Meeting Formats

Plenary Discussion
Whole group discussion. In a group of about 8 or more, typically a facilitator calls on members who raise hands to get on the "stack" (speaker order list).

Small Groups
Split into groups of 2-5 people for part or all of the time on agenda item. If done for a brief portion of a larger time slot on an item, sometimes called "zoom groups." To share some information back with the full group, it's often best to ask for highlights, because if you ask for "report-backs" from every group the reports often go on too long.

Open Space
An opportunity for people to work in small groups on whatever they feel passionate about. Core guideline: "Take responsibility for what you love." Can move to a new small group at any time, or initiate a new topic. An Open Space event may last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and can be used to support gatherings of hundreds of people to self-organize sessions in a very short amount of time. See for more info.

World Café
Rotating small group discussions. Typically 2-3 rounds of 20-30 min. each. In between rounds, one person stays at the same location as "table host," while others break up and travel to form new groups at other tables. May ask for highlights to share with the whole group between rounds, or wait until after several rounds. May change focus question on each round, or stay with the same question and go deeper. See for more info.

A subgroup discusses the issue in the center, while the rest of the full group sits in an outer circle offering silent support. In a Heterogeneous fishbowl, the varied points of view on the issue are included in a center group. There may also be an empty chair in the middle for someone from the outer ring to join in the discussion if they want to. In a Homogeneous fishbowl, everyone in a particular category (such as "working class") sits in the middle and talks about their experience; then everyone in the next category (e.g. "middle class" or "owning class") goes into the middle while the previous group sits in the outer circle. For Homogeneous fishbowls having two or more iterations for each category (that is, each group gets a second turn later) allows for more responsiveness.

Each person gets a turn to speak to the group, in order by seat. Someone may pass if they are not ready to speak. May have time limit per person, either signaled by facilitator or pass around a timer so the person who just spoke can signal the next person when their time is up. No crosstalk or discussion until all have had a turn.

Council/Talking Stick
Similar to go-round because each person gets an opportunity speak, but usually done "popcorn" (speaking when one feels moved to) rather than seat order. Council is sacred space set aside from normal meetings and activities, with markers such as a candle, dim lighting, or meeting at a different time than usual to help signal the difference. Facilitator's opening remarks set the tone. Usually reserved for heavy issues.

Dynamic Facilitation (DF)
Extremely open-ended group discussion. Facilitator does not stack, and instead calls on whoever evinces the most energy. Facilitator does lots of reflection to whoever is speaking, verbally and/or writing on flipchart. There are 4 flipcharts going simultaneously: Inquiries (what question are we trying to answer or problem to solve), Solutions (what might we do about it), Concerns, Data (information). Not a linear process, great for generating creative breakthroughs on "impossible" problems. See for more info.

People shout out ideas that are written up on a flipchart. May have 2 flipcharts going at the same time (with 2 scribes) so that sharing can move fast. No evaluation or criticism of ideas allowed, the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible.

Card-Storming (aka Snow Cards)
Brainstorming written by individuals onto cards or half sheets of paper (one idea per card) and passed in, instead of shouted aloud. Allows for somewhat more anonymity and therefore more likely variety of ideas.

Anonymous Cards
An option in situations where people are not feeling safe to speak openly. Facilitator passes out cards to everyone and asks people to write down what issue(s) are up, or to write their response to the stated issue on a card. Cards are then read out by the facilitator, or pass in to a basket and have each person draw out a card to read to the group.

Shelter Scale
Take the issue and translate it into a numerical scale, such as, "My level of support for this proposal is . . . (range of 1-7)." Then ask people to write their number on cards to be tallied. A bar graph displays the results particularly well.

Kinesthetic Mapping
For issues that have a natural continuum of opinion. Lay out a spectrum in the room, e.g. "Everyone who thinks our work requirement should be 1 hour stand at this end, 10 hours stand at the other end, and arrange yourselves accordingly in the middle." Ask everyone to stand up and place themselves along the line. A variation is to then fold the line at the halfway point, pairing up the two people at the extreme ends and so on down the line (until the middle people are paired with each other), and then ask the partners to have a short conversation about why they feel the way they do.

Ask everyone to stand up in a crowd. Ask for someone who feels moved to express their opinion aloud. Anyone else who resonates with that expression moves to stand near that person. Then someone else speaks, and whoever resonates with that moves to stand near the second person (which may or may not include anyone from the first group). And so on. Carry on until the energy has been expressed. Inspired by Arnie Mindell's Process Oriented Psychology.

Switching Places
If two people are stuck in ideological positions in the meeting, ask them to literally change chairs and spend some time arguing for the other person's point of view instead.

Roleplay, Theater, Improv
One or a few members act out a relevant situation for the rest of the group to watch.

Nonverbal, Act out
Instead of describing a situation verbally, ask someone to show their impression without words. While there is often resistance or nervousness about this approach, it can be very powerful.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI)
AI is "a process, philosophy, and life practice grounded in research demonstrating that focusing on what's working and aspirations for the future achieves more and does it faster and more sustainably than solving problems." The first step consists of interviews focusing on positive past experiences and dreams for the future, including questions such as: (1) "Tell me about a time when you had a really strong experience of community, a time when you felt deeply connected with the group;" (2) "What do you think is the core factor that gives life to this place, the one thing without which it just wouldn't be the same?" (3) "Without being humble, can you please tell me what you value most deeply about your contribution here?" See for more info.

Read Aloud
One person shares a text aloud with the group. Most often the group's mission statement, or an inspirational reading.

Reports, Expert Presentations
One representative gives information to the rest of the group. One-way dissemination of information is often best done via writing or email. If using group interactive time, recommend strict time limits. Normally followed by Q&A.

List Pros & Cons
Choose one or two representatives from each proposal to help lay out what the advantages and disadvantages are of each proposal for group consideration.

Multivoting (aka Dot Voting)
Write up all the possibilities on snow cards or a flipchart. Give each member of the group a magic marker, or a pre-set number of sticky dots. Each person gets to place their dots on whichever items they most support. May allow multiple dots to be placed by one person on an item, or may require that each dot go to a different item. Useful for prioritization, such as choosing what topics to give time to in a meeting.

Ranked Ballot
Write up all the possibilities on a handout. Ask people to number the items according to level of support. Easiest to tally if the highest number goes to the item one supports most, and the lowest number (1) to the least preferred item. Can also be done via email with all replies sent to one person to add up.

Draw Picture
Use pictures, symbols or diagrams to express a story or idea. Great for folks who are more visual than verbal. If multiple pictures are created at the same time, follow with an "art gallery" tour to view all of them.

Guided Meditation/Visualization
One person leads the group in first relaxing, then creating a mental picture or open-ended storyline, then gently bringing people back to present time. Used most often for visioning the future (e.g. "How might our community look 10 years from now?").

Inspiration from Nature
Good for when the meeting is stuck. Holding the topic of inquiry in mind, have everyone go outside and see what in nature calls to their attention. Each person sit independently for 10 minutes looking at the tree or sky or blade of grass or whatever being one has decided to focus on, and with the query in mind, see what wisdom, insights or feelings emerge. Then everyone goes back to the meeting and takes turns sharing what came up.

Don't have a formal format. Just hang out. See what happens.

I saved the best for last. Silence is used heavily in Quaker consensus process, and probably not enough by the rest of us!

Tree Bressen, facilitator and teacher, has been assisting intentional communities, nonprofits, and other organizations with group process since 1994. Pages from her website are available for copying and distribution free of charge as long as you continue to include these credit lines and contact information.

Tree Bressen
Eugene, Oregon