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The Principles of Good Facilitation

This lesson is a part of an audio course Facilitating High Performing Meetings by Ross Maynard

I am sure we can all remember long and badly managed meetings. But, I expect we can all also remember really engaging and productive meetings.

What makes the difference?

The subject can be a factor, but far more important is the way in which the meeting is managed, and that is down to the facilitator. I'm an accountant, and I have actually been to finance meetings that were interesting, fun, and impactful!

Facilitating a good meeting is a skill. To some extent, it requires a certain personality type – with patience and empathy high on the list – but these things can be learned, and having a set of principles to work with will help an inexperienced facilitator build their confidence and expertise.

These, then, are the principles of good facilitation:

  1. Be organised: visit the room you'll be working in and get it set up to your liking. Make sure you have all the equipment you need (flipcharts and pens that work; projector etc.). If it is an online meeting, make sure you know how the software works; how you share your screen; how you admit people to the meeting; and how they can raise questions or comments.

  2. Give clear directions: make sure everyone knows where the meeting is. Remind people of the venue and start time, and emphasise the importance of starting promptly. If it is an online meeting, you may need to brief the attendees on how the software works. The good idea is to send round a link to a short video explaining how it works.

  3. Arrive early: to check the equipment; set up; write any preparatory flipcharts, and get your mind "in the zone." For online meetings, make sure you are online and ready at least five minutes before the start.

  4. Understand the purpose of the session: what is the outcome you are aiming to achieve? What are the objectives of the session, and what action do you want to finish with? It is usually best to inform participants of the objectives prior to the meeting to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Occasionally, however, it can be effective not to communicate the objectives – where, for example, there are very strong views, and you don't want the participants to entrench themselves before the meeting.

  5. Make everyone feel welcome and at ease: the motto of a well-facilitated meeting should be "all for one, and one for all." Everyone's view has equal validity, and everyone's ideas are examined equally. The facilitator's job is to make sure that all the participants accept and practice that. This involves careful management of group dynamics and strong personalities.

  6. Establish ground rules: to ensure everyone believes that their views are genuinely valued; there should be clear ground rules in place. These usually take the form of a team charter. The group must be asked to accept the rules, and if anyone infringes them, they should be called out for it (in front of the group if it can be done lightheartedly; or in a private discussion if not).

  7. Encourage participation: it is the facilitator's job to ensure that everyone says their piece and makes their contribution – and that includes the youngest or most inexperienced member of the group. The facilitator must actively bring everyone into the discussion through careful monitoring of the situation and the group dynamic.

  8. Manage the group: the key skill of a good facilitator is to handle people involved and their personalities in a way that brings out their best ideas and inputs. This requires the facilitator to be assertive when required; but also tactful and empathetic when needed.

  9. Be the catalyst: it is not the facilitator's job to be the subject matter expert or to lead the discussion. It is the facilitator's job to provide structure and to showcase everyone else's knowledge and contribution – not to peddle their own! While it is often useful to understand the subject so that you can ensure all aspects are covered, a good facilitator does not need to know much about the subject to run a good meeting. The facilitator is the conductor of the orchestra – not the star soloist!

  10. Use facilitation tools to think outside the box: one of the key parts of the facilitator's role is to challenge the group's thinking. A group can get stuck in its thinking about a problem or issue, and the facilitator's role is to help them think in different ways. There are many facilitation tools that can be used to shake up the mindsets and viewpoints of the participants and we will cover some of those later in this course.

  11. Know when to move on and when to stay: managing group discussion is not easy. The facilitator has to ensure that the session has enough pace that people feel things are being achieved, but also has to ensure that thorny topics have been adequately reviewed and not glossed over. If the discussion gets bogged down on one point, then the facilitator must move things on – perhaps suggesting a separate meeting to resolve that one point or just parking it on an "unresolved issues" flipchart. At other times, the facilitator might like to move onto the next topic, but the discussion is proving so positive for the participants that you have to stay with it. Sensing the mood of the group is vital, as is taking control of the situation to "park" a problem issue or to enable deeper exploration of a particularly fruitful seam.

  12. Deal with challenge: There is no problem with challenges during a meeting – it suggests a commitment to the subject and passion. But the facilitator must integrate the challenge into the team view and work with it to achieve a positive outcome that all subscribe to. Occasionally, there may be difficult or challenging behaviour in a group. In my experience, this is very rare and usually reflects some personal difficultly that the individual is facing. A one-to-one chat during the break will usually help bring the person on board. I can only remember one occasion when a difficult individual agreed to leave the group – and his personal demons were very troubling indeed.

  13. Always look on the bright side: the facilitator must always be positive and upbeat (even when things are not going to plan). Once the facilitator starts to lose faith or energy, then the rest of the group has no chance. There is always a Plan B! If things are not turning out how you hoped, then mix it up, or try a different approach. There is always something positive that can be achieved. If the group cannot manage the full decision or action plan, then agreement on a common purpose and the first steps is a good starting point. Always look to accentuate the positive at any point in the meeting and build on it. Negativity has no place in the discussion.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we cover the skills of a good facilitator and the ten rules for a well-structured session.

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Written by

Ross Maynard