. You could also ask for a 20 minute pre-meeting to ask them these questions and prepare them for their role. 

Let the senior leaders know you will be using a variety of techniques to ensure there is comfort and safety during the meeting for all people to offer their ideas. 

Before the meeting, also speak with several of the participants about what to expect and how you will be creating safety for their thoughts to be offered.  Create and distribute a written agenda that explains the processes you will be using.

Visualize the meeting going well and that you are very  grounded, calm, and clear. Have all your questions and props prepared ahead of time. 

During the meeting, remind yourself (as above) that you are a good facilitator and you have done the best you can to prepare everyone.   Breath deeply as often as possible.

Display ground rules and agenda timing.  Explain how you will use process techniques to ensure all voices will be heard.  These techniques might include getting ideas in writing, splitting into small groups, using constructivist listening (see video in Resource section),  and continually asking, “Who else has thoughts on this question, idea, etc. ?” You can also name the dynamic in the room. E.g., “So far, we are generally  hearing a fair bit from our boss. We want to hear from everyone. Let’s take a minute to divide into small groups of three to discuss your ideas and then offer those ideas in writing after your discussion.”

Get some more thoughts and scenarios from this video:

How do you handle this scary situation?


Blog: Groups Want Safety – A Facilitator’s Guide to Creating Safe Space

Blog: Just Say “Yes” to Small Groups

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.


  1. Larry Philbrook on February 20, 2019 at 2:30 am

    Great note Barbara (as usual)
    I would add – know yourself and your triggers – How do I respond to dominant styles or power dynamics (this person may control or impact future income or reputation for example) – Have a conversation with myself or my co-facilitator about clues to when I am being triggered and options to deal with it – the most important is the one you mentioned “breath” This simple ritual gives the body and brain time to be in the moment and gives you time to process and choose.

    I try to interview everyone if possible or do a survey like you suggested if physical or virtual conversations are not possible. However I almost always meet the boss before hand. If they are to be in the session and sometimes even if they are not I like your 4 questions. I like to see/hear/feel how the way they respond. I also like to ask about the relationship they have with the team in the room and how well they are known? What have they tried before and how did it go being together in the process? In a high social context cultural framework like Asia it is important to keep in mind the boss often feels pressure from the group to be the “boss” scary or not. When this is true it can often be a breakthrough for the group and the boss to realize them using their natural style works too 🙂

    • Barbara MacKay on May 21, 2019 at 7:15 pm

      Larry, your insights are always so welcome and they add to the depth of the topic that I am obviously only writing about in a very limited way. So thank you so much for commenting. It’s helpful to everyone!

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