Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

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Articles: Influence, Relationship & Human Performance Skills Archives

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Teaching Meeting Facilitation Skills

“Help! One of our partners has been asked by a client to facilitate a day long session at their association conference. He's never done this before,” declared a marketing director seeking a quick infusion of skills training.

Most lawyers have little meeting facilitation experience, and they are not natural facilitators for several reasons: They are trained to be advocates rather than neutral parties.They tend to be better talkers than listeners. They tend to think of furthering their own agendas. Often they don't carefully plan their meetings; they just show up and have their minds on leaving to get back to client work. In addition, most lawyers are not process-oriented.

However, the need for lawyers to serve as facilitators is not confined to a rare request to do a favor for a client as in the example above. They need these skills to run better internal meetings and retreat sessions as well as client-related meetings and outside organization meetings. Too often meetings lawyers participate in, both inside and outside the firm, are rambling, inefficient time-wasters – and lawyers resent having to devote their scarce time to them.

Meetings should be held only when getting people together face-to-face and with each attendee participating adds value to accomplishing the objective. Each meeting should have a leader who knows how to facilitate and run a tight, productive meeting. Good facilitation skills can make a significant bottom line difference between fractitious time-wasters and productive consensus-building, cooperation-building meetings. The good news is that facilitation skills can be taught – and learned, perhaps not by every lawyer in a firm, but by enough to enable significant change in productivity and interest.


“Facilitating” means establishing a situation that enables someone else or a group to accomplish a task. Through removing barriers, teaching, coaching and guiding a group of individuals to stay on track and reach their goals, work proceeds more easily and without the energy wasted on “political posturing.” Good facilitating requires taking an impartial role and :

  • Removing ego. The facilitator's purpose is to identify and further the group agenda, not look for personal gain and credit.
  • Creating a non-threatening and conducive environment. This will allow ideas and collaboration to flow freely.
  • Giving attention to process as much as substance. The “how” is as important to getting things accomplished as the “what.” The process, if there is buy-in to using it, will get beyond the usual side-tracking and posturing hurdles.
  • Encouraging the participation of others. Better results occur when there is wide participation and no one is permitted to dominate.
  • Listening, mirroring, interpreting. These are the key elements of the good facilitator's communication style.
  • Distancing from the substantive outcome. The facilitator should help the group reach an outcome but not influence it or take it personally.
  • Playing traffic cop. This is a major role, especially when members of the group represent strong opposing viewpoints or there are dominating personalities.

In addition to the requirements of good facilitating listed above, the facilitator: functions as a planner; prepares and focuses a definite agenda; must be flexible enough to adapt to the personal style of the group and handle multiple tasks; maintains a high energy level; manages conflict; builds rapport and constructive relationships; fosters group “ownership” for the meeting and its outcome; clearly presents and records information and ideas; and understands the technology being used so it helps rather than hinders the discussion.


In facilitator skills training, we teach and coach attorneys to understand and follow the steps in the process and use case examples of how to deal with obstacles and uncooperative personalities. They learn how good meetings are planned and managed and how to use group dynamics principles, problem-solving and conflict management – all techniques that are key to many negotiations for clients as well. Among the topics we cover are the balancing of roles that the lawyer/facilitator has to play.

For example, in some meetings the attorney running the meeting may have to switch roles from facilitator to expert to leader. This is a situation we consultants often find ourselves in at retreats and practice group meetings. A knowledgeable facilitator does homework on the circumstances and subject matter of the meeting to ably deal not only with the personalities and emotions but also to understand enough about the content and objectives to move the discussion in a meaningful direction and distinguish the difference between real “meat' and just talk. Often both the lawyer/facilitator and consultant/facilitator are asked to serve as “experts” on some of the content of the discussion as well. While the dual role can work well, the facilitator must be careful not to take on the role of advocate with a stake in the outcome.

Serious attention to planning is essential – both before the meeting and as it draws near its conclusion. A detailed meeting agenda with time allocations must be developed and distributed in advance. Too many meetings are called with no advance agenda or a loose one, and participants are unclear as to where it is going and what is being asked of them. The facilitator should define with the group in advance the type of closure expected at the end of the meeting.

Toward the end of the meeting, time must be allocated for a recap and designation of specific follow on action steps, assignments and deadlines. This is crucial to really accomplishing anything – and we are all too familiar with meetings where participants rush out without commitment to specific actions.


Early in the first session, I ask the facilitators-in-training what problems they anticipate. Some common ones are: dealing with preconceived notions and negative statements; control of the meeting; stopping one person from dominating; trust factors; participants too focused on “what's in it for me.” Later on we work on scenarios to address such issues, incorporating actual situations, as: what to do when conflict between or among participants arises; how to turn negative statements to constructive use (and discourage negative statements;) how to keep the discussion on track and get it back on track when it derails. These problems arise frequently, particularly in meetings among lawyers, who tend to pick apart everyone else's statements and ideas. When the meetings' constituents are people with a long history together, there is bound to be a good deal of baggage that emerges from somewhere, whatever the topic. Facilitators have to learn to respond to both the emotional and rational underpinnings of issues that arise.

Other key aspects of training in facilitator skills are how to guide group problem-solving and using correctly brainstorming techniques narrowing to decision-making. Facilitating is a skill that is refined and sharpened with practice. I like to build in “practice” by observing individual attorneys while they run an actual in-firm meeting and afterwards critique and coach them on improvements. Since a practice group leader or manager should be able to facilitate the group meetings, those are often useful places to quickly apply this training. Marketing meetings also would benefit in most firms from better meeting facilitation as would committee meetings relating to other aspects of firm management. There will be many opportunities to employ the facilitation skills at client meetings as well as outside organization meetings.

While lawyers can learn to be effective facilitators, bear in mind the importance of a neutral facilitator for very important, and potentially highly emotional, firm discussions. For these occasions, whether in the firm or at a retreat, it is wise to turn to an outside facilitator with the skills, experience and objectivity to be intensely focused only on a positive result for the group and how to get there.


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 1998.

This article appeared in The Legal Intelligencer, (Publication of American Lawyer Media), January 25, 1999 and Marketing for Lawyers (Publication of American Lawyer Media), April, 1998.