Blog > Facilitation tips and tricks for newbies

May 21, 2013

Today I was a guest with John James for a webinar about tips and tricks for newbie facilitators.

Here’s some of what we covered.

Why would a group need a facilitator?

Facilitation is a form of group leadership that focuses on group knowledge and interaction. If there’s no opportunity in the meeting to use group-generated knowledge or there’s no possibility of interaction amongst the participants, then you don’t need a facilitator.

Here are some times when it might be worth thinking about facilitation:

Sometimes a group is stuck. That might mean stuck in habits of how they meet, stuck in their thinking of the way they are looking at a problem, or for whatever reason, unable to move forward. A facilitator can provide ways to become un-stuck.

I’m sure you have experienced those meetings that have agendas so full there’s no way everything can be covered during the meeting, and everyone leaves frustrated. Facilitation actually begins before the meeting, in deciding the purpose or focus of the meeting and helping the organisers choose what should be included and what should be left out. Facilitators bring a sense of timing and of what’s possible to avoid ‘scope creep’ – “Can we just add…” There’s a big temptation in some meetings, especially when they are a irregular, or once a year, to try and cram in as much as possible to make the ‘best’ use of the time together. It’s a false economy and simply doesn’t work.

The very presence of a facilitator, either brought in from outside the group or someone taking on that role for the group from within, is a disruption. It’s not business as usual. It’s an opportunity to explore different ways of sharing, generating and making use of the group’s knowledge, and of interacting with each other. It can be a gentle nudge to wake people up, or it can be a ‘holy cow!’ experience. In either case, facilitation can be the circuit breaker a group needs to reboot itself and get on with the work that matters.

The challenge with tips and tricks for newbie facilitators is that everyone wants methods and processes. “Use this process, and voila!, your meeting will be transformed.” If only it was that easy. The bad news is that there is no one method, or even suite of methods, that will transform your meetings. The good news is that you can do some very small interventions that can start to improve your meetings. That’s where we are going to start – with things that anyone can do to improve meetings. And by all means, check out processes you might use if you are facilitating – it’s always a good idea to have a kit bag full of approaches. Just don’t fall for the trap of having only one tool in your kit bag. If you want some ideas you can check out my Facilitation Resources in the menu bar at the top of this page.

5 Tips for Facilitating Groups (that anyone can do)

1. Create a welcoming space
How many meetings just happen on top of the previous meeting, with no regard as to how the space could be set up? People might even arrive to the meeting and be presented with a messy space, used coffee cups, white boards full. Urgh. If there’s no time to prepare the space before the participants arrive, get them involved. Spend the first 5 minutes getting them to help re-arrange the space for your meeting. Not only will you be more comfortable it helps with the next tip too.

And the very best way I know of to create a welcoming space for any meeting is to remove the tables. You can read why here.

2. Set the scene
You arrive at a meeting having just left the last meeting, which ran over time. You’ve checked your messages on the way, and met someone at the coffee machine who asked you a tricky question. You sit down at the next meeting wondering what this meeting is about and someone brings the meeting to order and jumps straight into a discussion about a major decision that needs to be made.

Do you feel stressed and exhausted just reading that last paragraph? Imagine how the people arriving at a meeting feel? Take a few minutes at the start of the meeting to warm people up to the meeting and it’s purpose. Help them to be present, both physically and mentally. Set the context. By context we mean stating clearly the purpose of the meeting, why it is important, what you will be doing and how long it will take.

3. Instruct clearly and briefly
Remember I suggested facilitation is about group-generated knowledge and interaction? It’s not about you – the facilitator. Your job is to get the group working and interacting, and part of that is giving instructions. Do this clearly and briefly, and then get out of the way. Some groups will want to ask a lot of questions before starting. Sometimes the questions are useful and relevant, mostly they are a way of avoiding starting. It’s just like me making a list of what I need to do rather than just getting on with it (especially when book-keeping is involved).

4. Make sure the group does the work
A Chairperson has a particular role in a group – they are a part of the group and take an active role in the discussion and decision-making. A team leader might also act like a Chairperson. A facilitator is not a Chairperson. Their role is to focus on the way people work together, not the content of the work. If you find yourself at the front of a group, marker in hand and seem to be doing all the work, ask yourself if you are working too hard? And find ways to get the group to do the work.

5. Finish on time
I know, it didn’t start on time, so why not take a few extra minutes to finish what you had planned? That’s why most meetings don’t start on time – because the previous one didn’t finish on time. As a facilitator I have no control over what time people arrive for a meeting. I can control what time it finishes though. And because I don’t want to contribute to time creep, and because I want to honour the people who have turned up and acknowledge that they have other things to do, I always adapt my facilitation and make sure the meeting finishes on time. Every time!

And if you’re wondering about wrapping it all up at the end, making action plans and ending neatly, read this and this.

Making the best use of people in the room

If facilitation is a form of group leadership that focuses on group knowledge and interaction, then it’s important for facilitators to know how to make the best use of people in the room.

Conversations, relationships, then transactions
Provide opportunities in meetings for people to have conversations and to relate to each other, then focus on what needs to be done. Skipping conversations and relating simply leads to decisions and agreements that are superficial and based on not much at all. All too soon you’ll be meeting again to find out why the agreed tasks are not yet completed.

The purpose and the experience
Every meeting of people – no matter in what context – includes a reason for them being there and the experience they have. Think of the last non- work gathering you went to: a football match, a theatre production, a funeral, a dinner…

There was a clear reason for you to be there. And whether it was planned for or not, you had an experience. You would have felt some emotion – joy, sadness, elation, boredom, excitement – maybe many emotions.

Meetings tend to focus on the purpose and forget the experience, yet what most people forget is the purpose and remember the experience. So be clear about why you are meeting, and also pay attention to how you will meet – the mood and atmosphere that you will create to support the reason people have come together. People forget content; they remember experiences.

Group-generated knowledge
It’s common to bring in an expert to talk to a group – to provide information, to inspire, to share their knowledge. Sometimes there’s little or no opportunity to interact. It’s a one-to-many, efficient way of sharing knowledge. Or is it? Maybe it’s a wasted opportunity? It’s a good idea to provide ways for the group to interact with – not just listen to – an invited guest. And to share their own knowledge, ideas and impressions.

How do you become a facilitator?

The same way you learned to walk and to talk – by doing it. Find opportunities to do small ‘f’ facilitation – everyday facilitation that can tweak your existing meetings. Big ‘F’ facilitation is for those times when you have a greater say in the design and structure of an event. Soon you’ll be looking for opportunities to do that too.


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