Secrets Of Successful Facilitation

Ultimately, effective facilitation is about asking questions to help learners reach a goal or produce a desired outcome.

Successfully transitioning between lecturing to a class and facilitating a meeting or training can be difficult. The two styles are very different, with different expectations and outcomes. They require different skills—skills that can be learned.

Facilitation is never about the facilitator. “Good facilitators are invisible,” says Dr. Roger Firestien, senior faculty, International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY – Buffalo. He means the class should be talking about the great outcomes they created rather than the facilitator.

It doesn’t matter whether facilitators are “high energy or thoughtful, gentle or boisterous,” he says. “What’s important is that they have technique down so well that they know where they are going and are three to four steps ahead of the class.”

What Is Facilitation?

At its most basic, “a lecturer tells, while a facilitator asks,” Firestien explains. A great facilitator knows when to do each because “training sessions need both. The output of training is knowledge, and the output of facilitation is a solved problem,” he says. “When you lecture, the focus is on you as the expert. But when you facilitate, the client and the client group are the experts in their content area. Facilitators focus on process, while lecturers focus on content.”

Stephen Brown, chief innovation officer at Atlanta-based Cookerly Public Relations, says facilitation is about two-way communication. He tells lecturers that facilitation is like a play with many characters, and it’s their job to ensure each character gets time in the spotlight.

Getting Started

Firestien spends 30 minutes training participants about what the creative process is and how effective brainstorming works. He also tries to build trust so participants know they won’t be judged, before launching the facilitation part of a session.

It’s important that learners understand everyone is creative in different ways, he says. Defensiveness and the fear of looking foolish are the biggest obstacles to adult learning. Therefore, one warm-up exercise helps learners move past those fears to start thinking creatively by asking all the ways to get a hippopotamus out of a bathtub.

Brown like to begin his sessions by meeting each learner personally, then asking them to introduce themselves to the group with a sentence or two about their passions both at work and outside of work. “After that, when you ask your first question, you know who your ‘friendlies’ are. I can identify those who want electric thinking from the rest.” Those “friendlies” are comfortable and can answer impromptu questions. They are the people to call on early in the session. You can say, for example, “You said you were passionate about music, so how could that play into this business issue?”

That’s good to start, but facilitators also need to elicit contributions from the introverts in the group. To do this, Brown recommends not catching them off guard. Pose a question and let them know some of them may be called on in a few minutes. “I’ve had clients warn me that certain people just didn’t speak in groups, but given time to think about what to say, they became quite chatty.”

Facilitators also need to address the elephant in the room—the boss. “Sometimes when the boss is present, you can see the politics at play,” Brown admits. People are concerned about misspeaking or being found lacking. To level the playing field, he likes to insist that the boss—whether that’s the brand manager or the CEO—also participate when present.

Brown encourages people to step outside their organizational roles for brainstorming to do their best thinking. One way is to sketch a memory. Brainstorming a holiday innovation for a retailer, for example, might involve sketching what it’s like to “wake up as a kid on Christmas morning. The idea is for the group to identify points of mutual delight. Now talk about the kind of delight you get from that product, and work the idea back to find a way to monetize it. You have to deprogram yourself from normal work patterns and get to a place where you can’t be as distracted as usual.”

Facilitators Are Meant to Ask Questions

“Beginning facilitators talk too much,” Firestien says. “Introverts take longer to ask questions, and it’s remarkable how many questions come up after three or four seconds of waiting. Researcher Mary Budd Rowe studied teachers in 1987 and found most answered their own questions 1.5 seconds later. Waiting three seconds increased the quantity and quality of the responses by 300 to 600 percent.”

Tools and Tips to Guide Discussions

“Great facilitation is like improvising jazz,” Firestien says. “First you learn the basics: the scales and the cords. When you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you can improvise.” Applied to facilitation, this means learning ways to drive the discussion forward and to keep it on track and on time to achieve the client’s objectives.

Facilitation groups usually are formed around a specific goal—creating a new brand, for instance. “Therefore, you have to prepare for a lot of ‘choose your own adventure’ scenarios,” Brown says.

Rather than speaking from a podium at the front of the room, “you’re often in a circle or standing at the side. You know which rabbit holes to go down, but you’re on a timetable. Learners must be able to share, but a storyteller can take things off track, so you have to be able to bring that person back to the topic.” His approach is to set the boundaries—for example, “Give us one or two sentences about X”—and applaud the first or second person for doing what’s expected.

Brown allots time limits to each part of a session before moving on. It’s important for participants to experience multiple exercises to generate many possible solutions, he says. “I remind people frequently where they are in the session. I may say, ‘At this point, we should have 50 ideas, not five, so I’m going to speed us on,” he says. That helps them complete the experience.

Once brainstorming begins, rather than disparage a possible solution, build on it. “This isn’t a debate, but a conversation to find consensus,” Brown says.

Managing conflicts in a positive way is a big part of this. “So, for example, if cost is one of the conflicts, ask the group how to reduce the costs,” Firestien adds.

Great Facilitators Are Present

“Really good facilitators are totally present in the moment,” Firestien says. That means sensing the undercurrents of the room and creating what he calls a safe, sacred space free of preconceptions and baggage from one’s personal life.

Firestien recommends empathizing with learners, too. The signals they exude may have nothing to do with you or the discussion. “Years ago, I was facilitating a group of federal employees and one woman was giving bad non-verbal signals during the first two days. On the third day, I overheard her on the phone asking coworkers whether anyone was sick last night,” he recalls. Later, she admitted to him that she was “probably the class’ problem child.” She told Firestien her team was working drug interdiction. By asking about the sick, she was asking about drug mules who had swallowed leaky, drugfilled bags. Failing to notice this could be fatal.

Great facilitators know, as that example illustrates, that facilitation isn’t about them. Learners come with a basket of challenges unrelated to the discussion, and they can’t always ignore them. The goal of great facilitators is to bring out the best ideas in each person, anyway.

All they have to do is ask the right questions.

5 Tips for Great Facilitation

  • Jumpstart creativity with a warm-up challenge
  • Combine disparate ideas
  • Encourage learners to think outside their roles
  • Wait three to four seconds before filling the silence
  • Have a “think break”

Useful Questions to Gather Data

  • What is the history of the situation?
  • Why is this a concern?
  • How could this be an opportunity?
  • What have you already tried?
  • What is your ideal outcome?

—Roger Firestien, senior faculty, SUNY – Buffalo


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