7 steps to good facilitation

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Image: CERTPOINT Systems

What makes for good facilitation?

I talk at a lot of events. I chair and facilitate at even more and after reflecting on a spate of recent activity, I’ve come up with a simple check list of what I think makes up good facilitation.

This is partly as a result of moderating the CERTPOINT Systems CONNECT 2012 event in New York earlier this month, where over one and a half days we had 18 speakers, most of them CERTPOINT customer practitioners, but with some guest speakers such as Brandon Hall and Charles Jennings. If that sounds like a recipe for death by PowerPoint, it wasn’t. Speakers were restricted to 8 minutes presenting, with the rest of the time given over to conversation.

We also had structured sessions to explore certain points of interest in more detail around the conference’s key themes: value/impact, mobile, social and getting the most from learning technologies.

And making sure that the whole thing ran to order was the facilitator – me.

Following on from the event, (and from a couple of decades of facilitation before it) I’ve come up with my 7 steps to successful facilitation.

1) Have a plan and be ready to change it – the longer and more complex an event, the more likelihood that at some point you will have to change things. Activities, speakers and areas of exploration may need to be shelved, or introduced, but you can’t make sense of any of it without having first defined a running order, with clear actions for everyone. Do that, and you’ll know what you’re changing from, and why.

2) Know your people – talk with any event speakers at least once beforehand. If there’s a panel, lunch with them in advance and certainly talk in depth with as many members of the entire group as possible – before and during the event. That way you can identify the right people to bring into the conversation at any point (“Hey, Frank, isn’t this one of your key topics? What’s your view on what Julie just said?”)

3) Keep momentum up and energy high – Use your body language, actual language and the way you set up activities to suggest urgency, and a need for concise brevity.

4) Keep it light – At the same time, maintain a touch of humour. Not by being flippant or telling jokes for the sake of it, but at the right moment – particularly at transition points – to ease things along. Always, however, treat your colleagues with respect.

5) Don’t take sides – It’s crucial for everyone to feel they can speak, and that their input is welcome. The best way of doing this is by being neutral. As a facilitator, whatever the discussion, you can’t be involved. Your role is to guide the search for truth during the conversation, not to lead it down the path you think correct.

6) Ask questions and interact – Facilitators are neither presenters not minute-takers. Their job is to engender useful discussion. The best way of doing that is by asking the right questions (usually pertinent, open questions) and then by following up on them. When someone makes a statement, seek clarification, delve a little deeper. It will make for a richer conversation.

7) Summarise and link – An often overlooked role of a facilitator is to regularly step back from the conversation and summarise it, providing group members with a sense of context, and also giving members a chance to reflect on what’s passed (and an opportunity to contradict you if necessary). The other side of this is a need to link things together – showing why we’re moving from point B on the agenda to point C in the context both of what’s happened before, and the overall aim of the meeting.

In doing all this – and in particular the final point – subject matter expertise is pretty important. There may be facilitators who can guide any conversation, but I believe that knowing the pitfalls of a domain, as well as the richer areas for discussion, is invaluable.

On final thing to remember. While many facilitators would love to believe otherwise, it is not about you. Your role is to serve the group, and its conversation, helping them discover what they’re looking for and making the journey rewarding.

On that note, let me point you to a couple of other potentially useful resources in this area, from Michael Wilkinson and Mike Gospe. Check out their ideas and you’ll discover that I’m not saying anything dramatically new, which is comforting; it sounds like there’s some easily identifiable good practice in this field.

6 responses to “7 steps to good facilitation

  1. Good points Donald, thanks for the post. I’ll share the links and post to our team. Although I much prefer to be behind the scenes designing and developing learning programs, there are many times through the year where I’m called upon to facilitate workshops and the nerves get me every single time. I find linking is critical and try to connect with the participants before the workshop to understand their workplace contexts.

    • Helen – glad if it’s been useful. The great thing about facilitation is that it’s much more of a conversation than a performance (in fact there shouldn’t really be any performance in it at all), even so nerves are quite understandable. I do think that linking and connecting are – as you say – crucial to a good event. Also, connecting in advance should help with the nerves.

  2. Great list, Don. I’d add (perhaps to point #6) be an excellent observer. By this I mean learn to pick up non-verbal cues. I’d also add manage group dynamics; that may be part of #5 or perhaps part of #6. You would need to manage it if contributions became dominant or destructive for example.

  3. Pingback: How to Lead a Group Session, Meeting or Class

  4. Pingback: Skills for 21st Century L&D Professionals | Donald H Taylor

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