“Process to the People!” Chairing vs. Facilitating a Meeting

Whether I’m delivering a keynote address, sifting through my email correspondence or training facilitation skills, one central issue consistently surfaces – who runs the meeting, the Chair or the Facilitator? The distinction between ‘chairing’ and ‘facilitating’ a meeting or an agenda item is vital, but can be tricky for novices. Having trained and facilitated for many years, I empathize with this confusion between chairing and facilitating. Borrowing from my colleague Ingrid Bens’ book Facilitating with Ease! (Wiley, 2005) to understand the differences between chair and facilitator, it is first important to distinguish ‘process’ from ‘content.’

In every interaction, whether it’s a meeting, a consultation or even a discussion between two people, there are always two things going on.

  1. Content
  2. Process

Content

The Content of any interaction is what is being discussed. This is the task before the group and is expressed in the agenda, the issues, the problems, the decisions and the ideas that get discussed. This is the tangible part of the meeting that most people are aware of. It’s language-based, in either spoken or written form, which can be repeated for verification.

Chairs typically direct and get into content. Traditionally, chairs dictate what is to be discussed following ‘Parliamentary Rules of Order.’ For this reason, chairs are not perceived as being neutral. It’s typical for a chair to express bias through his/her words or through non-verbal means (i.e. body language, intonation), whereas ‘facilitators’ are expected to be neutral and objective. Neutrality means not getting into the ‘content’ of the discussion, but rather relying on the group to decide the extent and depth of what needs to be discussed. Facilitators create rules from within the group rather than imposing rules from a book.

When it comes to making decisions, facilitators believe in the power of the group and the resulting impact on commitment levels. Facilitators seek equal participation of all members when their input is needed to decide on issues. The facilitator sees herself as responsible for ensuring the group makes the best quality decision that it can, therefore necessitating the facilitator to probe, make suggestions and, at rare times, make suggestions in the form of questions. Nevertheless, the final decision is ultimately the group’s responsibility. Chairs, on the other hand, may influence decisions and concentrate power. It’s not uncommon for a strong chairperson to make final decisions on important items or terminate a meeting or agenda without seeking the meeting participants’ consent. A consequence of this self-delegated decision option is often that the chair ‘owns’ the outcome rather than the constituents whose commitment is required.

Process

There is an equally important, but less tangible, side to every interaction; namely Process. This refers to how the meeting or interaction is managed. Process refers to all of the non-verbal aspects of the interaction. This is what we call the “music” that accompanies the words (or ‘lyrics’) of an interaction. The ‘process’ entails two interdependent aspects, ‘task management’ and ‘relationship management.’

Task management requires procedures and a format for sequencing steps that successfully initiate and ultimately create closure on a discussion. Such an example could include a sequence of steps that begins with identifying issues that ‘stop a department from being effective,’ to prioritizing and resolving those issues. Chairs often dictate process, or the ‘how’ and ‘when’ content is brought to the table, whereas facilitators suggest process and seek ratification and even possible changes from the group.

Having a meeting agenda is the first step in ensuring meeting structure and both a chair and facilitator insist on this. However, how each agenda item is managed is another story. Facilitators structure the steps for managing each item and, if they’re worth their weight, possess a keen sense of design in order to ensure conversation progresses logically. Chairs often lack a deliberate structure for managing agenda items. This may be due to lack of tool knowledge on the part of the chair or a method to retain power and control over how the meeting progresses.

Relationship management requires methods, procedures and tools for managing how group members interact with one another. This depends on the style of the leader, which in turn impacts the spirit and climate of the meeting. A ‘command and control’ style can easily shut down a group within minutes. Facilitators seek to empower meeting members and intervene when group dynamics are hindering task progression or productivity. They intervene when members become dysfunctional and appreciate that, in the process of collaboration, conflict is a natural component of reaching a consensus. Chairs will often terminate discussion and avoid debate or closure with member-to-member arguments. Not allowing members to vent and to openly resolve their issues may leave members resentful, resulting in less impactful decisions, recommendations, feedback, etc.

My Perspective

Though I appear to be biased to facilitators over chairs, each role has its strengths and its place. From my perspective, the purpose of meetings is to provide a forum for people to bring their collective ideas to the table in the hopes of obtaining a mutually agreed outcome. Chairing is most useful at the start of a meeting in order to go over minutes, share information and manage a round-robin report-back by members. A very common role arrangement is to have a meeting leader use a chair approach to start the meeting, deal with the agenda, housekeeping and information-sharing portions of the session, then switch to a facilitator approach to get feedback from the group, problem-solve or make decisions.

All good facilitators should know when and how to act as an effective chairperson. Conversely, it would be ideal if all chairpersons were also skilled facilitators, being able to switch styles when they seek participation and ownership. With some planning beforehand, these roles don’t need to conflict. The key is to be clear about when each approach should be used.

In summary:

Chair when you want to … Facilitate when you want to…
  • welcome participants, overview meeting objectives and management and/or
    organizational expectations
  • increase participation
  • set the parameters around the discussion
  • shift ownership and commitment levels
  • review past minutes and agenda items
  • have members problem-solve
  • overview current agenda
  • deal with group dynamics
  • exchange information
  • facilitate an intervention that will improve meeting or team effectiveness
  • hear members report back
  • get members to make decisions
  • get informal feedback
  • get members to create action plans

© 2008 – 2014, Michael Goldman. All rights reserved.

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