The facilitative leader: Keeping the discussion on track

Monica Olsen, MHRD and Mary Yates, MEd



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In an earlier article in this series, we presented a model to help facilitative leaders hold engaging and productive meetings. Here we focus on processes and techniques to help keep meeting discussions on track for maximum engagement and productivity.


In our first article of this series,1 we talked about basic facilitation skills — the skills that are useful for dealing with predetermined issues requiring an improvement in the status quo rather than the more advanced skills that involve systems thinking. Last issue, we focused on designing engaging and productive meetings.2 We stressed the need for leaders to challenge their assumptions about how meetings should be run and pursue more effective approaches. We presented a three-part model for leading engaging and productive meetings: create context, do a check in, clarify and agree to the “GRIP” (goals, roles, interpersonal relationships, and processes).3 In this article, we focus on processes and techniques to help keep meeting discussions on track for maximum engagement and productivity. Top


Most physician leaders express concern over the level of engagement of meeting participants. When asked what can be done to improve it, most will talk about the need to keep the discussion “on track.” Time is valuable and when the discussion is allowed to wander, participants become disengaged or even outwardly angry. Top


Keeping discussions on track increases the level of engagement, as participants feel their time is valued. As a result, relevant information is shared in a respectful way, problems get solved, and decisions are made.


Task and maintenance functions

In our article on designing meetings,2 we distinguished between content and process: what gets done and how it gets done. Effective meeting leaders pay attention to both to ensure maximum levels of engagement. When leaders and participants are paying attention to content, they are performing “task” functions. When they are paying attention to process, they are performing “maintenance” functions. Meeting leaders are advised to model, observe, and encourage both types of functions.


Task functions

This category of group behaviours promotes meeting effectiveness by focusing on getting the job done, i.e., accomplishing the objective or task that the group has before it. This includes all formal and informal methods for sharing information, solving problems, and making decisions (Table 1). Top


The following questions are helpful for understanding how team members contribute to the group’s task functions.


  1. Does anyone ask for or make suggestions on the best way to proceed or to tackle a problem?
  2. Does anyone attempt to summarize what has been covered or what has been going on in the group?
  3. Is anyone giving or asking for facts, ideas, opinions, feelings, and feedback or searching for alternatives?
  4. Who keeps the group on topic? How do they do that?


Maintenance functions

This category of group behaviours promotes effectiveness by focusing on relationships and cohesiveness among meeting participants. Their purpose is to create and maintain collegial, respectful relations and to create a group atmosphere that enables participants to contribute to their full potential (Table 2).

The following questions are helpful for understanding how team members contribute to the group’s maintenance functions. Top


  1. Who helps others contribute to the discussion?
  2. Did you notice whether anyone was cut off? Any patterns? What happened afterward?
  3. How well are participants getting their ideas across? Is anyone preoccupied and not listening? Were there any attempts to help others clarify their ideas?
  4. What evidence of group support is there? Which participants seem to be particularly concerned about peoples’ feelings and keeping the group together?


Dysfunctional meeting behaviours

Participants will sometimes leave a meeting with a vague (and sometimes not so vague) feeling that “things did not go well.” Often, this feeling is a result of a third group of behaviours: dysfunctional behaviours that interfere with keeping the discussion on track (Table 3).

These labels for dysfunctional behaviours are easy to remember. They give meeting participants a “language” to describe their behaviours and motivate them to self-monitor. Because the language is humorous, meeting participants are more likely to provide feedback to one another, sharing ownership of the meeting’s effectiveness, rather than leaving the responsibility for controlling dysfunctional behaviour to the meeting leader. Top


Keeping your (facilitative leader’s) head up

Leaders’ emotions — both positive and negative — are highly infectious. It is not only critical to be aware of your emotions; you also need to manage your feelings.


Ask yourself, “What kind of climate do I want to create in this meeting space?” A healthy purpose would be to design a meeting environment where people openly share relevant information, opinions, and questions and work together to solve problems, make decisions, and get things done. They will only do so in a psychologically safe atmosphere. As the leader, you will need to be vigilant of your own emotions first, and then help others do the same. Do what is right for the group. Top


Next, when facilitating meetings, you need to ensure that the content and process (task and maintenance) are helping the discussion move forward. Here is a list of key elements to monitor,4 and, if necessary, intervene appropriately:


  • ensure that everyone participates
  • manage conflicts or differences of opinion
  • keep the group on topic and park off-topic items (e.g., keep a “parking lot” sheet)
  • set time guidelines for each discussion
  • monitor time and maintain an appropriate pace
  • help participants adhere to the ground rules
  • intervene if there are problems
  • maintain high energy and a positive tone
  • help members articulate points, assumptions, or questions
  • keep track of ideas by making clear and visible notes Top


How does a facilitative leader do this? Periodically make the following checks.


Check the purpose

Ask, “Is everyone still clear about what is being discussed?” [fogging]. “Are we still discussing our topic or have we shifted focus?” [frogging].


Check the process

Ask if the approach being used is working. “We said we would work this issue through as a large group, rather than subgrouping. Is this approach working or should we try something else?” “It feels like we’re immersed in a lot of detail right now. Is this helpful for moving ahead?” [bogging]. “I notice that we keep circling back to this point. What do we need to know to better understand the concern here?” or “Should this be taken off-line?” [flogging]. “I noticed that we haven’t heard from everyone yet, and I’m concerned that we only have 10 minutes left for this item” [hogging]. Adjusting the process throughout ensures that things are working. Top


Check the time

Ask members how the pace feels to them. “Is this discussion dragging or are you feeling rushed?” “What can we do to improve the pace?”


