Purpose, Products, and Process
If you are not the facilitator and the meeting has no agenda or stated purpose, ask for them ahead of time. If you do not get them but choose to attend anyway, interject early on by asking, "What is the expected outcome of our time together?" Help guide the answers by asking about the meeting's purpose, products, and process.
When people begin to respond with these questions, stand up and write them on poster paper with the label "Outcomes." If posters aren't feasible, ask to take notes (on your laptop, if you have one with you, or by hand if not), which you'll send out after the session.
Having the outcomes posted on the wall will keep everyone focused on what the group needs to produce. When you hear off-topic discussions, you can point to the outcomes poster and ask, "How does this discussion get us to our outcomes?"
CARES from Your Chair
You don't have to be the facilitator to use the techniques of an effective facilitator. From where you sit, you can take specific actions to help the participants improve their process. Here are some tips, gathered under the acronym CARES (clarify, ask, reflect, explore, summarize).
Clarify: Check for understanding by asking a question, such as: "Are you saying you are concerned about whether this requirements should be in scope or not?"; or "Earlier you said X, and now I hear you saying Y, and these seem in conflict. Can you clarify that?"; or simply "Do I hear you saying ...?"
Ask: Well-timed questions can have a powerful effect on a group process and promote shared understanding. For example, ask process questions to help redirect a group gone astray: "Is this topic relevant to achieving our planned outcome?" or "Is that a topic we might put on our parking lot?" Focus questions help elicit specific information. When you ask, "What are some of the key pieces of information that are used to make that decision?" you will obtain a directed list that's relevant to the topic at hand.
Context-free questions (Gause and Weinberg, 1989), such as "What problem does this software/process/requirement solve?" or "What problems could this software/process/requirement create?" expand the community's thinking about the nature of the project, situation, problem, solution, or requirements. Reflective meta questions (Gause and Weinberg, 1989) promote introspection in the group. Asking the following helps the group think about their collaborative thinking: "Do the questions we're asking about product requirements relevant?"; "Are we the right people to answer these questions?"; or "Are there other questions we should be asking?"
Reflect: Effective groups continually check on their own process. Don't wait until the end of the meeting or session to make effective use of self-reflection. Ask: "How do you all think we are doing in making progress here today?"; "Can I do a process check and ask everyone if they think we're heading in the right direction with our time today?"; or "I'm curious whether this session is productive for us right now. What do you think?"
Explore: Don't assume that everyone understands or agrees about the topic at hand. Some participants aren't vocal, or their nonverbal behavior is ambiguous. Do their folded arms indicate contemplation or disagreement? Does foot tapping indicate impatience, anxiety, or too much caffeine? Don't guess where they stand, and don't assume you know what they know. Ask!
Open-ended, exploratory questions probe for more information. Posing questions like "I am curious to hear what concerns or suggestions some of the folks who haven't chimed in yet might have. Would you share that with us?" or "Can you explain further the impact of X on our organization?" can unleash powerful information sharing.