– Bob Taylor
As a seasoned professional facilitator, I am often asked two questions…”What is facilitation?” and “What do facilitators do?” According to Webster’s, to facilitate means; “To make (something) easier. To help (something) run more smoothly and effectively.”
To me, facilitation is the art of guiding not leading, bringing information not lecturing, engaging not directing. A good facilitator activates a group in a meeting or workshop, starts conversations, and then steps back. Great facilitators ensure that the group’s objectives are met effectively, with clear thinking, and with participation from all involved.
Can anyone learn to facilitate? The short answer is yes. Great facilitation is a skill and an art. It is a skill because people can learn facilitation techniques and practice to improve their abilities. It is an art because some people just seem to have a knack for facilitating.
In addition to the needed skills, great facilitators ask themselves a few questions before each workshop or meeting:
- What is the Environment?
- What are the Logistics?
- What are the Ground Rules?
One factor that impacts how safe and comfortable participants feel about interacting with each other in workshops is the environment of the session. This sets the tone for participation.
- What is the location? A comfortable and familiar location is key.
- How is the lighting and where are the controls? How is the temperature and where is the thermostat?
- Is the space the right size? Ensure the room is the appropriate size for your group.
How people will get to the meeting, where and how they will sit, and whether they can hear can make or break your session. Consider the following:
- Is the meeting site accessible to everyone? If not, transportation should be provided.
- How is the room set up? Chairs arranged in a circle or around a table encourages discussion while speaker’s podiums and lecture style seating can intimidate people and may appear too formal.
- What supplies are needed? Flip charts? Markers?
- Will light refreshments or coffee be provided? Where are the restrooms located?
- Are you familiar with the equipment that is to be used?
Workshops must have operating rules. When possible, allow your participants to help you develop your session’s ground rules. Use a flip chart or white board titled “Ground Rules” to chart the rules. Get input from the group. If no one says anything, start adding your own rules. This usually jump-starts the process and then everyone will chime in. Ground rules you can start with are:
- Listen to and show respect for the opinions of others.
- Raise your hand when you want to speak.
- Be on time.
When finished, ask participants if they are willing to follow these rules. Get them to say “Yes”. This makes them feel a part of the process.
But wait, there’s more! Here are a few additional facilitation tips:
- Always remember to welcome and introduce participants at the start of the session.
- Review the agenda and stick to it.If the group wanders from the agenda, get back to the original discussion. Do it politely, not forcefully. That said – flexibility is key, so be prepared to restructure the agenda if necessary.
- Know your material, don’t have it scripted.
- Summarize the day’s activities. Before closing, summarize the key points and cover any follow-up items.
To become a good facilitator requires practice, preparation, and visualization of the actual process. Close your eyes and mentally walk through your session, just as athletes prepare mentally for their race, fight, or game in advance, preparing for the real thing. Doing this can help you recall details that you may have missed during your initial preparation.
Visualize the session and view it from the participant’s perspective. During your planning and visualization of the session, consider the possibility of difficult situations arising and practice how to handle them. Encourage participation and involve the participants by encouraging them to share their experiences, ideas, and any relevant background information. Always be prepared to adjust your facilitation style to accommodate those participants who have different learning styles. Plan for discussion and questions. Practice being engaging and enthusiastic in your delivery.
With practice, preparation, and visualization, you will be ready when it comes time to execute the actual facilitation.