Imagine an orchestra without a conductor; the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion all reading the music on their own could result cacophony instead of symphony. What if The Producers had no director or choreographer; those little old ladies would be knocking each other over with their walkers. A football team without a playbook would be little more than a sandlot game.
The same holds true for a planning meeting without a facilitator. We’ve all sat through countless meetings that went nowhere. Even with an agenda and knowing essentially what you want to get out of the meeting, it often takes a skilled facilitator to get everyone participating, keeping them civil and driving the discussion to a clear result.
The facilitator is more than just a meeting guide. Much like the orchestra conductor, a theater director/choreographer or football coach, it is their responsibility to plan, run and bring the meeting to a clear conclusion.
It is not the facilitator’s job to solve problems or to push their own agenda (no matter how well-disguised).
It is the facilitator’s job to simply allow people in the group to work through their thoughts and feelings through the process of discussion by actively listening and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable participating.
So what should you expect from a good facilitator? Here are the 8 qualities and skills that a good facilitator must use to extract the best ideas and thoughts from even the most reluctant participants:
Knowledgeable researcher: Before the meeting starts, the facilitator gathers as much information as possible to ensure they understand the topic enough to guide the exploration of issues, ideas and thoughts. Often the facilitator will request to interview key participants to uncover any potential issues or information that could help to keep the discussion productive.
Objective, patient listener: Generally, the less connected the facilitator is to the participants, the better; making it easier to ensure that every one is heard equally. It is the facilitator’s job to make sure that all participants feel comfortable participating, and to encourage everyone to engage in the discussion. Perhaps the greatest skill of a facilitator is an ability to patiently listen to sometimes rambling ideas or thoughts and then capturing them clearly, without losing the emotion or intent. It can be hard to not turn one person’s thought into what you think it should be rather than what they meant it to be.
Organized choreographer: The facilitator either prepares the agenda for the meeting or works with the meeting sponsor to outline areas to be covered. Then, it is the facilitator’s job to keep everyone on track and to document the discussion as it unfolds. Using whiteboards or flip charts, the facilitator often papers the meeting room walls with the notes, charts and ideas, regularly tracking all of it back to the original agenda.
Focused conductor: Any creative discussion will naturally wander. It’s on these detours that the best ideas often emerge. While the agenda may not be followed in order, the facilitator always knows the way back. They can quickly adapt and encourage a creative discussion, ensuring that everyone gets their say. Then document the ideas or issues as they guide the discussion back on topic.
Devil’s advocate: In every meeting there is at least one elephant in the room; that question or issue that no one wants to mention. This is where pre-meeting interviews and topic research help a facilitator become aware of these issues so they can safely and subtly bring them forward for discussion. They can also push back on ideas with flip side thoughts that can encourage broader, more creative discussion.
Coach and mediator: Every group has different dynamics, with standout and reluctant participants. If executives are part of the group, they can sometimes inhibit open participation. The facilitator must break down barriers with humor, insights and direct questions. If confrontations or arguments do erupt, the facilitator must quickly regain control, make sure both sides are heard, and then get everyone back on track.
Face and body language reader: It takes practice and sensitivity to notice the silent signals when people become unhappy, angry, distracted or upset. A good facilitator listens for what is not said and finds ways to engage these people in a positive and supportive way.
Great closer: Tying is all together at the end and making sure there are no issues hanging, nothing left unsaid, and no one feeling left out is perhaps the most critical skill of a facilitator. Recapping the topic by running quickly across the wall charts, then outlining next steps and any assignments gets everyone on the same page to move forward.
Think about bringing in a skilled facilitator to orchestrate your next critical meeting. The results can be amazing and the process can be much more fun than you imagine when you get to sit back and participate.
Beth’s 30+ years of marketing communications experience gets her focused and cranking fast on most any strategic marketing communications initiative – strategic communication planning, brand message development, website content and search engine optimization, white papers or case studies. Beth is a master facilitator who can herd the most unruly cats, after all, she was a Mom to twins plus one!