The art of facilitation – and five tips to make it work

Facilitation
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“You've got to help people walk down the road with you rather than dictating the style of the session. Ultimately, it's engaging people all the way through.”

Making the most of situations is what we do practically every day. We try to take care of clients’ problems, or resolve our own, as they come across our desks.

With clients, this often takes the form of meetings; and salespeople usually have negotiation training to help them get the best outcome for their business.

But what about internal situations?

There’s no shortage of conflict and confusion between departments and even individual teams. The larger the organisation, the more chance that emerging strategies will cause friction; partly because change inevitably means new ways of thinking and working, and partly because most of us naturally incline towards the comfort of the status quo.

Now that we are all so time-poor, employees have even less time to devote to scanning the horizon for the bigger picture, so we get stuck in today’s corporate silo. It’s a recipe for resentment; and when there’s no “opposing camp”, there’s no room for negotiation, either.

But there is an alternative: facilitation. Everyone from marriage guidance counsellors to lawyers advocate mediation as an economical and rapid source of conflict resolution or neutralisation; you can think of facilitation as mediation’s commercial cousin.

ICA:UK, the human factors charity, says that “the facilitator works with a group of people to help them have a conversation, come to agreement, or plan for the future. In general the facilitator acts as a trusted and neutral outside voice, making decisions about the process the group goes through but allowing the group itself to control the content of the discussion. The facilitator is a gentle guide, making it easier for the group to have that discussion.”

So facilitation doesn’t imply overt conflict – it can just as easily serve simply to oil the wheels of progress generally, and so avoid escalation into conflict.

Yet far fewer managers are trained in the subtle art of facilitation than negotiation. This may be because human factors don’t figure highly in our metrics-obsessed business culture. It may also be because internal effectiveness is a low priority compared to the sales process. Or it may just be because facilitation is genuinely hard to master. So, here is a beginner’s toolkit.

Have a clear objective from the outset – and understand the motivations of your attendees

People attend a facilitated session for one of two reasons: either they are genuinely interested in the topic and have chosen to be there, or they have been told to attend - which is just as common. You need to understand both why you are facilitating and what each participant’s journey has been. Are you there to engage people? To discover an answer to a question? To develop something new? Or to find a resolution to a problem?

The larger the organisation, the more chance that emerging strategies will cause friction; partly because change inevitably means new ways of thinking and working, and partly because most of us naturally incline towards the comfort of the status quo.

If engagement is the issue, your objective is simply to draw everybody into the conversation in a structured way which cannot reasonably be objected to. However, if the purpose is to answer a question and you don’t do so, then the group has failed. Often this is much more challenging, because the stronger personalities in a group will assert themselves to the detriment of other participants in order to deliver the objective. Sessions and their attendees are not all the same, so learn your group before you start.

Set the rules and make them public

Whatever the situation, the risk of failure (or spiralling personal opinions) can be reduced by setting some ground rules. Clarify the boundaries, not just of acceptable behaviour, but of the process as a whole. Perhaps there are off-limits topics or issues which simply cannot be tackled within the scope of the exercise. Either way, clarity is your friend. Having an agenda and defining the structure of the session (e.g. what a two-hour session is going to look like) will give your participants structure and confidence. Certainly, make sure everybody has the opportunity to speak and express their opinions freely – arranging off-site facilities can definitely help here. Again, preparation is key.

Do anything (and you might have to…) to encourage participation

That said, getting people to participate can still be hard. Even if your audience is not consciously negative, apathy is just as destructive. As one contributor to the research paper “Facilitator’s Stories” put it, “It's not just hanging the flower in the air in front of them…. it's about getting them to believe it’s worth grabbing…”

Many expert facilitators avoid PowerPoint, or having pre-prepared diagrams, because it feels like a barrier to participation; a pre-prepared message from “the powers that be”.

An open discussion is more likely to feel like collaborative progress towards an answer.

Bring your flipboard. It’s the facilitator’s friend!

Simply writing bullets on a flipchart is ideal. Getting things down on paper in itself seems to inspire people. Diagrams are also helpful for encouraging debate – many people are visual in their thinking and learning style, so doodling on the flipchart can be universally engaging, too. A flipchart also means some physical activity, which can create some useful energy and break up the dullness and formality of the traditional oval table.

The key skill: Judgement

This is where formal advice for the amateur facilitator begins to dry up, to be replaced by a blend of judgement and your own personal stamp. There are plenty of exercises you can do – perhaps go around the room taking everyone’s opinions. Perhaps use breakout groups, followed by presentations to the whole room. But there is no clear answer – the smart facilitator spends a lot of time “off piste”.

What matters is that you are visibly, scrupulously fair to all participants, and ensure that nobody ever feels backed into a corner. In some combative situations, this can take plenty of patience and bags of judgement – along with plenty of “Plan B” options to rekindle enthusiasm or disarm heavy-handed objectors.

The breadth of the professional facilitator’s experience is huge. Some projects are very personal and emotional to people, and yes, occasionally, someone will storm out in a huff. Give everyone a break and then try to refocus…

Usually, however, facilitated sessions are more positive than most participants expect. Far from being a cuddle-fest, they are acutely structured systems for creating business outcomes. Pitch it like that, and even the most hard-headed CEO will start to take an interest.

Better still, the results are collaborative, which generates true engagement. When a group pushes its own boundaries, exceeds its own expectations and then proceeds to run with the ball, it’s an immensely satisfying outcome.

About Drew Barritt

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