How to facilitate meaningful and productive conversations

Good facilitation helps a group move toward desired results using an inclusive and appropriate process, while also attending to relationships.

4 September 2018

by Chris Vanstone, Chief Innovation Officer, TACSI

We’ve all been in meetings or workshops where one or more of the following happens:

  • People go off topic

  • Interpersonal dynamics or politics overwhelm or distract the group

  • People who have less power, or who are quiet, don’t get heard

  • There’s a lot of talking without making decisions

  • The meeting feels tedious or pointless

These are all situations where facilitation can help.

It is not always easy or natural for a diverse group to come together to work on something. Facilitation is the act of supporting a group to engage in meaningful and productive conversations. Typically one (or two) ‘facilitators’ take on the role of guiding the discussion rather than participating directly in it.

A facilitator can create the conditions for productive conversations by:

  • Preparing people to participate

  • Planning a session to get to the desired outcomes

  • Clarifying points that people are saying.

  • Surfacing the wisdom and insight already in the room

  • Enabling what is being said to inform decisions

  • Keeping the group focussed whist balancing the needs of the group at that point

  • Managing any conflict if and as it arises.

Results, process and relationships

A facilitator needs to hold three factors in balance. Facilitation helps a group move toward desired results using an inclusive and appropriate process, while attending to relationships:

  • Results: The facilitator supports the group to reach the goal they have in mind.

  • Process: The facilitator introduces and enables a process to inform the structure and flow of conversation.

  • Relationships: The facilitator supports the group to maintain healthy and functional relationships.

The role of the facilitator

Effective facilitation requires a facilitator to design the conversation, lead the conversation in the room, and support making sense of the conversation afterwards. You may be able to find someone locally who does this regularly, or you may want to build your skills to do it yourself.

Whenever possible, try not to facilitate solo. Having two complimentary facilitators can help you ensure that the many dimensions of what is happening can be attended to: process, content, participant experience, relationships, politics, catering, room temperature, photos, etc.

A key role of the facilitator is to create a safe space, to foster an environment where people can come together safely both psychologically and emotionally, and as a result can contribute honestly and openly.

Facilitators who stay calm and collected (but not overconfident or arrogant) can help keep a group on track. People in a group will, for the most part, mirror the energy and mindset of a facilitator. However, facilitators who present to a group with an unclear, anxious or flustered mind will impact the group dynamic as a whole and negatively impact the conversation.

Facilitation is a craft best learned through practice. You can build your facilitation capabilities by:

  • Reading this page, giving it a go and reflecting on how you do

  • Read the resources in the more section

  • Seeking out facilitation training. People have also found training in public speaking (eg Toastmasters) and in acting or improv helpful in contributing to their facilitation practice. )

  • Getting coaching from an experienced facilitator.

Planning a session

Before any session deliberate conversations between the facilitator and stakeholders are critical in setting expectations, preparing participants and developing relationships for success.

Here’s a checklist for planning a session:

  1. Results: Work out what the groups goals and objectives are in order to understand why the session is occurring, the desired outcome and if the expectations are realistic.

  2. Relationships: Get to know the attendees, their history and their relative power so you can anticipate group dynamics. Plan how to ‘democratise’ the room by balancing out power. If not considered, some people may feel uncomfortable, and only the powerful will get their perspectives heard. This is particularly important if you’re bringing community members together with professionals of any kind.

  3. Process: Develop a session plan in advance. Different types of conversations require different plans. A good plan will support people to come together with ease, know what to expect and to get on with the conversations that will lead to the desired outcomes. ‘Begin with the end in mind’.

  4. Participant preparation: Inform participants of the session's goals and get their feedback and input prior to a session so that people arrive ‘on the same page’. Attendees may also appreciate pre-reading so that they are prepared for the conversation.

  5. Logistics and hospitality: Physical space, light, food and refreshments can all help to support an effective workshop. Look for a space that’s big enough, with good acoustics and natural light. Ensure refreshments are available and people feel looked after. Take care of dietary requirements.

Planning to involve community members and people with lived experience

Sessions where people with lived experience are involved require extra attention. In advance of the session:

  • Support community members to understand the need and value of their contribution, seek to understand their motivation for participation and anticipate any factors that may make them feel uncomfortable in the session e.g. the location, the presence of professionals, language that might be used in the sessions.

  • Prepare professionals to make them aware of their own power and take measures to check that power at the door, e.g. ensuring that they do not dominate the conversation, dress in an overly formal way or use language or acronyms that stifle community members' understanding and contribution.

During a session

With the planning done in advance, during a session a facilitator focuses on supporting participation, and re-planning the agenda if required.

Here’s a checklist for running a session:

  1. Provide a proper introduction. Help the group understand the objectives of the meeting, the ground rules, and how they can participate.

  2. Recap on previous progress. If the group has come together, reorientate people to the goal and help dispel any misunderstanding. In your recap focus on challenges, opportunities and outcomes. Encouraging discussion in order to refine and define progress is never wasted.

  3. Spell out or visualise the journey. This can help support groups to build their own momentum and reduce reliance on the facilitator to drive conversation.

  4. Support participation. Facilitators are constantly managing group dynamics. Facilitators may need to encourage quiet people and people with expertise to contribute more whilst controlling people that dominate the conversation. Monitoring energy levels. Introduce activities and icebreakers when energy stoops and revitalisation is needed. Consider if session plans needs to be abandoned for another more appropriate direction. Ask yourself ‘what is best for the group to move forward?’.
    Listen and call out the obvious. Stay focused and listen with an ear to the ground, judging if conversations are gaining depth and relevance, or going off track.

  5. Surface tensions. Tension in a group is likely, especially when people are trying to solve problems. This is something for a facilitator to prepare for and manage. Tension can be destructive or productive, depending on the source of the tension, how it is handled and how participants respond. Getting a group to surfacing tensions and working through them can be a source of transformation and strengthen relationships in a group. Avoid tensions can mean missing potential breakthroughs and stifling relationships. A good facilitator will expose the elephant in a room if they have not been able to draw it out of a group. This may be an uncomfortable moment for everyone but avoiding the elephant can impact trust and prevent progression.

  6. Be prepared. Have a number of activities that you are familiar with that can support a ‘Plan B’ if the session needs to deviate from what was planned in advance. Some we particularly like are listed below.

  7. Provide closure. Take the group through a closure process so that everyone is clear on what has been achieved and the next steps.

After the session

After a session it’s the facilitator’s role to keep the momentum going, a facilitator’s responsibilities extend beyond the end of the workshop or meeting.

Here’s a simple checklist

  1. Develop and share documentation from the workshop

  2. Debrief and plan next steps with key stakeholders

  3. Follow up with communication and further conversation

  4. Continue engagement and relationships

The ideas and stories captured here were shared by members of the Regional Innovator’s Network during a peer learning session on 4 September 2018.

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