What skills make a great facilitator?

“This is the first in a series of post on facilitation – what makes a great facilitator and what are the necessary skills.

What makes a great facilitator?

Think about a time when you have had a team or departmental session and really accomplished the objectives. Go on, close your eyes if you have to. It must have happened sometime. You have come out of the meeting with concrete actions. Everyone has expressed their opinion and while a consensus was not reached, the group have bought into the decision and moved forward.

If this sounds familiar, chances are you had a great facilitator running the session to help reach those conclusions.

Here are some great facilitator skills that should be present, in my humble opinion:

  • Listening skills
  • Encourage questions
  • Ask questions
  • Patience
  • Be able to draw participation from all members
  • Be able to read the group
  • Be impartial
  • Have clear focus on the objective

These things don’t sound incredibly difficult, so why do so many of us suffer from ineffective meetings and group work sessions?

These skills are not exclusive to a manager, anyone can have these skills and while some may occur naturally, they can be learnt. Let’s go a little deeper into some of these skills…

Have you got the skills to pay the bills?
The site www.iaf-world.org, International Association of Facilitators, describes the core competencies that a facilitor should have as:
A. Create Collaborative Client Relationships B. Plan Appropriate Group Processes C. Create and Sustain a Participatory Environment D. Guide Group to Appropriate and Useful Outcomes E. Build and Maintain Professional Knowledge F. Model Positive Professional Attitude

They go on and describe in more detail each competency however at a more personal level, these are the skills we think a facilitator should have.

Listening skills
When someone begins to speak to us, we tend to think of our response in the first couple of seconds. The person is still probably speaking, but we naturally think of an answer. Bad people! A great facilitator really listens to what the person is saying, shows a genuine interest, acts appropriately (nodding occasionally, short verbal comments, open body language, eye contact) and can paraphrase what the person has commented.
To show the importance and difference good listening skills can bring to a workplace, I sometimes do the exercise were 2 people sit facing each other. During one minute, one of them talks about a topic they feel passionate about (football, politics, their best holiday ever etc) while the other person does everything possible to show no interest at all in what is being said. After that, we ask the person who is listening to change and show that they are really listening. After that they change roles and discuss the differences. It’s amazing the difference noticed for both of the people.

Encourage and ask questions
This comes after showing you are an active listener. It’s almost impossible to encourage and ask good questions if you haven’t listened well to the person.
Having listened to the person, it’s easy to ask something related, or probe to allow them to elaborate more about the topic. This can be done by using open questions that aren’t answered by a simple “Yes/No” response.

A great facilitator needs to have a degree of patience. Why? If you aren’t capable of listening well to a person, none of the previous areas will have been done well. I’ve met people who do not have the patience to be a facilitator. They maybe think that they have the answers or don’t want to listen to someone’s opinion that they think isn’t valid.
Don’t get me wrong, a great facilitator needs to know when to move people along, stop certain people for speaking too much and “manage” the group. But it’s important to allow people to communicate their thoughts, especially the more introverted people who may not feel as comfortable speaking in a group situation.

Be able to draw participation from all members
Again related to previous skills but a great facilitator should be able to extract participation from everyone in the crowd. Using the word “extract” can make it sound like a dentist’s visit and this can be what a group session is like for some people. I know many introverts who do not want to speak in public and aren’t comfortable doing so. However their message is just as important as anyone elses.

The facilitator should be able to recognise who feels more comfortable and who doesn’t, using different ways of getting the opinion from these people. This may mean they need more prompting, discuss the topic in a smaller group or simply write the idea down on a post-it and then read out later.

Be able to read the group
Recently I attended a large group session were everyone has just completed a physical activity near the end of the day and physically, you could tell that they needed to have a break or most likely finish for the day. However the facilitator pushed on with his agenda and the following discussion descended into a constant battle to try to get (quality) participation from the group. They were tired, they didn’t want to think intensively nor participate in any other strenuous activity.

This person failed to read the group. A great facilitator skill is to read the group and be able to think on their feet. As in the Deming PDCA cycle, the facilitator needs to check how the session is going and act accordingly. If the group is not responding as planned, another way should be tried, maybe work in smaller groups, take a break or change the activity.

Be impartial
In order to be truly effective, you need to step back from the issue and the group. You need

to focus on the process and remember the objective of the session

Don’t get bogged down in details or looking for an outcome that you want. Allow the process to flow and that means being impartial to the views and the people present. Treat everyone with the same high level of respect and be neutral. You are there to help a group reach an outcome, help everyone to express their opinion and avoid group thinking.

Have clear focus on the objective
It may be the best activity in the world, with everyone participating, enjoying themselves, expressing themselves fully and reaching a decision. But if the decision is about another topic and you have lost focus of the objective of the session, then none of this is important.
This can be particularly prevalent in meetings which don’t have clear agendas or expected outcomes. The facilitator of the meeting should make it his/her responsibility to ensure that the meeting has an objective and inform everyone of what is expected by the end of the session.

This also means keeping an eye on the time or ideally having another person do that and keep the facilitator informed. Ensure that the people involved are aware of time pressures and help them by guiding them towards making a decision or reaching an agreement before the end of the session.

Wrap up
There are probably more skills that a great facilitator should have, however this is a good start identifying some of the most important ones.
In following posts, I’ll include ways of improving on these skills and where they can be honed.

Are there any other skills that should really be included in this list?

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