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The Skills of a Good Facilitator

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

We covered the principles of good facilitation in the previous lesson. The skills required of a facilitator are ones that enable the principles of good facilitation to be delivered in every session. These include:

  • Building and maintaining rapport with the group.

  • Communicating clearly and effectively.

  • Providing positive feedback and thanks for every contribution.

  • Listening and monitoring mood and body language.

  • Effective and probing questioning.

  • Understanding styles and group dynamics.

  • Building consensus and group agreement using facilitation tools.

  • Encouraging the group to view issues from different viewpoints.

  • Handling "challenging" situations and behaviours.

  • Managing time and the agenda.

  • Focusing the discussion on the key issues.

  • Ensuring that a positive outcome is achieved (however small).

  • Maintaining positivity and purpose.

You might consider planning your personal development and CPD to improve these skill areas as you feel necessary.

I like this quote from "The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making" by Kaner and Lind, published in 1996

"The facilitator's job is to support everyone to do their best thinking and practice. To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding, and cultivates shared responsibility. By supporting everyone to do their best thinking, a facilitator enables group members to search for inclusive solutions and build sustainable agreements."

These skills can be learned, and the magic of facilitation happens because they are delivered through a subtle, but carefully planned structure. Experience makes that structure second nature, but it is the combination of good skills and a well-devised structure that delivers really excellent facilitation.

Here are my ten rules to help deliver a well-structured session:

  1. Take time to prepare: we've already covered the importance of setting up and making sure everyone knows how to get there and when to arrive. You also need to plan your agenda, and we'll cover that shortly.

  2. Plan a positive start: a positive, energetic, and engaging start is important.

  3. Engage participants early: I'm not a fan of starting with introductions and setting out objectives – they can drain the energy from a room. Rather I prefer to start with a short discussion or icebreaker to get everyone engaged early. This might be as simple as asking participants to shout out items for the team charter (rules the group will abide by); or a quick icebreaker completely unrelated to the subject of the meeting. One approach I like is to ask participants to come up with as many ways as they can of describing – in one sentence – the purpose of the session or the problem to be solved. This has the benefit of getting people to think differently about the issue right from the start. Once you've got people talking and engaging, you can do introductions and highlight the objectives and/ or agenda.

  4. Agree the objectives of the session: everyone needs to know what they are there for. These should be communicated to the group in advance and reiterated in the session, and agreement to them sought. Some finessing of the objectives might result from this discussion, and that is fine if the group is committed to the objectives and a clear outcome is agreed upon.

  5. Move from the simple issues to the more complex: it generally makes sense to gain agreement on the foundations before moving onto more complex areas. Agreeing on the baseline points will get everyone working together and create a sense of having made a start. The group is then in a better position to face up to the more challenging issues.

  6. Ensure important items are covered: some issues have to be faced up to. It is probably best not to group them altogether, or they will become a psychological barrier. Building up from simple beginnings to more complex topics will help. Space out the important items through the session and give sufficient time to discuss them thoroughly.

  7. Get them thinking differently: often, a facilitator is required because a group is "stuck" in its thinking. If the group wasn't stuck or didn't have conflicting viewpoints to bring together, it wouldn't need a facilitator! The facilitator, therefore, needs to plan the tools they will use to help the group consider different perspectives or to shake them out of their mindsets. We will cover many of these tools later. Some of these tools may be planned in the agenda; some may be kept in reserve to be deployed if things get stuck.

  8. Plan your time, but be flexible: Time-planning is hard because you don't know which items will be easily resolved and which will take longer. Nevertheless, a broad time plan is needed. It is useful to set loose "move on" points throughout the session where you get the group to move onto a different issue. The worst-case scenario is that the issues become so difficult or complex that the time allocated is not enough. Be prepared to revise your plan to make the best of what can be achieved, and the time you set aside for action planning will include scheduling the next session to cover the remaining issues.

  9. Focus on the objectives throughout: The session is not a talking shop. At intervals throughout the session, it is appropriate to reflect on the agreed objectives and gain approval that the discussion is moving things towards the agreed outcome. This helps maintaining (and building) commitment to the objectives and action plan. It also helps with time-planning.

  10. Agree an action plan: Every facilitation has an outcome in mind. Your session will usually have an end time, and you need to spend at least the last 15 minutes agreeing an action plan and next steps. Finish on a positive note of encouragement. Reiterate the agreed actions and the people responsible for delivering them, and then agree on a date for a follow-up session to review progress. A meeting without a clear outcome and next steps plan is a waste of time.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we'll talk about how to get everyone involved.

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Written by

Ross Maynard