The appointment of a facilitator is a key decision of stakeholders and can make or break a gathering.
Facilitation is an art and a science, and a good facilitator is unobtrusive, informed and has command of the conversation.
A facilitator is often engaged when the outcomes are important, sensitive and there is usually a degree of risk is involved, especially on the part of the stakeholders who are seeking a particular outcome.
There is often a considerable investment of energy, reputation, governance and resources by the participants, and this needs to be respected and acknowledged.
A degree of trust in the capabilities of a facilitator by the group is also required, as they are the ones who will shepherd the participants towards an outcome, and are given delegated authority (sometimes overt, sometimes not) to enable that to happen.
With the right preparation and experience, a facilitator will guide the participants to a positive, effective and harmonious outcome.
The following are some of the key factors I ensure are in good shape when preparing for a facilitation.
1. Explicit Understanding of the Outcomes
There are always overt goals for the session, and most usually a sub-text to the relationships, organisation and event itself.
You need to have a conversation with the organisers that ensures you are across exactly what they want to achieve, the drivers that made the event essential, and any sensitivities around the issues and personalities.
You are also need an explicit understanding of what the client wants you do, including things like documenting the event, key points / messages to make, liaison with participants and post event activities.
The basics like venue, timing, budget and timelines & deliverables should also be spelled out.
2. Knowing the Culture of the Group + Workplace
One of the gifts of a good facilitator is to be something of a chameleon in order to adapt to the idiom of the group and establish rapport fast.
To do that you need to research plenty about the group, its activities, history, aspirations, issues and key players.
You can’t know enough about your client and the organisation that’s hosting the event.
This also applies to the sector and professional culture generally of the client, understand the drivers and current issues! You’ll need to think on your feet during session, so you’ll need to be up to speed.
If there are opportunities to meet participants or attend events hosted by them, then take them up, it will help you get a read on the culture, their professional language and you won’t be walking into a ‘cold’ room on the day.
3. Research the Participants
Continuing your research into the group, the next level of detail is the actual participants.
A solid briefing is vital so you know something about everyone in the room (some Googling and LinkedIn may be helpful here), who may be champions for the session goals, who may be challenging them, who needs to be teased out,and who you may need to steer so they don’t dominate the discussion.
Some pre-event cultivation is often necessary to establish some rapport with key players to help prepare the ground for the event favourably.
I also like to make myself available before the event to meet participants or discuss the event via email if they wish.
4. Establish Your Credentials
Without authority, a facilitator is just a glorified MC.
You need to be able to own the room, the discussion and guide the conversation where it needs to go, and if necessary intervene to keep things on track.
A formal introduction before the event by the organisers is essential, virtually is fine to help establish your credentials. Ensure your website/blog and LinkedIn are all tip-top as its the first thing they’ll look up!
It may be necessary to provide the organisers with bio notes etc, and include reference to similar organisations or events you’ve worked on to reinforce your expertise and understanding of their sector.
On the day a proper introduction by the host is also necessary and a spelling -out of the ground rules of discussion and the purpose + outcomes to ensure a collective buy-in of your role and the goals of the session.
5. Venue and Environment
The physical space is another key element that needs to support the experience in a positive way.
Beyond the aesthetics, the layout of the chairs, where people stand and sit, the usual of AV, all impact on the engagement of the participants and conversation flow.
You should also consider your eye line and where you’ll move about to ensure even engagement.
In short, the space chosen and its layout should be designed to suit the purpose of the gathering, not be just another room!
In situations with a need to emphasis equality and avoid dominance by one or more participants, a circle is an effective means to send that signal and enables the facilitator to manage the group with authority.
About the Author
Phillip Jones has made a career of not really having one. At least, not in a straight line. Now the Director of Marketing, Fundraising and Communications for St Vincent de Paul for Canberra/Goulburn, he’s previously been a freelance consultant, socia...