Improving Your Facilitation Skills

By September 6, 2016 No Comments

Have you ever asked what makes a good facilitator? Have you, while facilitating a meeting or a discussion asked, “Am I doing a good job”?

A lot of us may have asked this question several times while leading both meetings and discussions. Many times we silently pray to receive a positive response; something to encourage us to continue right?

Well below are a few thoughts and tips to help you be an excellent facilitator anyone would want to listen to.

Read John Spences’ strategy for facilitators:

The number one goal as a facilitator is to have a clear map for where you’re trying to get to by the end of the event. As Mr. Covey would say – “Begin with the end in mind.” I sit down and think very, very carefully about what an absolutely perfect result would be. Actually, this is one of the first questions I always ask my client: “At the end of the session, if everything went perfectly, what specifically would a great outcome look like?” I try to get them to talk about the three or four things that MUST happen for it to be a successful event – and get them to, as clearly and specifically as possible, describe for me what an “Ideal Outcome,” would look like. I then use that as my goal and build a plan backwards to the beginning of the event to make sure, as much is possible, I end up in the right place at the end of the session.

The second thing I try to keep in mind is that my job as a facilitator is: To be a… Guide on the Side – not a Sage on the Stage! In other words, facilitation is about assisting, cajoling, pushing, coaching, refereeing – but not offering MY opinions or directing the conversation in the way that “I” think it should go. So I try to create a very clear path from the beginning of the session…… to the end of the session (with workshops, interaction, discussion, presentations and consensus building moments) and then I am simply there to make sure that everything goes smoothly as possible and progresses exactly as I’d like it to from point A – to point B – to point C – to where I want the day to end at point Z.

Another thing that I’ve learned over the years is that I use a progression of: Delivering information at the beginning of the session (setting the stage, setting the context, getting everyone on the same page, creating a shared language – and shared ideas around where we are going for the day and what is most important) —–  I then transition from me presenting and talking (only for about 30 to 40 minutes) to getting people into individual workshops (usually I have them read a Harvard or Wharton article on the topic of the retreat – strategic planning/leadership/high performance teams — or the results of a survey I have conducted before the retreat) —– Which then lead to small group workshops (3-8 people) —- Which leads to each of the small groups presenting what they have developed to all the other group —–Which leads to me as a facilitator synthesizing and combining all of the various feedback from the groups into one overall idea that I can then gain commitment and consensus on.

To me that is the true definition of a facilitator– guiding and facilitating the discussion – helping them learn together, helping them teach each other,  helping them gain consensus on what they think is important… and what they want to do about it. After all, if it is the group that is teaching each other – exactly what they feel they need to do, what they’ve all agreed on, and what they are all 100% committed to – it is much, much stronger than any presentation I could ever deliver!!

Lastly, I typically follow up all my facilitations with a two or three page “Management Memo” helping the group understand what they focused on during the retreat or session, what they created together, the synthesis of everything they agreed on, and some ideas/feedback/suggestions for how they can make sure to stay focused on what they developed and implement it successfully in their organization. If the group had a particularly challenging session I will also sometimes send them four or five additional articles that they can read in the coming weeks/months keep them focused and help them stay on task and on track.

According to Ann Chastain, a good facilitator will:

  • Develop a detailed agenda after discussion with organization leaders. What exactly does the group want to accomplish? Focus, focus, focus! If discussion wanders, refocus the group on that agenda item.
  • Use participants’ names. If you don’t know everyone, make sure to provide readable name tags or make a seating chart during introductions. (Admit that you are making a “cheat sheet” so you can call people by name.)
  • Call on people in the order in which they raise their hands. Mention who follows whose comments, so people can lower their hands and focus on the discussion. “OK, first Dick, then Jane and then John…”
  • Make eye contact. When a person raises their hand, acknowledge them to let them know they have been noticed and added to the list. Eye contact is important; it establishes a relationship between the facilitator and participants. It allows the facilitator to read faces and know if anyone appears confused, restless or unhappy, and should be called on to speak. Eye contact helps keep everyone centered in the reality of the meeting.
  • Use the ground rules (mutually agreed upon meeting rules for participation) early on. For example, it is fine to respectfully interrupt someone if they are off topic and ask how their point fits with the agenda item being discussed. If it doesn’t, tell them where it will be dealt with or write it in the “parking lot.” This is where items and ideas that aren’t immediately pertinent are put for later consideration. A tactful, early application of ground rules strengthens the facilitator’s role and helps everyone be more self-disciplined.
  • Encourage the group to make a decision when discussion has slowed and no new information is presented. The facilitator can summarize what has been said and suggest a consensus proposal for the group to discuss, or the facilitator can ask someone in the group to suggest a proposal. For example, “What I hear everyone saying is…” or “A rough consensus might be….” Do not hesitate to ask the group for help to move forward.