Ten things great facilitators need to know

Facilitation; not as easy as it looks

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing an expert in action.  During a rather large meeting involving 20 or 30 representatives from as many local authorities, our facilitator showed that the skill of facilitation is alive and kicking, as well as demonstrating just how important and often undervalued it is.

In my experience, a good facilitator can be very much like engine oil – many don’t think it’s a vital component and believe they can get by without it, but all that happens is things grind through and eventually grind to a halt.  Having had the pleasure to see more than my fair share of expert facilitators over the course of my career, I thought it may be worth sharing some of the things which I think make a real difference during any meeting, workshop or event.

1.  Trust yourself

To begin with, you will need to know and trust in your own skills.  Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses will pay dividends when you begin to formulate strategies to get the group from a to b, and will remind you in a tough spot that you are able to cope and keep things positive.

You will also find that your self confidence – being careful to not be mistaken for arrogance – will allow the participants to feel in safe hands and in the knowledge that with your help they will achieve all their goals.

2.  Trust the group

Too many facilitators feel that it is their responsibility to achieve results.  It isn’t.  A facilitators role is to enable the group to achieve results themselves; if you want to take on such a responsibility yourself take off your facilitation hat and put on your chair’s hat.

In the average group are enough grey cells to address almost any challenge and discuss solutions or ideas.  Due to the underlying nature of humans often people defer to perceived authority; if you abuse your position and authority within the group you will certainly stifle creativity and discussion to the detriment of the session.

3.  Trust and know the process

Whether you are using a standard round table discussion, Pin Point, Lego Serious Play, Talking Walls, World Cafes, icebreakers, active roleplay, goldfish roleplay, stop start roleplay or something more creative, you need to know what you are doing.  A well planned process will allow a facilitator to almost ignore it and spend their time concentrating on the most important aspect of any session: the participants.

As with showing confidence in yourself, if you clearly explain the process and show your confidence in it you will take the group with you and enable them to relax and explore the issue in the ways you need them to.  If you spend your time checking your notes, worrying about timings and stumbling through the session then your group will not follow the process fully and will end up in a very different place than intended.

4.  Address problem personalities

When I’ve trained facilitators, this is usually the one part of the session that raises more questions than any other – how to deal with problem personalities.  Most people consider the hardcore personality – those who are willing to scream and shout to get their own way – and these are certainly out there.  However, just as destructive are the passive-aggressive comment snipers, the know-it-all walking stat machines and the non-players who ignore all efforts to involve them.

Just as difficult are those who simply support the opinions of the loudest speakers, although my personal challenge comes when dealing with ‘babies’ – those who manage to turn any discussion into an opportunity to talk about themselves, in particular things that went wrong in their lives.  The personal need to allow people to have their say fights with the need to keep the discussion moving and involve all participants, all while the baby is continuing to suck energy and attention towards themselves.  All of these need to be dealt with appropriately, quickly and consistently, lest the group suffer.

5.  Bring a watch

Very simple, but something it’s easy to forget.  Start on time, make sure each section runs to time and finish on time.  there’s always the temptation to overrun if discussion proves interesting; unless you know what you are doing and have set up the session to allow for free-roaming discussion, this could mean you don’t leave long enough to cover anything, so be wary.

6.  Set your room up

Obviously this depends on the specific technique you have planned, but make sure you can get into the room in advance to make sure it’s set the way you need it.  Make sure there are enough chairs (though not too many), that no-one has their backs to you and that you won’t have the sun at your back.

If participants arrive in your session and find you hastily setting out flipchart or moving tables it simply leads them to believe that you are not prepared physically, therefore probably are just as unprepared mentally.

7.  Use humour – but sparingly

Not everyone is blessed with the comedic skills of Tim Minchin, but most of us can in our own ways make others smile.  If you are able to use humour to do this then do so – there is little that will engender trust and a bond between two people more than a shared smile.

It needn’t be an obvious joke of course – a simple short story about something amusing that happened on the way to the session would be enough, or a self deprecating reference perhaps.  Should you be able to spark that smile (and not everyone will bite of course), you will find that the ice will remain broken and the rest of the session will be a lot easier.

8.  Summarise

Whoever ‘they’ are, ‘they’ say that a great presenter tells people what they are going to tell them, then they tell them, then they tell them what they told them.  Well, a good facilitator does the same.  Tell your group what you are going to cover, cover it and then go over what was discussed.  This shows the group that you actually were listening and paying attention, and that all of their effort has not been in vain.

This needn’t wait until the end of course; be sure to summarise points as they are made to be sure that both you and the rest of the group understand them.  Don’t be scared of getting their points wrong when you summarise them in this way, as even if you have got it wrong it allows them the opportunity to correct you and clarify their message.  Just make sure that by the end you actually do understand them, and that they know it.

9.  Watch for leading language

Both with the things you are asking and the way participants are phrasing their statements, be aware of people’s natural propensity to encourage others to side with them.  Often this is subtle and unintended, and is done with the honest intention of creating consensus and finding common ground.  However, dangerously it can also lead to agreement where two parties actually do not agree, stifling the usefulness of the data.

Make sure that all of your own questions are neutral in language and allow the participant to answer in a range of ways.  You need to allow them to take a stand should they want to rather than simply agreeing with you – after all, sitting in a room full of people who do nothing but agree with you and each other isn’t likely to get you any place worth visiting.

(A quick point worth noting – be aware of hierarchies in the room; sometimes you’ll find that people wait to hear what the boss has to say before they share their own opinions for fear of disagreeing.  Nip this in the bud.)

10.  Do something with it all!

This is more tricky to do for one-off sessions, but you need to do something with all that comes out of a session.  It’s not enough simply to write it up, read it and then file it; any facilitated session is aiming to achieve something after all.  If you don’t move something forward then you will suffer the next time you attempt to run a session with any of the participants, or indeed anyone they have spoken with.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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