Tips for Defining a Meeting’s Purpose

Many of the facilitators I’ve trained over the years have told me that clarifying the purpose can sometimes prove difficult, taking a lot of time and not resulting in the shared understanding that’s vital to move forward effectively. As you know, defining the ‘purpose’ should address ‘why’ we’ve come together to discuss this specific agenda item or topic.’ The ‘process’, on the other hand, tells the group ‘how’ we’re going to manage the discussion to achieve the purpose. As a seasoned facilitator, I’m all too aware of how difficult it can be to ensure everyone’s on the same page regarding “why we’re here and how we’re going to achieve it.”

When a meeting chair or facilitator states “we’re here to discuss XYZ” the ‘content’ of the discussion is presumed to be understood, but the intent may be ambiguous, or vice versa. It’s not unusual for a group to get together, start discussing a topic and, after 30 minutes, realize that 50% of the participants are arguing or defending a viewpoint that is only tangentially related to the current topic. This happens because individuals enter a meeting with different assumptions about the purpose. The confusion becomes further compounded if the meeting ‘process’ is not discussed or is nonexistent.

If there’s a lack of consensus on the meeting’s purpose, the success of the ensuing discussion will never be fully realized. Therefore, in order to get people aligned in purpose I tend to elaborate on it upfront, centering on the following four discussion elements:

  1. The ‘format’
  2. The ‘focus’
  3. The ‘outcome expected’
  4. The degree of structure or facilitation required

When I speak of ‘format,’ I’m referring to the ‘intent’ of the discussion (i.e. decision-making, or round-table updates). The ‘focus’ of a discussion, on the other hand, refers to the level of interactivity to occur between group members (i.e. dialogue vs. monologue). The ‘outcome’ refers to what ‘hard’ results or ‘deliverables’ can be expected as a consequence of having the discussion (i.e. ‘we’ll have our #1 choice decided, or ‘our knowledge base will increase’). I also acknowledge which discussion item requires a formal structure versus no required structure or meeting process (i.e. ‘a structured, facilitated decision-making process’ as opposed to an ‘informal, spontaneous conversation’).

The following chart may be helpful in understanding how to contextualize an item’s purpose to avoid ambiguity at the outset.

Context Setting Elements for Defining Purpose

Focus Discussion Format Hard Outcomes/Results F/N*
Monologue Presentation Info share; increased knowledge of subject area N
Monologue Round-table updates Info share; increased knowledge of subject areas F
Dialogue Q&A Info share; increased knowledge of subject area F
Dialogue Brainstorming A list of all the contributor’s thoughts F
Dialogue Problem-solving Issue identification and resolution; action plan F
Dialogue Consultative Feedback Info share; input given before and/or after a decision has been made F
Dialogue Merging & Synthesis Info share; merged collaborated list of ideas F
Dialogue Decision-making: Options could include one of the following:

  1. Prioritization
  2. Majority voting
  3. Compromising
  4. Delegating
  5. Consensus building


Sorted/ranked list of items
A #1 winner (but also losers)
A negotiated win/win & lose/lose decision
A sub-group made decision
A high commitment, win/win decision


N= Non-Facilitated, informal, spontaneous dialogue, or formalized monologue (i.e. as in a Presentation)
F= Facilitated, structured dialogue

Using the Chart

Example I’ve been asked to facilitate a meeting with my workgroup to address the issues arising from the new software implementation pilot. I open the discussion by stating:

Context Setting Elements
Discussion Format We’re here to discuss and resolve the problems arising from our new software pilot…
Outcome/Deliverable with the expectation of walking out today with resolutions in place and some key deliverables.
Focus and Degree of Structure This will necessitate lots of dialogue which will be managed using this problem-solving approach…

Following this opening, I then ‘ratify’ the purpose to ensure it’s been understood by all members. Ratification is critical to optimizing understanding, and, ultimately, ensuring commitment to participating in the discussion.

Once the context elements have been set, ask the group members, “What’s not clear about this purpose?” Determine what remains ambiguous and seek to clarify. Also ask one or two of the other group members to paraphrase their understanding of the purpose to test clarity. Again, restate the above question to ensure full comprehension before outlining the ‘process’ (i.e. ‘how’ we’re going to structure the dialogue).

Remember – whenever the group goes off track, having a clear and aligned purpose to fall back on, contributes to an on-track discussion and time well spent.