How do you define the role of a facilitator and what difference he or she makes in a meeting?
The word “facilitation” comes from the French word “facile,” which means to make easy. So, simply put, facilitation is the process of making it easier for groups to accomplish their tasks. Facilitation is a neutral process, guided by a neutral person, the facilitator. The facilitator’s main task is to help the group increase its effectiveness by improving two things: the group’s process (how the group works together) and its structure (which refers to stable recurring group process, such as group membership and group roles).
Facilitation is the design and management of structures and processes that help a group:
- Work together successfully.
- Identify and minimize problems.
- Increase effectiveness.
What is the difference between a facilitator and a primary speaker?
We can find ourselves in various meeting roles – group leader, facilitator, trainer, speaker, participants – or any combination thereof.
|Pure presenter||Content/subject matter expert;
Process and outcome neutral
|Share expertise and skill by presenting information or content|
|Instructional facilitator||Deliver learning content;
|Care about how the group learns and provide expertise on content|
|Pure facilitator||Process expert who does not contribute to meeting content;
Content and outcome neutral
|Assist the group in doing its work|
|Facilitator/expert||Give advice from your subject matter expertise but have no stake in the group’s work;
|Your expertise helps the group discuss and come to its own decisions by asking questions, offering suggestions, advice and options for consideration; you do not impose your opinions nor make decisions on behalf of the group|
What does it take to be an effective facilitator? Can anybody learn to be a good one?
When you walk into a meeting and it is run well, you know it. You see, hear and feel effectiveness and energy in the group. You feel a part of the process; others in the room feel part of the process. Effective facilitation takes practice; it is not a skill we were granted at birth, graduation or in many educational settings. Practice in safe environments with supportive feedback speeds gaining and strengthening those skills.
Some of the core concepts for an effective facilitator:
- Facilitator roles. Be familiar with meeting design and structure; build an effective physical, cognitive and social/emotional climate.
- The group. Ask how long members have been meeting, the cast of characters, their stage of development, what they really want from you.
- Open and close the meeting – and design all the parts in between with intent. Hook the attendees with an opening that eases them into the topic and gives an overview of the meeting. When they leave, they should know what they have done and who will do what by when before the next meeting (as well as what will be covered in the next meeting).
- Vary ways to solve problems and make decisions. Different tools, methods and techniques keep people with different learning and thinking styles engaged.
- Unlimited group potential. If you are compassionate (the group is doing the best it can in any given moment) and if all members of the group have the same valid, relevant information, then they can make free and informed choices, and commit to the process, decisions and outcomes of the group. Without manipulation and coercion, useful discussions keep the group fresh and motivated.
- Ground rules promote communication. Have an environment where guidelines for discussion and comment are clear, known and agreed upon by all members.
- Know difficult situations will happen and what is difficult in one group may not cause a blip in another group. Being able to read the group and know when to open your mouth and step in (intervene) takes practice.
What is the best way to get the discussion rolling if dialogue is stalled or there’s no audience participation? How does a facilitator make sure all members of a group have equal “air time”? How can a person effectively facilitate a controversial discussion without tempers flaring?
These three questions have a similar answer, because, with practice, you will find they can all be avoided by having a plan — a solid, meeting design.
Knowing about the group (e.g. how it has done its work in the past, its stumbling blocks) will help you design a process that will guide members through their work. Have pairs discuss a question or move into small groups of three to six people to give best thinking to a question or issue and then report findings back to the large group. Moving larger groups into smaller groups ensures that everyone will be able to talk. A ground rule or working agreement could state that everyone is responsible for monitoring airtime. Your job is to design a process to ensure that everyone gets to participate — somehow, sometime during the meeting. If tempers flare during controversy, has the “right” question been asked or has the issue been framed so that people are not responding from their own agenda or point of view, but, rather, are looking at the common interest that brought the group together? How can you capture that creative heat, that passion, and use it to move the group toward a new understanding? Controversy shuts some people down and energizes others. Provide a safe environment, tight guidelines, and relevant questions to explore the controversy and move to resolution. Sounds easy? It gets easier with a solid meeting plan that you have intentionally and knowledgeably designed with input from group members. This takes time; walking into a meeting with no preparation sets you and the group up for dysfunction.
What are some of the key mistakes facilitators make and how can these be solved?
Simply: lack of planning, no knowledge of the group and its underlying issues, lack of ground rules or working agreements. Solution: a solid meeting plan that has been well thought out and designed. Other stumbling blocks identified by Larry Dressler, president of Blue Wing Consulting, feed controversy and dysfunction: certainty (I am right/have the best ideas), inflexibility (I try to control), ego (my image), prediction (preoccupation with what might happen) and reciprocity (I dish out disrespect because the group is disrespectful). When that dragon flares in us, reflect how to rein it in. Many of us lead or facilitate because we have skill — or are asked to. In some situations, we know our facilitative behaviors and skills could be enhanced. Consider joining Strengthening Your Facilitation Skills, Level 1 to enhance your service to groups — as a leader or member.
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