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Summer is retreat season -- time for colleges and universities, schools, departments, and centers to go off for a few hours (or days) and plan for the future. While some people enjoy this exercise, many others roll their eyes and anticipate hours of fidgeting while surreptitiously checking their phones.

But suffering is not inevitable. Facilitated well, a retreat can be inspiring, clarifying and productive.

We do a lot of facilitation for retreats and workshops, and we think it’s often valuable to have an outside expert involved. But you also may wish to economize and find you have the in-house talent to manage the discussion on your own. With that in mind, we offer some tips for facilitating an effective and dynamic meeting.

Start with goals. What will be a successful outcome of the session? What takeaways do you need to leave with in order for the group to feel it has achieved its goals? It is sometimes helpful to offer draft goals -- shared in advance, written into the agenda or at the start of the discussion -- and ask for group input and consensus.

Know your audience. What is the state of the group you’re working with? Do they know each other well, or are they unfamiliar with one another? Do they have camaraderie or simmering conflicts? Do they have preconceived ideas or concerns about the topic to be discussed? What do they hope (or fear) will result? Understanding the group’s needs and biases will help you avoid danger zones and be alert to moments where a sensitive touch is needed.

Provide ground rules. Ground rules shared at the start help create group norms for positive interaction in a way that is neutral and not directed at any individual. You can hand them out or post them on a wall and then invite the group to add to the list. Some we like:

  • Full attention: no cellphones/email
  • Openness: let ideas flow without judging too quickly
  • Honesty: tell us what you really think
  • Strategic: no war stories; keep it high level
  • Forward looking: focus on the future, not the past
  • Equal airtime: give everyone a chance to contribute
  • Keep confidences: what’s said here stays here, unless we agree otherwise

Break the ice. Some smaller groups benefit from a brief exercise to get to know one other and connect in a fun and humanizing way. Sample ice breakers include asking participants to share a six-word autobiography; offering three truths and one lie where participants have to guess which statement about each person is false; or asking each participant to share something interesting about themselves that is not well-known.

Be a neutral entity. You may come in the door with your own ideas, perspectives and biases. Save all that for the input channels after the session. For this moment, you are a neutral vessel -- there only to facilitate the group exchange of input and ideas.

Listen actively. You will want to listen more than you talk, but you can do so in an active way that allows you to move the discussion toward desired goals. One technique of active listening is to restate what you heard (“It sounds like you are saying …”) or ask for clarification (“Help me understand that better” or “Can you give me a concrete example?”). Doing this allows you to validate the speaker while reclaiming the actual or metaphorical microphone.

Lead with questions. Another great active listening technique is using a leading question: “How does your idea reinforce a key idea that we discussed earlier?” “Can we accomplish X while still achieving Y?” When in doubt, open-ended questions can also be effective: “Say more about that” or “Who else has thoughts about that?”

Make space for ideas. Groups have a way of enforcing norms and stamping out the most creative and/or outrageous ideas. That can be the death of creative thinking. Make space for innovative ideas by reinforcing ground rules when people start to judge: “Remember, we’re generating ideas at this point and not evaluating them.” Or use humor: “If we don’t come up with at least one really terrible idea, we’re not trying hard enough!”

Draw out introverts. A mix of group discussion and individual or small-group work can help draw out those not comfortable speaking up in a group setting. For example, you can give the group two minutes to answer a question on their own and then share their answers in a round-robin. Toward the end of a meeting, you can ask, “Who hasn’t spoken yet who would like to share an idea?”

Stay on track. Document important issues that emerge but are not moving toward agreed-upon goals. Facilitators can create a “parking lot” section of an easel or whiteboard to record the issue and identify how/when it can be discussed in more detail. That can be helpful if the issue threatens to derail the group’s focus or the flow of the work.

Demonstrate progress. When people work on something abstract, they like to see a tangible result. One effective mechanism is to assign someone to capture ideas and discussion on a whiteboard or easel. Another is to write participants after the meeting with a summary of the discussion and follow-up steps.

Cement the experience. One complaint about retreats is that they often feel great in the moment but don’t necessarily lead to any action or change. One way to reinforce the experience for future action is to use a wrap-up question. If the group is small enough, you can have each person answer the question in a speed round. Some possibilities:

  • What is one thing you will take away from today’s discussion?
  • What is one topic from today that needs more discussion or merits follow-up?

Identify clear next steps. Where do we go from here? How will the results of today’s group work translate into actionable next steps? Either during the meeting or shortly thereafter (and communicated to participants in writing), determine the action steps and who will be responsible for each.

By establishing clear goals and ground rules, encouraging the free flow of creative ideas, and listening actively, you can facilitate a winning retreat on almost any topic. People will leave energized, inspired and with a renewed sense of shared purpose.

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