Why do we need facilitation anyway?
Meetings, away days, conferences, brainstorming sessions, impromptu get-togethers among staff, inter-departmental talks: these are the kinds of situations most people encounter at work on an on-going basis. And most of the time, they function very well; or at least, well enough.
However, there are some situations where an objective eye is vital. It is the thing that's needed to get people out of routine, to stop people time wasting and to get things moving forward. If you need to take a fresh look at how your meetings work, facilitation is an essential option.
Everyone in business has at some point in their working lives come out of a meeting feeling it was a big waste of time (unless of course, they used it to catch up on some much-needed sleep!). People get frustrated, bored, lazy or just plain cynical when meetings don't accomplish much and there's little to inspire or motivate.
Common reasons why sometimes these meetings get bogged down or lose their way are: old squabbles, historic ways of doing things, accepted lines of communication (or miscommunication, as the case may be), being too close to the action, people playing games; people not concentrating or doing two or three things at once (Notice the proliferation of laptops at meetings? People supposedly participate and read their e-mails at the same time!).
Facilitators, on the other hand, may indeed come laden with pre-conceived expectations, judgements or ancient history, but they also come with an ability to put those aside in order to make the meeting work better.
Good facilitators see and hear not only the obvious but are tuned in to what else might be going on that isn't quite so apparent. They are skilled in interpreting the difficulties, resolving conflict, cutting through time wasting and diversionary tactics and, most importantly, enabling people to reach agreements and develop new practices that will work.
So think about the more important and crucial meetings in your workplace where everyone keeps going 'round in circles, and then imagine what clarity you could bring in the role of facilitator.
Let's go a little deeper into why meetings and gatherings aren't the perfect forums we want them to be.
OK, so where do I begin?
There are at least two types of facilitators for the purpose of this document:
- Those that are appointed to do so.
- Those that aren't, but do it anyhow.
We're not trying to be glib here. There are times when a facilitator is desperately required but no one is ever appointed. Something needs to be done or it will just be the same old pattern yet again. People will understandably look to the Chair to shift a difficult situation. But the Chair may not necessarily be a facilitator. In turn, not all meetings and get-togethers have Chairs, in which case, someone taking on the informal role of the facilitator may be required.
Facilitators can be from within the organisation, or they can be an outside resource. Facilitators can know everything that's going on or they can know very little. Facilitators can be senior, junior or peer status.
Once you feel you have the skills to be a facilitator, it's a good idea to let as many people know as possible. Volunteer a lot. This is not about power games (let me see how many meetings I can end up running); this is about being a calming and pragmatic influence that can make a significant difference on the outcome of any kind of meeting, event, forum, etc.
It's important here for us to say that not every meeting, gathering, get-together needs a facilitator. What we are saying is that there are instances where an objective, impartial voice is needed and the better equipped you are to offer that, the better off those meetings will be.
We've already said that maintaining objectivity can be really hard. Once you get the hang of it, though, it will be your greatest ally.
One way to look at achieving objectivity is to accept that you don't have to feel objective, you just have to demonstrate it.
Let's say you're in a meeting and a heated debate starts up about, for instance, staffing levels. One person or group says, "We're understaffed and under-resourced." And the other says "We have plenty of staff; they're just not being managed well enough." Inside, you're thinking, "I couldn't agree more; if our managers just managed more effectively, we wouldn't be having this resource issue in the first place."
That's inside. You have every right to have an opinion. If you put it on the table it, however, you would be taking sides. In the role of the facilitator, the thoughts and feelings stay inside. You can still have them; they just remain unspoken. What you are looking to do is to stop a war breaking out because of the polarised positions already being staked out.
One way to practise in situations like this is to reflect back what you've just heard. In our example it might look like this: "So what I'm hearing is that you think we're understaffed, and I'm assuming you feel unsupported just now." And to the other 'side', "What I'm hearing is that, on the other hand, you feel the problem isn't with staffing levels, but with the way the staff is managed."
We think this is a good place to start because often when people come together with widely differing points of view, it's very hard to hear the other side's arguments. What you are demonstrating is that you hear both sides. You are establishing yourself as a neutral observer; one who is able to hear a variety of views and opinions.
Imagine yourself being slightly distanced (physically) from what's going on, sitting just outside the group so you can observe the dynamic of what's going on. You may still be sitting right in the middle, but part of you is outside looking in.
We know this is a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, but it can be done! We think it's also a great way to stop you getting drawn in and finding yourself taking sides. It's human nature to want to gather as many allies as possible, and people will be looking to you to support their stance.
As a facilitator, the best support is neutrality. That way at least one person is able to see clearly what's going on.
When people feel strongly about something, it's really hard for them to keep an open mind to other points of view. By keeping an open mind yourself, you actually model effective behaviour. In our experience, when this happens, it does calm people down and helps them see that there's more than one way to do things.
Smoothing the way
That's what facilitate means - to make things easier, to smooth the progress of and to assist in making things happen. Like so much of our work, we think that facilitation is about moving things forward. It's about allowing and creating an environment where things can move forward. It isn't about pushing or forcing things.