Take the pulse of members

Constantly read faces, voice tone, and body language to determine how people are feeling. Ask, “Is anyone sensing they’ve dropped out? How can we get our energy levels up again?” Reading people lets you know when to stop for a break or bring disengaged members back into the conversation. Top


Tools and techniques to keep your discussions on track

7 plus or minus 2

One of the simplest techniques for keeping a discussion on track is to ensure that the group is the optimum size for problem-solving or decision-making, i.e., five to nine people, as it is much easier to balance participation (and reach agreement) in a small group. In cases where the group size exceeds nine, break it up into smaller groups of five or six to discuss a particular topic or answer a particular question. In an average one-hour meeting, these small-group discussions should not exceed 10 minutes and groups should be required to report back on their conversations. In a one-hour meeting, three small group discussions can be balanced with larger group discussions to improve productivity and engagement. Top


Using a flip chart

Recording the group discussion in point form on a flip chart enables all meeting participants to see what has been talked about and helps them avoid repeating ideas that have already surfaced. Be sure to remove and post flip chart pages as you go, so that all group members can see all the ideas (not just those recorded on the current page). If one member of the team tends to dominate the discussion, recording ideas on a flip chart is an excellent way to demonstrate that he or she has been heard and to allow the discussion to move along. Meeting leaders may choose to enlist the help of a volunteer recorder so that he or she can pay attention to other tasks and relationship functions.


Parking lot

Meetings often go off track for two reasons: great ideas that have nothing to do with the agenda come up and the group starts talking about them; group members have questions about the topic being discussed and no one in the meeting has an answer.


The meeting leader is advised to pay attention to these great ideas and questions and suggest that they are recorded on the flip chart so that the meeting can get back to the agenda. The bonus of the “parking lot” is that most, if not all, of these items become the agenda for the next or subsequent meetings.

Volunteer time-keeper

Paying attention to both task and maintenance functions can be challenging for any meeting leader. Delegating the time-keeping function is a simple and effective way to help keep the discussion on track. Ask for a volunteer to fulfill this role and ask him or her to indicate: half time; two minutes before the end of the meeting; and when time is up.


These guidelines can be used to monitor the time spent on each agenda item or the time spent on the entire agenda. Of course, when time is up, the meeting leader always has the option of asking the group if they would like to continue discussing the item. Top



Balancing participation (gate-keeping) is an important maintenance function. All those who wish to participate and contribute to the meeting discussion should be enabled to do so. However, some team members are less likely to contribute because of their temperament or personal style. Others may unintentionally dominate the discussion. All group members, regardless of personal style, can experience fear about expressing their personal perspective or uncomfortable “truths.” 1-2-4-all5 is a method that takes these dynamics into account and allows for both balanced participation and gradual disclosure. Top


  1. Participants are asked to reflect privately on a question or topic and record their response in writing (1)
  2. Participants are invited to share with one other person (2)
  3. Each pair is asked to share with another pair (4)
  4. Participants are then invited to share with the whole group (all)


For smaller groups, 1-3-all may be an appropriate alternative.


Mind mapping

A mind map6 is a powerful graphic technique — using words, images, numbers, logic, rhythm, colour, and spatial awareness — to unlock the potential of the brain (see Buzan6 for instructions and examples) . A mind map can be used to help groups make visible a broad pattern of concerns or trends. Everyone indicates where on the map they want their item and what words to use; this avoids interpreting, controlling or shaping peoples’ thoughts. A mind map also enriches information, as people build on each other’s ideas and connections. Top


We have used mind maps in retreats and meetings when we need stakeholders to identify all the trends affecting the future of a specific initiative, e.g., “the future of family medicine at XYZ.” Before the meeting, we post a large piece of blank paper (2 metres by 4 metres) with the topic at the centre. We ask everyone to stand by the mind map as we review the ground rules, which remain posted next to the map. This engaging (and kinesthetic) activity provides colourful visual data for further dialogue and identification of the most compelling items requiring further action.


The four-step Z process for team problem-solving

The Z process7 is a way of understanding the four vital steps in the problem-solving process. Before deciding on a specific course of action, help the group work through this process to keep from overlooking a critical step. A table (Figure 2) can be provided ahead of time to allow meeting participants to think about a situation and make notes. Walking through the table in sequential fashion, adjusting as necessary, can be done in conjunction with the 1-2-4-all technique. Top



1.Olsen M, Yates M. Facilitation skills for physician leaders — an emerging necessity in a complex health system. Can J Physician Leadership 2014; fall:23-5.

2.Olsen M, Yates M. Designing engaging and productive meetings. Can J Physician Leadership 2015; winter:16-9.

3.Beckhard R. Optimizing team building effort. J Contemp Bus 1972;1(3):23-32.

4.Bens I. Facilitating with ease! Core skills for facilitators, team leaders and members, managers, consultants and trainers (2nd ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; 2005.

5.Lipmanowicz H, McCandless K. Liberating structures: including and unleashing everyone. Available:

6.Buzan T. What is a Mind Map? Available:

7.Hirsh SK. Using the Myers-Briggs type indicator in organizations (2nd ed). Sunnyvale, Calif.: Consulting Psychologists Press; 1997



Monica Olsen, MHRD, is principal of Olsen and Associates Consulting. Her current focus is on leadership development in the health care sector through customized education programs, facilitation, and coaching. She has been a long standing faculty member of the CMA’s Physician Leadership Institute.


Mary Yates, MEd, is principal of Align Associates, offering expertise in the areas of leadership development, team effectiveness, performance management, meeting and retreat facilitation, human resources management, curriculum design, and quality improvement. She has been on the faculty of the CMA’s Physician Leadership Institute for the last 16 years.


Correspondence to:



This article has been reviewed by a panel of physician leaders.