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The subtle art of facilitation

A trained facilitator can make all the difference in getting the most out of team offsites and management meetings. An independent voice can draw out all the personalities, ensure everyone gets heard, raise the difficult questions….and much more

The value of an independent, trained facilitator is often overlooked. Surely it’s an easy role to perform. Why not just let one of the team do the job? Do we even need one? We’re all adults and we know how to have a strategic, balanced and human conversation where we get all of the problems out on the table, we talk about all of the issues, we ensure everyone is heard and we never cause offence.

Think again! There are times when any management team, leadership group or project team needs to get away and talk about the big issues that we’re tackling. There are times we need to come up with a strategic plan, when we need to ask ourselves what is going wrong (but better still what is going right).

A professional facilitator should be able to create an environment in a meeting where every voice can be heard, every idea is shared and where people feel safe to share both the ups and downs, all within the agreed time allocated.

A good facilitator needs to be:

  • A diplomat, with the ability to navigate challenging conversations, not avoid them, but deal with them in an appropriate manner
  • Passionate about getting the best out of people
  • A relationship builder who will feel like part of the team by the end of the process
  • Able to put people at ease – people should feel relaxed around a facilitator, feel they can share and not be judged
  • A time keeper and a stickler for keeping to the programme
  • But also…flexible! No plan survives contact with reality so we must be prepared to flex the agenda at times
  • Subtle – so they can move the conversation along when needed
  • Not overawed by position or hierarchy – everyone’s ideas can be challenged, whatever their seniority
  • Unflappable – yes we must go with the flow, but we must also be confident in the role and undertake it diplomatically

So why bring in a facilitator to support you?

  • To set the tone where people can share and talk openly
  • To bridge the difficult conversations
  • To allow the ‘boss’ to be part of the conversation
  • To ask the ‘stupid’ questions
  • To challenge people for clarity
  • To bring some light-touch processes to help idea generation
  • To be the diplomat

So, how to get the most of using a facilitator?

Get them involved early in the design of the agenda – there is nothing worse than being presented with an agenda and told to facilitate the meeting. I will always ask if we can amend the agenda to get the ‘environment’ right in the room and to allow enough time for discussion of the important matters. For those ‘red’, ‘driver’, ‘task focused’ bosses, it is met with a sigh but once they experience the impact they are glad they did it.

Allow the facilitator to meet the rest of the team before the meeting – this breaks down barriers, builds confidence and means that the first 15 minutes of the meeting is not spent with the team feeling awkward that there is a stranger in the room, unsafe to share their thoughts or having a total meltdown about the individual chosen.

Agree some ground rules before the start of the meeting – what do we do if things go ‘wrong’, there is a rebellion or no one says anything. A good facilitator will have tools to deal with all situations and is ‘unflappable’ but nevertheless we should start with a strong framework of rules.

Involve the rest of the team in the creation of the agenda – the facilitator can create the agenda, however it is most effective if the team have had input.

Get the team to create the content – the facilitator is not an expert in the operating model of your business, or your target markets, or your technology platforms. You are! If these are to be discussed the specialist needs to create the content but should take advice from the facilitator as to how to best get this information across (not hundreds of PPT slides in 10pt font!)

Allow the facilitator to feel part of the team, while remaining independent. This is a fine line to tread by the facilitator but a professional should know how to do it. If they don’t…..don’t use them!