When meetings get bogged down, it's like working in sludge. People can get even more polarised; they get dispirited and fractious and fed up. Facilitation clears the sludge. Clarify! Simplify!
Sometimes a facilitator acts as a translator, not only reflecting back what they've heard, but also interpreting it in a way that other people can understand. A good facilitator gets practised in understanding the differing nuances, jargon and meanings in what various people are saying and being able to explain that difference to others. A useful phrase is "So what you're saying is…."
This is because what people mean and say will often be very different from how they are heard. We suggest using analogies to help people understand each other. Most of us already use analogies a lot of the time. When we explain something to someone who looks puzzled, we'll fish around for something similar they might understand in order to help them make a connection.
Think of beginning sentences with 'It's like...' to help you think of an analogy.
For instance, Jo Ellen went to Papua New Guinea and was trying to explain what it was like. She could have said it was really, really hot and humid and that she was wet all the time, but she felt that didn't give the true flavour of what it was like. So she came up with this analogy: it was like being in a steam room 24 hours a day with your clothes on.
The more you can use analogies to help clarify people's understanding, the less room there is for assumptions and confusion. Think of yourself as a translator: analogies bridge the gap between one person's view of the world to another's
Effective Chairing: Agendas, timekeeping and roles
Every meeting goes through its own unique process and no two meetings, even with the same people, are ever the same. A meeting chaired well is a joy to attend. Even if tempers flare and emotions run high, a well-chaired meeting can leave people inspired, motivated and energised.
Here are some things that can help you chair a meeting more effectively.
Setting a clear agenda can help a lot. Agendas are great and we think most meetings need them. They help clarify what the meeting is about and what needs to be accomplished in them. However, they can become either too dictatorial or too elastic, and their purpose and efficacy become diluted.
Agendas are easier if you set a specific amount of time to each agenda item. You may not stick precisely to those timings, but they will help you keep on track. You can appoint yourself as timekeeper, or ask someone else in the meeting to take on that role.
If you find yourself going over time, rather than ignoring it or rushing, you can say, "I'm aware we're going over time with this discussion. We can give it more time or move on." Or you can make that decision yourself without consultation; the important thing here is that you let people know you are still keeping an eye on the time.
Keep this in mind: it is far better to spend more time on an issue than try to get through everything just for the sake of getting through everything.
The most common thing that gets people off agendas is someone going off on a tangent. Tangents are OK, if they add something, develop an idea or introduce something that needs introducing. However, in our experience, that's rare.
People tend to go off on tangents because they have personal, hidden agendas, are bored, want to stir things up; are uncomfortable with what's being discussed; feel ignored or marginalised; are angry, hurt or frustrated; have a burning issue or pet project they want included (whether appropriate or not).
Tangents also happen because people either consciously or unconsciously start playing out particular roles.
By saying what you are doing, you are being transparent rather than opaque!
Also, when you're chairing/facilitating, you need to be aware that other people may be taking on one of these roles (among many others) and you will have to intervene - sometimes quite quickly and forcefully - to get the meeting back on course.
There are many ways to intervene.
There's the old-style yelling version. We don't recommend this one.
Since the idea is to ease the way for people, it's important not to put anyone on the spot, embarrass or humiliate them. If anyone at the meeting puts a colleague on the spot, you can take the spotlight yourself or manoeuvre it onto someone else who won't mind being centre-stage for a while.
In some companies we've heard of they've taken the (desperate?) measure of holding their meetings standing up - no tables. The idea is that that will force meetings to not only be short, but will keep people on their toes and more creative. Maybe that works. We have visions of people ending up slouching against the walls, but you can see where the idea came from: "We need to do something to break the pattern of boring or unproductive meetings!"
We're not suggesting you stand up.
However, it's very easy to see how patterns get set and meetings get stale. Our idea is that no matter what the setting, you can use it to your advantage, rather than feeling imprisoned or stuck.
Let's say you have a weekly team meeting with the same people, in the same room, sitting at the same table. People troop in (everyone expects X to be late as usual, and indeed he/she is), carrying their bits and pieces and sitting in the same place they did last week. Before you call 'order', the meeting is somewhat calcified already.
Little cliques tend to arise just because of who's sitting next to whom; people assume their set roles (if the same person always introduces difficult issues, after a very short time, everyone else will expect that any difficult issues will be dealt with by that person) and the usual dynamic gets repeated yet again.
We don't want to say that this is the only reason meetings get stuck, but if you are looking to shift their effectiveness, you need to do something different and early on.
Here are some neat suggestions:
- If you always have meetings around a table, get rid of the table or if they're never at tables, get tables in.
- Think about having lots of flip charts so people can do some brainstorming exercise.
- Put your own expectations up on a flip chart so people see them as soon as they enter the room.
- Turn agendas on their heads and do something unexpected.
- Bring along posh bickies or sweets.
- Get people to draw or do mind maps.
What we are suggesting here is simply to try something different. Take a look at what happens in your meetings and try to 'do' something to the environment or how the meeting is run or how you handle the attendees so you can get people more alert, thrown off guard or surprised.
This is why we say you can be in control of how things go without anyone ever noticing!
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