Recently, a colleague asked me how I developed my facilitation skills. He certainly was surprised when I told him the following story!
I knew that building my facilitation skills was vital to my professional success, so I dived into the learning process headfirst. I began reshaping my conceptions of group dynamics, including my ability to build trust and make interventions, all while maintaining my personality.
Today, as both Lean Coach and Trainer, I am perfectly comfortable as a facilitator, using the skills I learned to establish relationships with all my clients.
Below is that crystalizing moment where I knew, beyond a doubt, that my facilitation skills needed to be bolstered.
Losing ground while guiding a group
A client brings me in to guide a group of professionals to help them come together and agree on the steps needed to get their new product to market. Each of them is a specialist in their field – experts in logistics, marketing, finance, sales, and so on.
Thirty minutes after the beginning of the meeting, while I try my best to advance the discussion by asking questions, only three of the eight participants turn from time to time to look at me while speaking. The others talk amongst themselves without paying attention to me at all. After an hour of discussions, nothing is coming out, and I, as a facilitator, am almost non-existent in the conversation. Finally, I demand, loudly and clearly, for their attention, which I obtain with difficulty.
During the three minutes of silence that follow, I take a felt pen and try to structure the discussion on the board. In reality, I don’t know what to write. I feel like I don’t have a point because I don’t understand what they are talking about. Plus, they are using business terms that are very specific to their field. About two minutes later, one of them starts the discussion again. My attempt to take control had no effect and did nothing to produce any new information. After another twenty minutes, despite further attempts to intervene, no one looks at me anymore. The meeting continues, but I may as well not even be there – I’m completely non-existent!
After another hour of discussion, punctuated by my vain attempts to intervene, one of the participants decides to return to his office because he has emergencies to attend to. Soon, the others leave, one by one. I barely have time to say goodbye to the last three and propose another meeting to go further into the subject with them.
From this experience, I started to examine myself, figuring out what I did – or didn’t do – that created this situation. It is through this introspection that I combined my reflections with my training in facilitation skills. I now share a few key points I discovered from my experience:
- The need to build trust with participants.
- The need to ensure a participatory environment from start to finish.
- The need to constantly integrate some of the specifics of groups.
Building trust: a key element
Trust, from my perspective, means that I trust the integrity, strength, and capacity of a person in any given situation. In that somewhat awkward meeting I talked about, what could I have done to create this trust in the participants to better their discussion?
I learned in my subsequent training that having a trusting relationship at the beginning of a session requires preparation. In my case, it could have been in the form of a preparatory meeting with some of the managers. I mean the key players in the work session I was going to conduct. It would have been an opportunity for me, the facilitator, to learn more about them as people. I would have been identifying their expectations, understand their previous successes (or other similar situations they had experienced together), and, above all, let them know how I planned to approach the problem.
At the beginning of that fateful meeting, demonstrating that I understood these elements and reassuring everyone present that I would address all concerns could have helped set up a natural participatory environment.
This preparation would also have allowed me to be responsive during the discussions. As a facilitator, being live, beyond any possible preparation, means listening to what is happening with the group. It helps to adapt throughout the conversation. It is how I could have given the answers or asked the questions that would have allowed the group to move forward.
Creating and Maintaining a Participatory Environment
A participatory environment is one in which each member feels comfortable participating in, and contributing to, the discussion. Moreover, it should also allow the facilitator to practice active listening calmly and effectively.
In the case of the situation I experienced, it would have been beneficial to develop a rapport with the participants at the beginning of the meeting. It would have helped me understand the group’s pre-existing dynamic, which would have consequently assisted me. I would be identifying when to speak when to use different verbal communication techniques by adjusting the volume of my voice, my articulations, my gaze, and when it was appropriate to nod. This type of observation would have allowed me to provide honest feedback, in real-time, to the participants.
Facilitation is ultimately the art of leading a group towards desired results to encourage participation, creativity, and ownership by all participants.
Graphic facilitation has become very effective in achieving this goal. It is a valuable technique that allows for the ability to create and maintain a participative environment. Indeed, it facilitates interactivity by making the entire group’s thinking visual. The path that participants follow becomes explicit and accessible to all. Of course, this assumes expertise in the specific use of images and symbolism. In essence, it is the ability to make a thought visible in a structured and understandable way.
You should note that this visual component also acts as a focal point for participants’ attention and ideas. This technique minimizes the participants’ one-on-one discussions and allows a refocusing onto the group discussion.
In my example situation, one way to do this would be to have participants visualize their initial ideas. This visual presence, structured and ever-evolving, would help focus the discussion while encouraging progression. You should note that this visual component also helps to reinforce the position of the person who creates it, thus giving him/her legitimacy in leading the participants.
Particularities when it comes to managing groups
There are well-known elements that can hinder the effective functioning of a group. Here are some of them:
- When people are in a group for a task or decision, they tend to have lower individual motivation, given the collective responsibility of the group. This phenomenon appeared in my situation. Being aware of it beforehand would have allowed me to anticipate some of the reactions that ultimately hindered the group’s progress.
- The members of a group are each specialist in their respective fields. To move forward together, they need to be able to share information. The challenge is finding – with the participants – how far this sharing should go.
- Groups tend to reach consensus prematurely, without sufficient sharing of information and perspectives within them.
- The difficulty of ensuring a group’s productivity is, of course, proportional to the size of the group.
Today, I often find myself leading groups as part of the courses I provide. I think that the ease and strength of facilitation I have now are due, in large part, to said training. Indeed, the trainer is the one who will guide others to acquire knowledge. He/she becomes a facilitator by his/her ability to cultivate autonomy in his/her students’ learning. It is part of what we do at QOLA.
In our facilitation training courses, we lead our students to explore new facilitation approaches for virtual meetings themselves.
Hopefully, these key points have given you a clearer picture of group facilitation. But this ability requires a particular set of skills. To facilitate groups quickly and efficiently, try our facilitation skills training to continue your learning on this vital subject.Learn Facilitation Skills
 Paul B. Paulus, Toshihiko Nakui – Facilitation of Group Brainstorming
 David Sibbet – Graphic Facilitation, the art of drawing out the best in people