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Articles for change

Undercover facilitation: An introduction

Have you ever been in a meeting that didn’t go so well – and wished someone would do something about it? What if that someone was you?

Let me introduce you to the concept of undercover facilitation – a set of moves that any participant can make to get a meeting back on track. This can be as part of the process of self-organisation or as support to the appointed facilitator or chair of the meeting.

These moves often come in the form of an observation or question – offered openly, without authority or mandate. If they consider your intervention helpful, other participants will then build on it. If not, they might offer an alternative view or approach that helps the process forward.

At the start of the meeting: What do we want to do?
Unclear or misaligned expectations about the purpose or objectives of the meeting easily lead to frustrations. If there is an agenda, you can remind others of it and ask if there are additional needs. If there is none, you can ask: “What do we need to talk about today to make this meeting a success?”

During the meeting: How do we stay on track?
Groups easily get distracted when in the middle of an interesting discussion. In that case, it can help to call attention to the group dynamic, for example:

  • with regards to time: “We have 10 minutes left for this agenda item.”
  • with regards to the topic: “We started off talking about X, and now we’re discussing something else.”
  • with regards to participation: “Ivan has raised his hand” or “we’ve heard quite a bit on this from Marte and Greg now”
    Often, that is already enough. Sometimes you might ask the group whether they want to address the dynamic (“shall we start looking at next steps?”, “do we want to park this side conversation”, “who else would like to contribute”)

You can also offer to take on a certain role for the meeting, such as watching the time, maintaining a list of speakers or taking notes.

Closing the meeting: Where are we now?
One of my favourite undercover facilitation move is summarizing a conversation: “It seems that there’s two points of view here, and we’re starting to hear proposals on how to reconcile them”. This helps bring focus to a discussion and can shift the attention towards a possible resolution. Sometimes, you might also want to suggest a next step.

Alternatively, it can also help to visualise the key points made. I love using index cards when in an undercover facilitation role because they can easily be rearranged – and others can easily join in if they want to.

Whatever undercover facilitation moves you make: thank you for your contribution to better meetings!

Others have written about this topic under the name “guerilla facilitation”. Check out:

If you want more tips for better meetings and facilitation – undercover or not – let me know!

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Wiebke Herding

Facilitation and process design for a changing world. Mission: momentum for sustainability. Managing Director @ONSUBJECT. she/they.

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