Webster's defines facilitation as "To make easy and less difficult" or "Help bring about".
I would define the facilitation experience as "The act of taking people through a group process with clearly defined outcomes, while encouraging participation and a group commitment to meaningful results." What are five elements that impact the quality of the facilitation experience?
- Understand your audience — Too often meetings are convened without any knowledge of what expectations people bring to the discussion. The impact is that there is too much focus on the agenda rather than what would be an effective use of the group's time. Shifting your focus to the groups concerns will increase the chance that people will participate more fully, be interested in the topic, and get value from the dialogue. One simple way to learn about your group is to send out an email with your proposed agenda and ask what concerns are they bringing to the discussion.
- Clearly articulate your purpose and intended outcomes — A very important shift in your planning is to articulate a purpose statement and intended outcomes for the discussion. You should be able to tell the group: "Our purpose today is … and this is what I hope to accomplish." This requires stepping back from what you often think is the purpose (getting through your agenda) and identify more of an umbrella statement that reflects outcomes you hope to achieve.
- Balance your role — Ideally, you'll engage everyone just enough and at the right points so the group can self-generate a dialogue. The challenge is to continually balance when to stir things up and when to quietly observe. You keep this focus by remembering where the real value lies, that is; what your group has to say is more important than what you know.
- When you engage the group, think of yourself as a translator — Put yourself in one of your department meetings. If you looked behind the dialogue, you would discover that most people are not listening to each other. Everyone's looking for the right moment to share his or her own ideas. While one person is speaking, others are privately rehearsing their response or preparing a new comment. Add personal stakes, politics and emotion to the mix, and you might as well be observing an international meeting of countries. As facilitator, you are the means for people to take a moment and consider other points of view. Performed successfully, you will find yourself in a position to accomplish the final element.
- Summarize the dialogue, draw conclusions, and identify next steps — Summarizing is like a break in the action, where everyone takes a moment to reflect on the value of what just happened. This ultimately gives meaning to a dialogue. As facilitator, you are in the position to make this summarizing possible. End the discussion by asking what next steps should be taken and who should take ownership of the different tasks. Assigning tasks to individuals can be enough to keep a process moving forward. At the heart of why meetings are considered a waste of time is leaving out this last step.
Improving your facilitation skills or utilizing an experienced facilitator will elevate what people can expect from a group dialogue. When applied thoughtfully, the purpose of your meetings will be clearer, your audience will participate more fully, and your gatherings will be viewed as a valuable use of people's time.
Presentation Tip: Three Contributors to an Effective Speech
Research your audience and identify what concerns they bring to your talk. Keep your message to three things and reiterate them throughout the speech. If you practice nothing else, practice your introduction. People decide within 15 seconds whether you are worth listening to.