Facilitation – plan, & have faith

Really, it doesn’t get a lot more awkward than a facilitated session that goes sideways. I was talking with a friend at dinner the other night about a strategic planning session she was part of, which had gone so badly that both the CEO and the President of the Board had tried to step in and take over the meeting from the facilitator. Participants weren’t clear on what they were being expected to do, and the evaluations were pretty harsh.

Facilitation is a strange business, to be sure. It’s a skill that’s incredibly difficult to assess in advance. It’s challenging to teach, and even more so to learn. It requires us to do real-time scenario planning, while retaining a complete focus on the moment – a combination of chess master and zen master – all in front of a collected group of people, in real time. Often there has been a great deal of buildup leading to the event, and a large investment of time and money to gather people together. It’s a high pressure moment, but one that requires a clear head.

I was lucky enough to get both skilled training early in my career, as well as ongoing coaching and feedback as I practiced. I was also fortunate in that at one point my job title was “facilitator” – I don’t know if I got the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell popularized as the threshold for getting great at a skill, but I did get many chances to facilitate early in my career, with a variety of audiences.

My conversation with my friend reminded me of just how much trust my clients put in me when I facilitate a session. A session that’s going badly can indeed be very difficult to salvage (ask me how I know!). On the flip side, a facilitated session can result in a stronger group, a situation resolved, a difficulty addressed, and general rejoicing. (Or, at least a clear plan.)

What can we do – facilitators and clients alike – to make it more likely that a facilitated session will go well?

  • Ensure some objectivity. Some sessions can absolutely be facilitated by staff or insiders. But if the stakes are high or contentious, bring in an outsider.
  • Get crystal clear on some realistic objectives. Everyone should understand what the point of the session is, and, more importantly, is not.
  • Reaffirm roles. Who makes the decisions? Who just influences? The facilitator can and should underline those at the session, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to the participants.
  • Understand the room. I like to go into sessions with a set of predictions about what the group will be like, some guesses about the political landscape, and some notion of what issues will arise. These usually come from briefings with the clients, and I do research on the organization as well.
  • Plan in advance. There are loads of facilitation techniques that can be used with a group – to encourage participation, surface dissent, avoid conversational rabbitholes, or finalize decisions. You do need a facilitation plan that goes far beyond a simple agenda of “discuss Issue X for a half-hour.”
  • Share information. No, not everyone reads the pre-read package. But many do (in some groups everyone does so, and in excruciating detail, which is awesome). And demonstrating that there are inputs to the session signals its importance and creates an opportunity for shared information (whether or not people take you up on it).

But the last one is possibly the most important of all: be ready to chuck the plan out entirely. (This is where the trust between the client and the facilitator comes in.) The plan is just a means to an end, which is achieving the objectives. But each group is different, each conversation is different, each session is different. And, of course, sometimes the people briefing the facilitator misread the situation.

So, as a facilitator, you just have to roll with it, and – on the fly – assess what the most useful and effective methods for that group, with those objectives, are, in that moment.

There’s a jargon-y phrase that I’ve carried around with me for a couple of decades now – honour where the group is at. (Thanks, Beth, wherever you may be now!)

But it works.

It works whether I’m working with a group of mining executives or railroad engineers or finance managers or rowdy teenagers. The group is where it is, and as a facilitator all I can do is work with that. We can do great things together, but not if I’m trying to turn the group into something it’s not, or pretend the group has skills or knowledge it doesn’t, or if the group just isn’t ready to make a particular decision.

If you’d like to talk about how your group can benefit from facilitation, please get in touch.

Photo my own.

Contact us at meredith@meredithlow.com or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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