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February 25, 2021

How can you facilitate meetings better?

Synthesizing, active listening, mirroring, setting decision-making rules, establishing meeting norms, and understanding group dynamics are some of the key facilitation skills shared in this episode of The Smart Communications Podcast. Listen in as Ally Dommu, director of strategy, and Sarah Durham, CEO, discuss how to facilitate meetings and why it’s so important.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host, Sarah Durham. And I am joined today by Ally Dommu, Big Duck’s director of strategy. Welcome back to the show, Ally.

Ally Dommu: Thanks Sarah.

Sarah Durham: So Ally has been on the show a few times. In case you’ve not had the good fortune to hear her speak on the podcast or read her blog. She is a prolific thought leader here on our team. Prior to joining our team, which she did in 2013, she worked at Sanctuary for Families, which is a New York City-based organization. And she managed the communications and fundraising efforts to expand their programs, ensuring the safety and self-determination of LGBTQ immigrants and low-income victims of domestic violence and their families. She has a real passion for progressive causes, and that led her to pursue her master’s degree in nonprofit management, from the New School where she was the co-founder of the university’s first social innovation competition, and the recipient of the Dean’s Award. She’s also a graduate of Emory University, and a really swell person.

Ally Dommu: What an intro. Thanks, Sarah

Sarah Durham: Welcome back to the show. So one of Ally’s many superpowers is she is an incredible facilitator. She runs a really awesome and really productive meeting, and she often coaches and trains other people on our team to do the same. So Ally, why is facilitation so important for people who’ve never really thought about? This is something that you could have a superpower in. Why should they care?

Ally Dommu: Facilitation is super important in all work, and in personal life, in my opinion. It really comes into play when anyone is working in a group or in a group setting, and the role of a facilitator is to be the person responsible for helping the group do their best work together to make the best use of their time, to draw out their superpowers, and for them to work together as effectively as possible.

Sarah Durham: And it occurs to me, as I listened to you talk about drawing out the best of what the group can do together, that in some ways the essence of what a great communications person does, that is the essence of communications. Helping extract the best value from whatever the project or the situation is. And over the years, you and other people on the strategy team at Big Duck have really made a study of facilitation and looked into all kinds of tools, and techniques, and practices. You’ve even written an internal guide that we have used and benefited from. So what are some of the things that you think are most important? If somebody is trying to build their skills as a facilitator, what should they tackle?

Ally Dommu: I think naturally people have their own style to facilitation and that’s definitely something I would advocate for. But there’s also really concrete skills and techniques that make really great facilitators and those things could be practiced and trained and learned, and anyone could really facilitate well. And that’s what I definitely want to advocate for and say is: Everyone has the opportunity to become a great facilitator, you just have to learn some of the techniques.

Ally Dommu: So a few of the techniques that I think are especially helpful for nonprofit staff and especially those working in communications, include synthesizing, which is really about taking the ideas, whether or not you’re in a brainstorm or in a big group discussion and sort of making meaning and structure out of the ideas. So to synthesize means taking all of the kernels of the ideas, the themes that emerge in a discussion and making them a little bit more digestible for the group to be able to process and then take action from. So that might look like, oh wow, there’s been a lot of great ideas about what our communication strategy could look like this year. I’ve heard a lot about the dimension of what it means for our donor communications. I’ve learned a lot about what it means for our grassroots advocacy efforts. Let’s take those one by one. And maybe the conversation had been a little messier before. And the role of the facilitator is to say, let’s simplify and make sense and sort of take this conversation on piece by piece.

Sarah Durham: Tell us about the other things you want to encourage organizations to build. What other skills?

Ally Dommu: Yes. Another skill is active listening. Active listening is the demonstration that you’re really paying attention to and responding and hearing what people are saying. And that builds trust, but it also helps the individual that’s contributing to really feel like their contributions matter. And it helps to make sure that the facilitator really understands what’s happening, you know, really being present, really listening and showing through your body language nodding, you know, and sometimes through mirroring that you’re on board and you’re really engaged in what the person’s saying.

