Ever had to endure the stares of a (virtual) room full of people and guide and moderate the conversation?
If yes, you’re well aware of the struggle and fear meeting facilitators have to go through.
If not, you can probably relate anyway, as it’s quite similar to hosting a team meeting, giving a presentation, or presenting your progress, challenges, or accomplishments to the team.
But some people seem so calm and collected.
What is their secret?
How do you overcome the fear of facilitating meetings?
Read on to find out.
In this blog post, we will first go over the most common fears associated with facilitating meetings. Then we will give you 10 actionable tips on how to overcome these fears and win your next facilitation engagement.
Table of Contents
First things first, let’s define the role of a meeting facilitator.
A meeting facilitator is a person responsible for keeping the discussion on track during a meeting. They make sure all team members are given equal opportunities to express their opinion. Meeting facilitators ensure that your meetings are productive and meeting rules and goals are established and followed.
Moreover, the role of the meeting facilitator involves setting the tone and adjusting the dynamics of the conversation, in addition to fostering collaboration and guiding the conversation towards a decision/conclusion.
Fear of facilitation (FOF) is real and a fairly common issue even the most confident presenters and public speakers have faced at least once in their careers.
Although most commonly associated with fear of public speaking and authority figures, there are plenty of other reasons people may experience fear before and during meeting facilitation.
You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, as the saying goes, so let’s first make sure to accurately identify the cause of our fear before we get to the overcoming part.
Here are some of the most common fears meeting facilitators face.
If you notice your fear of facilitating meetings particularly intensifies when you facilitate in front of people you consider are higher up in any aspect, then you might be experiencing a fear of authority figures.
Fear of authority figures usually manifests in school or work settings when a person suddenly starts feeling shy and nervous around people that stand higher in the hierarchical order.
Meeting facilitators can often come across a situation when they are required to moderate a meeting in front of people they regard as an authority in some respect. In case of authority anxiety, meeting facilitators can experience fear of saying or doing something embarrassing and feeling inferior to the people occupying higher positions.
A career service executive at Employment BOOST, Ryan Miller highlights imposter syndrome as the most common fear meeting facilitators are facing:
“That overwhelming feeling of questioning whether you have the authority to hold a meeting and command relevance for people involved in the meeting. Will they consider it a waste of time?”
You’ve got your speech ready and notes on hand and you feel confident in your ability to facilitate an important meeting.
However, the participants have a different intention and before you know it, the conversation gets completely off track almost to the point of no return.
Or, the tech issue takes longer to fix than you hoped and now the entire meeting agenda is ruined.
If you notice that every bit of uncertainty causes excruciating fear, you might be experiencing fear of the unknown.
There’s something really scary about the never-ending list of worst possible scenarios running through our minds as we’re trying to prepare for a meeting.
Our facilitation fears additionally increase when we’re about to encounter
- Partners, or
- Sponsors outside our organization we haven’t met before.
Virtually any element of unpredictability can send our minds into fear overload and ruin our ability to perform our best.
For some of us, even the simple fact that you’re about to speak semi-formally in front of multiple people may cause intense fear and anxiety. In this case, even your regular team meetings may cause discomfort, let alone moderating a meeting with professionals you haven’t met before.
Fear of public speaking, or glossophobia, is one of the most common fears causing unease for people faced with facilitating a meeting.
According to one HBR article, this fear dates back to prehistoric times. People correlated eye contact and being watched as a sign of approaching danger and getting attacked by predators. This triggers our fight-or-flight response, making us experience the physical symptoms caused by adrenaline:
- Shortness of breath, and
Virtual and in-person meetings create a similar scenario — meeting facilitators are in the spotlight with all eyes and attention directed towards them. Naturally, this experience can cause a debilitating response with people prone to experiencing nervousness or fear around public speaking.
Some people are simply wired for perfectionism. The slightest possibility of something turning out less ideal than they have planned can cause them to freeze or give up on the idea of facilitating a meeting altogether.
Although it is common to make mistakes at any job and most people are fine with occasional slip-ups, it is an entirely different thing to have your teammates witness these.
And, while no one enjoys making a mistake or feeling inadequate, there may be more at play when it comes to the actual cause of this fear for meeting facilitators.
We asked Jennifer Smith, CEO at Scribe, for her opinion on the matter. She pointed out that meeting facilitators tend to overlook that they are not expected to know it all. The failure to properly define the facilitator role thus becomes the root of this fear.
”Meeting facilitators often fall into the trap of thinking they have to know the answers. As a facilitator, your job is not to be the content expert, but to ask the right questions and guide the conversation to pull out the right answers from the right folks, at the right time. Often, facilitators are too wrapped up thinking about what they are going to say or ask next, that they fail to be fully present to the conversation in the moment.”
