The art of facilitation (Guest Commentary)

10 rules for successful, interactive discussions that see results

Facilitation is nothing like delivering a presentation. With a presentation, you know exactly what you are going to say and when and how you are going to say it. Your audience is listening to you.

Facilitation, on the other hand, brings teams and groups together in an interactive discussion to solve problems and generate ideas. The what, when and how you do anything as the leader and facilitator of the session shifts constantly in response to the group’s dynamic and the content that emerges. You are listening to your audience and still have objectives to meet.

So how can you do it successfully? Here are my 10 rules to successful facilitation.

Establish structure: Create a framework for the facilitation that sets out the agenda, the broad questions to be addressed and what needs to be accomplished by the end of the discussion. It should also identify how individuals will be involved (such as open discussion, written thoughts or breakout groups).

But not too much structure: It’s a balancing act to provide ongoing focus and direction, without over-channelling the discussion and inadvertently shutting down good interaction. As a facilitator, you have the responsibility to fulfill the objectives any way you can. But make sure to establish this at the outset so if you change your approach midway, participants will know you are responding to what’s unfolding and not confused or skipping things.

Be diverse: Use a variety of activities to engage the group members and their individual styles. With a small group, the intimacy you create can empower everyone to speak. With larger groups, your protocol needs to include breakout groups or plenary sessions to ensure everyone feels they’ve been heard. Some people will happily speak up in a group with no reservation. Others will speak only if they are asked directly. Still others will only speak if they have an opportunity to think about it first, or if their input will be anonymous.

Warm up the room: Whether there are 10 or 150 people in the room, take a few minutes to create an atmosphere of safety and openness. You can do this through humour, body language or eye contact — whatever works for you.

Establish the ground rules: Although common good behaviour should suffice, you should outline your expectations at the start to keep things on track. Common rules are:

• Listen actively, respect others when they are talking.

• No side-talking allowed.

• Maintain confidentiality.

• Be on time after breaks.

Toys: Some facilitators swear by handing out things such as pipe cleaners or Silly Putty that people can twiddle with. Personally, I don’t use toys, I like keeping people focused on their fellow participants. Do what feels right for you.

Timing: People can stay focused for about one-and-a-half hours at a time. Beyond that, you’ll start to lose them. My ideal timing for a session is 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with separate mid-morning and lunch breaks. Knowing they can get work done later in the day, participants are more inclined to give you their full attention. If you have more material to cover than what can be handled within the scheduled time frame, do not start earlier or go longer — set up another session. Giving people time to “soak it in” is not a bad thing. Going too long is exhausting and invariably unproductive.

Allow enough time for resolution: Facilitation is not just about sharing and developing ideas. You also need to prioritize the ideas and create an action plan for their implementation, to ensure the day’s efforts have a meaningful and sustainable impact. Structure your time to allow one-third for idea generation, one-third for priority setting and one-third for action planning.

Don’t be afraid to end the session early or ask for extra time: Some facilitators feel if they end a session early, they will be perceived as not having done their job. Not true. Participants are always grateful for “early dismissal” as long as the objectives have been met. Equally, the discussion may take a turn no one could have foreseen and an extra discussion may be required before you can move to resolution. It’s not important to stick to a plan or set a time frame. It’s only important to communicate how things are evolving during the session, and change gears if you have to, as long as it’s about meeting the objectives.

Don’t judge: Whether you know the people in the group or not, you need to remain open and equitable throughout the discussion. That way, you can listen openly, ask tough questions and secure maximum credible input. Don’t assume someone who tends to be a naysayer will always be a naysayer, or someone who is usually very quiet will not speak out — they might surprise you.

Some of you may wonder why “having fun” isn’t on the list. Whether you have fun is unfortunately not the point. You are there to employ professional facilitation as a means to securing an outcome. If you and the group have fun along the way, it’s a bonus.

Daphne Woolf is managing partner at the Collin Baer Group in Toronto. She can be reached at (647) 969-0561
or [email protected].

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