Who Should Lead the Meeting – the Chair or the Facilitator?

April 16, 2018 2:15 pm

Whether I’m delivering a keynote address or training facilitation skills, one central issue consistently surfaces – who should run the meeting, the chair or the facilitator? While in reality the chair and the facilitator are often the same person, each role has different and distinct responsibilities which is not always well understood. Borrowing from my colleague Ingrid Bens’ book, Facilitating with Ease! (4th Edition, 2018), to understand the differences between chair and facilitator, it is important to first distinguish ‘process’ from ‘content’.

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

  1. Content
  2. Process

Content

The content of any interaction is what is being discussed. This consists of the topics, issues or problems expressed in the agenda. The content of a discussion includes the ideas discussed and any resulting solutions or strategies agreed to. Content speaks to the tangible part of the meeting that most people are aware of.

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 is 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. Being neutral 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. Infrequently a facilitator will provide an idea to stimulate a faltering discussion, provide an example to get the group back on-topic, or, to get them thinking wider or deeper than they currently are. A facilitator’s neutrality isn’t sacrificed when proposing an idea because it’s ultimately the group who decides if the idea is useful or important.

Process

There is an equally important, but more intangible side to the management of meeting topics; the process. This refers to how the meeting topic or meeting interaction is managed. It entails two interdependent aspects: ‘topic management’ and ‘relationship management.’

Topic management includes designing and sequencing steps so that discussions flow logically and build on one another. Managing the process of a topic is like creating a recipe except, instead of designing and creating a triple layered chocolate cake, you are designing and leading a problem-solving, decision-making, ideation or strategic planning discussion. Each part of the discussion requires steps sequenced in a way that builds that ultimately achieves a desired outcome.

What is similar about chairs and facilitators is that they both insist on having an agenda. However, how each agenda item is managed is another story. Facilitators spend a lot of time up front determining the steps, sub-steps and timing for their process to ensure group discussions maximizes team member engagement, and achieves the intended outcomes within the given time-frame.

Chairs, however, tend to spend less time on process development, or the ‘how’ and ‘when’ content is brought to the table. This may be due to lack of tool knowledge on the part of the chair or a method to retain power as to who gets to talk and what content is discussed.

The other part of process that requires focus by the facilitator is relationship management. This 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 all 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.

However, chairs will often terminate discussion and avoid debate or closure when member-to-member arguments arise. Sometimes chairs will allow for ‘we agree to disagree’ to end a challenging debate. These conflict management techniques disallow members to openly vent and resolve their issues which can result in members feeling resentful. Resentments could ultimately lead to the group making decisions or recommendations that do not last and/or are not fully followed through.

When it comes to making decisions, facilitators believe in the power of the group and the resulting impact on commitment levels. Facilitators use various techniques that seek equitable participation by all members when their input is needed to decide on issues. Chairs, on the other hand, may influence decisions and concentrate power. It is not uncommon for a strong chairperson to make final decisions on important items requiring only one other person to second the motion for the decision. A consequence of this self-delegated decision option is often that the chair ‘owns’ the outcome rather than the constituents whose commitment is required.

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 achieving a mutually agreed to outcome. A very common role arrangement is to have a meeting leader use a ‘chairing’ 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 chairs should know when and how to take a more facilitative approach. This would entail that all chairpersons learn and utilize facilitation skills so that they are able to switch styles when participation and ownership are critical.

With some planning beforehand, these roles don’t need to conflict. The key is to be clear about when each approach should be used.

Chair to … Facilitate to …
Welcome participants, overview meeting purpose and outcomes, and/or organizational expectations Increase participation and leverage the wisdom of the team
Set the parameters around the discussion (what’s on the table and not on the table for discussion) Shift ownership and commitment to the team
Review past minutes and agenda items Have members problem-solve collaboratively
Overview current agenda Deal with group dynamics such as engagement and minimizing negative conflict
Exchange information Facilitate an intervention that will improve meeting or team effectiveness
Hear members report back Help members to make decisions through consensus building
Get informal feedback Help members to create agreed to action plans that are actually followed through
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