Out of all the potential fears that meeting facilitators can face, this is probably the most realistic.
While hardly anyone will notice or mind if you make a mistake or appear a bit nervous, low engagement or poor meeting dynamic sticks out like a sore thumb.
It can be really scary to try to moderate a meeting with people unwilling to contribute, or to face a group with a dysfunctional dynamic. Those long periods of silence can throw off even the most seasoned meeting hosts and facilitators.
Finally, some people are more likely to assume a background position and are not confident in taking the lead. They simply don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight, are more introverted, or are simply not comfortable taking on the responsibilities of a meeting facilitator.
According to Logan Mallory, VP at Motivosity, meeting facilitators can feel overwhelmed from having to navigate a considerable amount of tasks at the same time.
“I think that one of the main reasons people fear facilitating meetings is that they aren’t comfortable serving in a moderator role. When you’re facilitating a meeting you’re responsible for ensuring that it stays on track, everything is covered, people don’t hog the floor, people are being respectful to one another, and everyone gets a chance to speak. This is a lot of responsibility for one person, which is why it causes fear for so many people.”
This fear may also be the result of traditional organizational management methods that don’t promote emergent leadership. Unlike traditional structure, emergent leadership allows everyone in the team enough support and space to naturally and gradually assume a leadership role.
Sitting with fear and discomfort for too long can cause additional stress and even lead to potential mental health issues.
At the same time, some of these fears do inherently originate from mental health problems and disorders. As the 2022 Mind the Workplace Report by Mental Health America points out, work-related stress still affects a large portion of employees across the USA despite the growing mental health awareness.
Whether your workplace culture offers a mental health support plan and resources or not, you’ll find great use in some of the coping strategies we compiled in this guide.
Without further ado, here are the 10 actionable mechanisms you can apply next time you feel that “fight-or-flight” coming up threatening to ruin your facilitation moment.
The best way to dismantle the fear of authority figures is to acknowledge and neutralize the effect they produce in your mind.
Consider this three-step process on achieving a healthy and neutral but still respectful attitude towards participants you deem influential.
- Humanize the authority figures — Introduce yourself, and try to get as much one-on-one time with each person as possible to start considering them as regular human beings, and not as their titles. You can meet in person before the meeting or via introductory one-on-one calls.
- Look at the evidence — Fear is irrational in most cases. Remind yourself that you wouldn’t be in the position to facilitate a meeting if your superiors didn’t think you can do it.
- Define your role — Start by introducing yourself as a meeting facilitator and outline your responsibilities. That way you’ll set the right expectations from the group and you’ll unburden yourself from the pressure of having to know the answers to all potential questions.
Similarly, to overcome the fear of the unknown, it’s a great idea to, well, familiarize yourself as much as possible with everyone involved.
In situations where you haven’t met the people before, consider setting up introductory calls and getting familiar with people and their main goals, ideas, and concerns.
If it’s a larger group you’re facilitating, consider identifying key figures and do quick calls with each of them to “feel their pulse”, establish your credibility, and prepare better. You can conduct these calls over tools such as Pumble that offer voice and video conferencing functionality.
It’s not a secret that we fight fear by facing it. In this case — by owning and admitting to it.
For example, you can mention in the beginning that this is your first time facilitating a meeting. Or, that it’s been a long time since you last did, just to break the ice.
You can also start a quick chit-chat session or an icebreaker game to kick things off and give everyone a chance to ease into the conversation.
The same goes if you encounter long silence during a meeting. Instead of internalizing it, acknowledge the situation and ask the participants to join.
We spoke to Jason Palmer — CEO and Co-Founder of Bear Claw ATS — and he offered a useful insight on how to use the vulnerability to calm your nerves and be more authentic:
“Don’t cover your nerves in a way that will make it clear you are hiding discomfort. More often than not, people have been in your position before and understand that facilitating a meeting can be an immense amount of pressure. If at any point you are feeling uncomfortable during a meeting, presentation, or interview, it’s better to be transparent. If you choke and feel like you’re about to mess up, take a deep breath, admit in a professional way how you are feeling and keep going. Your vulnerability will be more appreciated than an awkward cover-up.”
For instance, if you notice people not contributing to the discussion because they are multitasking during camera-off meetings. Instead of panicking, call it out respectfully and inspire them to engage.
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
Need more tips on how to better optimize for engagement before, during, and after your virtual meetings, be sure to check our guide on the blog:
When nervous, switch to service, as the saying goes.
One of the best ways to shift your perspective from fear and nervousness is to focus on how you can help the group achieve a common goal.
The way to go about it is not to seek validation in their expressions, but to focus on your role in helping them have a more enjoyable and productive meeting experience.
Ask engaging questions to get the group talking. This way, you’ll not only ease your anxiety but you’ll also achieve better meeting productivity.
