How to Become a Better Facilitator
Facilitator. It’s a common buzzword in the corporate world, especially in the contexts of organizational goals and employee effectiveness. But what is a facilitator?
We can look at the Oxford Dictionary facilitator definition. It’s short and simple: “A facilitator is a person or thing that makes an action or process easy or easier.”
This is a good start, but, in the workplace, that definition has more far-rearing implications that we are going to explore in this post.
The Role of the Facilitator at the Workplace
A department within an organization is at peril. Perhaps employee engagement and thus productivity is lagging. It’s time to address the issue, or the entire organization will suffer from the fallout.
And so, the management decides to bring in a “facilitator” – someone who would attempt to build a better rapport with the department and dig to the route cause of the issue. The goal of a facilitation process, in this case, is to provide the department with an opportunity to address their issues and, together with a facilitator, propose a viable solution.
A common misconception is that a “facilitator” will come in and be the “performer,” providing “lectures” on the situation and then be the bearer of solutions that the meeting participants are to implement. This is not facilitation – this is authoritarian leadership, something you’d want to avoid at all costs. If you want to adopt a particular leadership style, a far better one would be of a servant leader.
What Exactly a Facilitator Does?
First and foremost, facilitators must understand what outcome they must achieve after a series of meetings and negotiations.
In the scenario above, an obvious outcome is to identify those causes of low engagement and resultant productivity loss, and then to arrive at a consensus among participants on what could be done about that.
Secondly, facilitators must understand the background that has resulted in this event or meeting. Before meeting with the team, they should:
- Collect some data from the observers – other department members, superiors, etc.
- Check-in with the meeting participants and get their point of view.
- Make their personal observations.
Onward, a successful facilitator will partake the next steps:
1. Design the Overall Facilitation Process
Much of this involves brainstorming the process structure. In particular, be sure to account for the following factors:
- How large is the participating group?
- What are the time constraints?
- How well do participants know one another?
- Is there a single topic or several topics up for discussion and resolution?
All of these things and more will determine the process design. If, for example, you have a relatively small group, then you may be able to have an open discussion on each of the sub-topics on the agenda. Just be sure to put some time limits on every point to avoid extra-long sessions.
On the other hand, if you have a large group, an open discussion may not be practical – perhaps break-out small groups, each working on the same issue and then report out to the larger group.
Here are some other things to address:
- Might participants need some “think time?” If so, provide writing tools and allow them to put their thoughts into writing.
- Are there parts in the process for which brainstorming might be appropriate?
- Do you need an ice-breaker because participants do not know one another well?
2. Create an Agenda
To run smoothly, all meetings should have an agenda. This keeps participants focused on the topics at hand and the discussion contained.
At this point, participants already know that the event or meeting(s) have been scheduled. They have thoughts and ideas on the matter. If possible, contact everyone in advance and ask them for agenda topic items and their reasons for suggesting them.
This will also help you make sure that topics are on-point and are relevant to all participants. If some folks will feel like its not their turf, they’ll tune out during the event and probably even “set an example” to others.
Once the agenda is set (at least for the first session), distribute it to all participants in advance. They have time to think about the questions.
Lastly, be certain that all the participants know their role – is it just to provide input? Is it to propose solutions? Is it to make decisions that will be fully implemented? If they don’t understand their role, they will not understand the purpose and certainly be less enthusiastic.
3. Guide the Process You Have Established
As a meeting facilitator, you have a bit of a double role. You are not an active participant, but neither a meeting leader. So be sure to stay within your role:
- Manage time for each speaker
- Encourage audience participation
- Through in some questions
- Challenge any inappropriate behavior
- Draw out quieter types; limit the bubbly ones.
6 Qualities Good Facilitators Have in Common
- They spend more time in preparation than in the actual event. They also plan for the unplanned and can quickly adapt their behavior to the situation when things go awry. And when things get off track, they know how to diplomatically and quickly pull in the reigns and re-focus.
- They know their participants. They spend time getting up-front information about participants as a group and as individuals, whenever possible. Also, great facilitators know how to balance the different personality types and strive to ensure that no participant steps on someone else’s toes.
- They can create an all-inclusive environment, putting everyone on an equal level. One method to do this is to have participants write down responses to agenda questions and then read them to the entire group.
- They engage in active listening. This means, they often reiterate what has been said and seek confirmation on key points being made. Further, good facilitators summarize what’s been agreed on so far and help the group iron out the remaining nuts and bolts.
- They can gauge participants’ emotions: energy, enthusiasm, lethargy, burnout, and distraction, and have a plan or two to re-energize the group.
- They stay neutral except in the case of achieving pre-established outcomes. If solutions are to be crafted, then they must be crafted.
As you can see from this list, most facilitators have well-honed interpersonal skills and a somewhat well-versed in group psychology. Most of these can be naturally developed. Others may require some prolific training.
Do You Need to Undergo Facilitator Training?
This is an individual decision, to be sure. If you are invited as an occasional facilitator for certain meetings and those go well, you probably won’t need to complete any extra training.
However, if you see yourself taking on a higher leadership position, especially in HR, investing in additional training may be worth it. There is plenty of online and offline training program for facilitators. As a start, you can check out organizations such as the Center for Executive Leadership or The Leadership Challenge.
There is also no lack of books on effective facilitation. Grab the following titles of Amazon as a start:
3 Effective Meeting Facilitation Techniques to Adopt
And if you are up for a bit of practice right now, here’s a quick list of other meeting facilitation techniques you can master.
1. Every Conversation Can Benefit From the Right Questions
In a nutshell, every meeting agenda is a series of big questions. And most participants tend to focus on merely answering these, instead of engaging in a productive discussion with one another.
What you can do as a facilitator is to steer the convo in a more productive route by asking every speaker the right questions. For instance: “Can you expand on that a bit?” “Can you summarize that for everyone?” “How does that situation make you feel?”
Questions with “why” are particularly effective as they prompt participants to dig much deeper into the causes for their feelings. When causes are out in the open, solutions are easier to come by.
2. Start Every Meeting with a Quick Check-in
Check-in is important for several reasons:
- They help you “take the temperature” of the room and adapt your behavior accordingly.
- Also, they prompt you what maybe still on participants’ minds after the previous session.
- Lastly, check-ins can prompt you on what people may hope to get out of today’s session
A “check-in” may only take a few minutes, but you will gain some valuable information.
3.Provide Closure at The End of Each Session
Don’t leave people “hanging.” Summarize the accomplishments of the current session, so that everyone feels like their time was well spent.
If there are follow-through tasks, make them clear and understandable. If there were clear outcomes for that session, summarize progress toward their achievement, as you anticipate the next session. Be certain that you give time for participants to “check out,” so that their questions, unresolved issues, or concerns are expressed. It’s called closure, and everyone needs it.
Being a successful facilitator is a complex and challenging role. It requires strong soft skills, a commitment to research, continued professional development, lengthy planning for each event, and a lot of introspection following each meeting.
Also, it requires you to build certain hard skills such as a good understanding of behavioral psychology, negotiation techniques, and diplomacy. On the other hand, it is a rewarding role that can bring great personal satisfaction.
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