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Learning From My Mistakes: Facilitating Meetings

December 13, 2013

I guess that was my first adult meeting. You know, we filled up all the big sheets of paper.? That was the disheartening statement that I overheard after I helped to facilitate a meeting with teens about developing a youth leadership academy. My fellow adult volunteers and I realized that we shouldn?t create something for teens without asking them for input and guidance. So, we planned a meeting. We used the models we knew best at that time: a list of goals to be accomplished at the meeting, questions with responses written on flip charts and facilitator-driven discussion. We thought we had it. But, clearly we didn?t.

I?ve learned a lot about meetings since then. The best meetings I?ve been to are the ones where folks are engaged in the discussion. Everyone feels comfortable to express themselves and knows they?ll be heard. There?s a lot of interaction as a group.

The most creative meetings have an element of fun. Folks are laughing and the meetings seem a little boisterous. They?re the meetings you can hear through the door and think, I wish I were in there right now!? Sometimes these meetings seem to be almost stream of consciousness, but the good ones are freestyling with a purpose. Recently I attended the IMLS Museums Take the Lead convention in Denver. As we were talking, a graphic facilitator was writing down key points and illustrating them with pictures. We could read our ideas and see them at the same time. It was a great new experience for me. I loved it.

As organizations are learning about the changing demographics of their audiences, they also need to learn how to conduct different kinds of meetings. The same kind of meeting won?t work for all groups. Some folks are going to be happier with a more traditional facilitator-lead, flip chart meeting. Others are going to want the opportunity to form break out groups. Some meetings need to be slightly unstructured to allow for a more free flowing process.

If I could go back in time, I would change the way we conducted that meeting with the teens. I would give them more control over the process from the beginning. I would cover the tables in paper and have crayons, small toys and play dough in the middle so they could play a bit while we talked. I would think less about conducting the meeting and more about interacting and encouraging discussion. I would remember that productive meetings don?t have to be deadly serious and that fun can lead to engagement and more ideas.


Tamara Hemmerlein is the Hoosier Heritage Alliance coordinator at IHS. She will be traveling all over Indiana to advocate for good collections stewardship. Tamara loves mashed potatoes and ice cream, but not together.

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