Some focus-shifting questions you could ask are:
1. How does this sound to you?
2. What are some potential challenges that could result from this plan?
3. What are the next steps and who are the people responsible for implementing them?
Chance favors the prepared mind, after all. And, more importantly, it calms your uneasiness and fear.
Being prepared and practiced means the majority of your responsibilities will almost become second nature, thus alleviating the anxiety and fear of the unknown. The potential disaster scenarios playing out in your head when you are faced with new or scary situations like this will subside as you get more familiar with the script.
Practice makes perfect. Write your scenario, and practice presenting it in front of a test audience of friends, family members, or coworkers. Or, ask a teammate to help you practice over a lunch break, for example.
Logan Mallory has similar advice on how to best conquer your fear of facilitation:
“To overcome your fear of facilitation, practice in a low-stakes environment first. Start with a small group of people you know and trust and use them as your practice group. That provides a safe space for you to experiment and get your feet wet.
From there, try adding more people from outside of that small group, and practice the same skills you’ve honed from small-group facilitation with something a bit larger. Just like any other skill, facilitation takes practice to master and to overcome your fear of doing it.”
It’s also a great idea to prepare notes and other resources to help when you feel overwhelmed or stuck. You can even ask a teammate to jump in from time to time to help you take the edge off. Be sure to establish some rules and ques prior to the meeting, so you don’t talk over each other.
The scary and fun part about meetings is that no matter how well prepared you are, there’s always room for the unexpected to happen.
A complete detour in the discussion, an unexpected question you don’t have the answer to, or a technology malfunction are all realistic meeting scenarios.
Although you can’t necessarily plan for all, there are still a couple of things you can do to prepare for the worst.
If the discussion goes off track, be ready to refer back to the main agenda.
Offer participants a couple of options for off-topic discussions and issues that go beyond the scope of the meeting.
These can include:
- Parking a discussion for later
- Scheduling a follow-on meeting
- Leaving out another agenda point
You can also consult your superior or session sponsor on how to proceed in case of a digression.
During the meeting, ask the group how they would like to proceed. For instance, you can create a poll with options on what needs to be done to proceed with the meeting.
Prepare a backup plan for potential technical issues. Have a designated tech support person nearby, if possible, to avoid long delays. Include a backup plan in the meeting information/invitation and send it over to all participants.
It takes courage to face your fears and still push forward, but the rewards are well worth it.
Each time you take on a facilitator role, you’re opening yourself up to opportunities to learn from the experience and master the craft.
And, more importantly, with each new session, you’ll experience less fear and feel more confident in your role.
Volunteer to facilitate any time there’s a chance during smaller team meetings, and slowly work your way up to larger and more challenging ones.
Although it’s not always the most pleasant, especially when you think you didn’t do as well, asking for feedback can help you immensely in overcoming your fear of facilitation.
Be sure to ask people you admire and whose opinions you trust.
Constructive feedback can really help change your perspective on your performance. Most probably, you’ll understand that nobody even noticed those minor mistakes you thought were huge.
Moreover, the commentary can help you recognize all the positive aspects, and pinpoint areas for improvement.
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
For more on the importance and implementation of constructive feedback, check out our blog post:
Another great way to build confidence and alleviate the fear of facilitation is to get a solid grasp of the material and the topics discussed.
Although collaborative leadership is a top-down approach, there are still ways to apply the methods of team-centric leadership as an individual. And, you can potentially inspire top management to adopt some of the methods on the organizational level.
For example, you can actively seek to participate in processes and knowledge sharing whenever it makes sense for your expertise. This will give you the opportunity to gain more knowledge on all topics and issues discussed and turn you into a more confident and fearless facilitator.
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
For more tips on how to improve collaborative leadership within an organization, check out our guide on the blog:
In an effort to be perfect and look professional, we tend to apply generic tips and guides on how to facilitate a meeting. And while there are some great points to consider, we may lose a lot of our authenticity if we try to fit the general facilitator role style.
At the same time, we risk appearing unnatural and our presentation looks forced.
To avoid coming off as inauthentic, consider applying the communication style that feels most natural to you.
For example, if you’re more introverted, forcing yourself to go for the assertive style will make you feel and appear uncomfortable. Instead, try to be yourself, and use your natural tone and style to both ease your nerves and perform better overall.
The examples and tips outlined in this article do not apply to people suffering from social anxiety disorder.
If you experience severe anxiety symptoms in social situations in general, which affect your work, relationships, and your everyday life, it might be helpful to consult professional resources on the matter.
The bad news about fear of facilitation is that it catches you off guard and paralyzes you up to the point of forgetting your own name.
The good news is you can overcome it.
Use the tips we outlined in this article to help you master the art of facilitation and gain confidence in moderating diverse groups and topics.