Facilitation skills

Facilitation is an excellent way in which an independent and trained individual may be able to help a group or team develop ideas and solve problems. 

What is facilitation?

Facilitation means having someone independent and separate from the group or team working with them on achieving an agreed outcome over a specific time frame within ground rules agreed by the group.  This ‘facilitator’ does not need to know anything about the topic involved more than any lay person.  Her expertise is in facilitating: enabling the group or team to make progress in achieving the outcome it has set itself. In fact, not knowing all that much about the topic generally is helpful as the facilitator will not be drawn into any arguments or hold or defend any particular views. Instead, she can ask the ‘dumb question’ others are embarrassed to ask.

It is different from training, where the trainer is seeking to enable the transfer of skills and knowledge, or from chairing, which is about enabling a group or team to work in a business like and productive way, or from mediation, where a mediator is seeking to enable a parties freely to reach agreement.  Skills from all those roles do have a part to play.

Contracting with your client

Teams and groups with a common agenda often decide to spend time out, away from the work place, for a set period of time when they can think through issues and plan for the future without the interruptions of every day work.  Some one in the team or the team leader may suggest, ‘why don’t we have a facilitator’?  People often think this a fine idea but without being too sure what it is they are seeking.  Most people have been ‘facilitated’ so they have expectations and sometimes these may be quite negative.

The leader or a member of the group will be delegated to find the facilitator.  A request will arrive, often because you have worked with a group before, or because you are in human resources or seen as someone who does this kind of thing.  The first task of the ‘facilitator’ is to establish what outcome the group is seeking.  This is often very unclear.  At this stage, for example if the meeting is simply to work through an agenda of papers for decision or review, facilitation may be the wrong contribution.  Other reasons for the approach may be because the team is newly established, there are problems in how team members are getting along, members of a group are stuck on how to solve a problem, or people want to reduce the hierarchy in the room so that everyone can contribute.  To turn the reason for the perceived need for a facilitated session into an outcome, the facilitator needs to use active listening and coaching skills.

This stage of contracting for the session, usually over the telephone, may not be with the principal customer.  The person delegated to engage the facilitator is often not the leader of the group or the team.  Right from the start of the contracting you are seeking a feel for the group dynamics and it will be pretty obvious (a) if you are not talking with the principal customer and (b) whether this matters.  For example, if the customer starts to talk about difficult members of the team or the leader starts to explain her problems getting other team members to see the word their way.  These all build a picture of what you will be working with on the day.  Equally, when a leader says everyone sees things her way and this is simply about dotting the i’s, don’t be surprised when the job in the room is to enable, safely, team members to help her with her myopia and strong personal beliefs.

As well as an outcome, you will want to agree an agenda.  Try to make this as loose as possible so that you can be flexible on the day.  Problems that often come up are the day is massively overloaded and that it is ‘over-engineered’.  This is a group.  Discussion takes time and cannot be pre-determined.  That is why agreeing the outcome really matters.  How you get there is less important - so long as you finish on time.

Don’t forget also at this stage to check out the practicalities.  How many people, what sort of room, how will it be arranged, AV facilities, refreshments.  Don’t take responsibility for organizing the event, or doing more work afterwards.  Your contribution is to facilitate.  If you take work away from the session, the team or group won’t be as committed to getting it done as if they did it themselves.  If people really want flip chart material written up, ask someone to photograph it on their phone and send it round.

Last thing, you don’t have to agree to do this.  Instinct is a good guide.  If this doesn’t feel like something for you, then turn it down.  If possible offer an alternative contact so the customer doesn’t feel too let down.  A way of doing this is to wait until the end of the discussion to check the date on which the event is being held and use this as a way of saying no.

Facilitating - on the day

Remember the key skills you need are active listening and coaching.

However good the contracting, nothing really prepares you for the delivery.  Let’s imagine the scene.  It’s 9am and people are beginning to arrive for a day long event due to finish at 4pm.  There is a mixture of moods amongst the people having their coffee.  For some, it is an irritating interruption preventing them from doing something more important, for others a great chance for a day out.  Some people clearly get along and are already laughing and joking. Others are more standoffish.  At this stage it is really helpful to chat with people attending.  After introducing yourself, ask them what they are expecting from the day or what would make the day a success.  Remember what they tell you as you can use the material to introduce yourself and the day later along the lines of, ‘I was just speaking to a number of people over coffee and picked up a real desire to…’

Then the day begins. You will have agreed the outcome and agenda as part of the contracting phase but it is worth clarifying whether you or the team leader will start the day off.  However it starts, your first task is to make the room feel safe and welcoming to all contributions.  This is so that anxiety is contained and clear boundaries are set around what is and is not ok in terms of behaviour and at least the expressed purpose and outcome.  How you do this is really a matter of personal style. This means your style of presentation - for example how you use humour, how you deal with hierarchy and the leader.  It also means your technique, for example do you explicitly agree ground rules with the group or use ice breakers?  Do what works for you and keep checking back with the group to make sure it is working for them.

First is fateful!  Getting off on the right footing is really important, which includes recovering the situation if at first it doesn’t go right.  It can happen that the group or team disagrees with the outcome you have carefully negotiated.  You need to check back with both the leader and the group how they want to handle this.  It is their day, and it is only useful if they get something out of it.  Slavishly pursuing a route that doesn’t address what may be the most pressing need for the majority in the room isn’t altogether sensible.

You can always re-set an agenda.  Ask members of the group to get into pairs and agree how the time could best be spent and feedback, then put the ideas on a flip chart and use the material to generate a new agenda with the group.  The group is your friend.  It will do the work for you.  This is also a great way of working with a group when there isn’t time to agree the outcome and agenda in advance.  Just keep an eye on the leader to check she is ok with what you are doing.  For example, the leader is often keen to get the new business plan sorted, others are bothered by the move of the office five miles down the road, the fact that there are four vacancies or the quality of the coffee.

In essence, by focusing on tasks and outcomes you will enable the group dynamics to work out in the context of the purpose of the group rather than too much navel gazing at the dynamics themselves.  For example, most teams complain that some people speak to much and some people too little.  Your facilitation should help the group to get to its desired end point and also role model how to seek views from anyone who wants to contribute, while quietening down those who have become too accustomed to giving their views on everything.

Don't forget that the group will hold you responsible for the hygiene factors on the day. Never let an individual session run much longer than an hour and break at the times on the agenda, as people make arrangements for phone calls etc.  Always end on time.  Break up the day with group activities and remember smokers need to go outside and won’t credit you for trying to help them quit.

Sticking with our imaginary day, think through how it will end.  It is useful to achieve two goals at the end of a session.  The first is to hand back to the team or group.  This is usually done by getting the leader to take over for the final 'action planning' part.  She can run through the practical outcomes of the day, including agreeing as specifically as possible who is going to do what by when.  The second is to capture these concluding commitments. Use a projector if possible so that people can see exactly what they are committing to. If that is not possible, note the actions on a flip chart for the team to take away, type up and confirm. It is important that they, not you, do these latter tasks - it's their work, not yours.