Sarah Durham: So saying something like, I’m understanding you to say this? Or I want to elevate that I’ve understood this? That kind of stuff?

Ally Dommu: Sure. Yeah, definitely. And that mirroring sometimes doesn’t feel great to all people, but that is definitely something that active facilitators do use is that mirroring or paraphrasing. And then the next thing I want to encourage people to think about is decision-making rules because oftentimes facilitators are in the position to help the group make a decision, whether that’s, you know, what to do in the next meeting or whether that is to, you know, move forward with a strategy or to move forward with a hire. And decision-making rules are the way that the group decides and knows when a decision is made. So whether that’s a unanimous agreement, you know, everyone has kind of reached consensus and says, okay, yes, we’re all on board. Or maybe it’s an 80% rule, we’re 80% of the way there, and that’s decided. Or maybe there’s another way that your organization decides change happens, but the facilitator actually can introduce decision-making rules and help the group decide, how are we going to know that we’ve accomplished what we’ve accomplished? Or how are we going to know that a decision has been made without those, it can lead to a lot of murkiness in groups. Groups want to know, have we achieved what we’ve set out to achieve? Sometimes that’s not possible. And sometimes a facilitator also has to create space to say, you know what, we didn’t reach a decision here and that’s okay that was not necessarily the intention, let’s all be comfortable knowing we’ve made great progress. And maybe in a future meeting, we’ll make a decision. Maybe this is not the type of work that actually we have to make a decision around. But great facilitators have that vocabulary, language, and tools to help guide a group with the difficult task of decision making.

Sarah Durham: There’s a terrific book that we read in our book club here at Big Duck and Advomatic called “The Art of Gathering.” I know you’ve read this book and we’ve talked a bit about this book. And one of the things I found really helpful in the book that I think speaks to your last point is the idea that when you facilitate a meeting, you become the host of the meeting. Just the way, if you invited people to your home for a dinner party, you are the host of that. And part of your responsibility is to make sure that things run smoothly, but that people feel comfortable. And one way to do that is to establish what the author of that book calls pop-up rules. I think sometimes you prefer to call them “meeting norms” or “guidelines” or something like that. So maybe right up at the front, talking about how decisions might get made or how the conversation is going to unfold, but sometimes I’ve seen you and other people just sort of jump in and lead and sort of observe a dynamic that’s happening and call out a dynamic or name a dynamic and suggest a way through it, if it’s something tricky.

Ally Dommu: Absolutely. And a good facilitator does the research before starting the meeting and specifically knows like who’s going to be in the room? You know, are these people that have worked together for a long period of time? There’s an established culture that feels great to everybody, or is this a new group of people that maybe we have to actually establish new norms? And in that case, maybe that should take up some time and invite people in to say, well, how do we want to be working together in this space? And a great facilitator actually sees those dynamics and understands and pivots to what the group needs in order to feel included, to feel comfortable, to feel like they’re able to bring themselves to the room, or the virtual room.

Sarah Durham: As I listened to you talk in this conversation, I’m also thinking about a webinar that we did together back in the spring of 2020, right as COVID was causing a lot of people to have to figure out how to pivot into online. And we recorded a webinar together where you talked a lot about facilitating great meetings online. What I think is a hallmark of your remarks today and of the remarks you made in that recording, which by the way, we’ll link to in the show notes if people want to watch it, is intentionality. Is sort of assuming the mantle of the facilitator. If you’re really going to shine at producing some of those results takes real intentionality. Prep before you do the actual facilitation, mindfulness during the facilitation, and sometimes stuff afterwards that is about follow-up or closing loops or circling back to people, et cetera. So it’s important and powerful work. I am persuaded

Ally Dommu: Great stuff. Thanks so much.

Sarah Durham: Alright, Ally, thanks again for joining me. And we’ll link to all those resources in the show notes, for those of you who want to dig in a little bit deeper.

Ally Dommu

Ally Dommu is the Director of Service Development, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

More about Ally
Sarah Durham

Sarah Durham is the Founder, Board Member at Big Duck

More about Sarah