Are You an Effective Facilitator?

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improving-professional-developmentWhen was the last time you were in a room with a truly exceptional facilitator—where the group was engaged, progress was being made, and issues were raised and then resolved? For me, a great facilitator makes it look like magic; however, we all know it's not that easy.

We recently convened a group of experienced and exceptional facilitators to help us paint the picture of excellent facilitation in action. These facilitators were subject matter experts (SMEs) with at least 20 years of experience. Our intent was to leverage their insights and experiences to capture the critical skills that effective facilitators use.

We started this discussion by exploring the spectrum of facilitation—from a competent facilitator to an effective one to those few amazing instructors who can wow the room with their exceptional skills. Together, the SME team validated this spectrum of facilitation:

Competent Facilitator

  • Foundational Awareness
  • Knows the fundamental concepts

Effective Facilitator

  • Proficient
  • Uses facilitation skills and tools in practice

Exceptional Facilitator

  • Mastery
  • Role models when and how to use right skills and tools at the right time

You have most likely seen many competent facilitators at work. They have experience facilitating meetings; a comfort level with participants across multiple levels; and knowledge of meeting management techniques such as establishing ground rules, creating and managing meeting agendas, and managing discussions and decisions. Competent facilitators actively listen, and have the communication skills to successfully lead a meeting.

But what moves a facilitator to the next level—from competent to effective and beyond?

Effective facilitators practice active listening and ask probing questions that create clarity. A group achieves more and works more collaboratively as a result of their work with an effective facilitator. A truly exceptional facilitator always brings the right tools and facilitation strategies to the table, empowering the group even beyond the stated expectations. As a result, the exceptional facilitator creates immediate and observable progress and a long-term impact for the group.

The group of SMEs identified a variety of skills needed for effective facilitation and, after some discussion, determined which six facilitation skills are the most critical. When practiced and used over time, these six skills will make you an effective facilitator.

  1. Define the desired outcomes for the facilitated session. Before an effective facilitator enters the room, he has taken the time to work with key stakeholders to establish clear outcomes for the meeting. Those outcomes are discussed early in the meeting and become a point of reference throughout. The facilitator seamlessly provides a focus and the path toward that desired outcome.
  2. Recognize the group dynamics and behavioral styles. Have you ever been blindsided by someone in a group who pulls everyone off-course, or who disrupts productive conversations? Or have you ever had a quiet participant who just doesn't seem engaged, but whose insights are important? An effective facilitator guides the group through the discussion by staying tuned into the different personalities, levels of engagement, and behavioral styles in the room. Many effective facilitators find it useful to use a behavioral profile (such as Myers Briggs or DISC) to identify styles in advance. Effective facilitators also ensure that everyone with a seat at the table is heard and included in the discussion.
  3. Gain credibility through a manner that commands attention and portrays confidence. This is a difficult skill to master. An effective facilitator grabs the room, commands attention, and exudes a purposeful and confident presence. The SMEs we worked with identified several best practices to gain and keep credibility as a facilitator, including being prepared in advance with a strong agenda and an understanding of the desired outcomes, paying attention to posture and tone of voice, and thinking of the participants as peers.
  4. Ask appropriate probing and thought-provoking questions. Asking great questions can move a group forward when they are stuck, uncover the real issue, and open the door to an unspoken conflict that needs to be resolved. Effective facilitators don't arrive with assumptions or a point of view; the questions they ask serve as a catalyst to facilitate dialogue and results.
  5. Apply idea-generating and decision-making tools and methods. The skill of helping a group to think outside the box and determine the right course of action is probably the most fundamental to facilitation. There are thousands of tools and techniques that can be applied in a facilitated meeting. The key for effective facilitation is to bring the right tool to the table that helps the group stay on track, evaluate competing options, and prioritize next steps.
  6. Apply conflict or difficult dialogue strategies. How many times have you been in a meeting where there was an obvious but unspoken conflict? You could see the group disengaging—arms crossed, heads down, eyes darting around. The best facilitators can surface the unspoken conflict, provide the time and space to discuss the difficulty, and give the right structure to address and resolve the group's conflict.

By Robyn Rickenbach, president of Springboard International. She is an innovative, strategic thinker and an exceptional facilitator.

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