[This article was written by Sylvia Peters.]
Many of us have attended meetings that were less than perfect. They went on for too long, participants argued, and no decisions were made. A few people or just one person dominated the meeting. Nobody wanted to listen.
This is where facilitators come in. They are responsible for making meetings as effective and pleasant as possible – and succeed. This article explains how a facilitator shapes a business meeting to ensure a successful outcome.
The Meeting Is Not About the Facilitator
Many labor under the misconception that the facilitator is like a performer, around whom everything revolves. A facilitator is not a participant in the meeting in the conventional sense of the word. It’s very difficult to take part in a meeting and facilitate it at the same time. Facilitators encourage participation, manage time, and ask pointed questions. This way, they let the other people at the meeting “shine”.
Facilitators Help Establish the Purpose of a Meeting
All too often, meetings fail because they don’t have a clear goal. The feeling of having wasted your time exacerbates the lack of results. A meeting needs to have a clear final point: a decision to be made or a goal to be achieved. Attendees should know why they are there and what they need to do to finish the meeting on time or early, where possible.
Typically, a facilitator will announce the purpose and desired outcome at the beginning of the meeting. They will then remind participants of these if the discussion veers off-course.
Other Tasks of a Facilitator
Depending on the case, facilitation can involve a series of tasks. Some tasks are valid across the board, however. These include keeping the meeting focused on the issue or issues at hand, one item at a time, and helping participants decide on a realistic schedule and agenda for the meeting. A facilitator makes sure all attendees are active. Some people are naturally quieter. It’s often these very people who have the most relevant experience and need to be asked questions.
A facilitator clarifies and summarizes points, checking for consensus in order for optimal decisions to be made. They keep the meeting on time, help deal with conflict if such emerges, and assist people in coming up with creative ideas. Most importantly, they facilitate conversation by asking pertinent and pointed questions. As most meetings are called to solve problems, a facilitator’s job is to lead the group to a solution (not solve the problem him- or herself).
A good facilitator does not need experience in the company’s industry or sector. They do need experience in asking the right questions at the right time. If this is done correctly, questions will cast doubt on assumptions that may be keeping the group from finding an answer.
Common Issues at Meetings – and Solutions
In the beginning, we mentioned how some people can tend to dominate meetings. These people have strong opinions and personalities and command respect. They can be disruptive to a discussion by advancing their interests. A facilitator may task them with documenting ideas on the whiteboard. This will keep them from automatically rejecting ideas that differ from theirs and make them listen to others.
This is another reason why it’s a good idea to share the purpose and agenda of the meeting in advance. If a participant is pessimistic or has something they feel particularly strongly about, it is to everyone else’s advantage that the purpose was communicated beforehand. This way, this person will come in ready to contribute constructively. At least the odds of that happening are higher.
An experienced facilitator will have answers to many issues, but resist the temptation to give them. The group itself should arrive at the answers. If this doesn’t happen, there’s no guarantee that everyone (or anyone) in the group will agree that the accepted solution was the right one. This plants seeds of doubt, and these seeds will grow. To keep this from happening, a facilitator will ask questions leading the group to the answer, such as:
- Can you please be more specific?
- Could you summarize that?
- How does that make you feel?
- What would that be like?
- How would you define success in that situation?
Facilitators are able to ask the right questions because they have excellent listening skills. They pay attention to what the group is saying and give people space to develop their ideas. They know which questions can get people to think beyond the surface. They do not take part in the discussion until it goes into Catch 22 mode or otherwise stalls.
Facilitators vs. Chairpersons
So far, it might seem like the facilitator’s function is not unlike that of the conventional chair. However, the similarity is only superficial. A facilitator never makes decisions for or on behalf of the group and does not direct meeting participants without their consent.
What to Look For in a Facilitator
Companies commonly look for certain skills and qualities in their meeting facilitators. Of course, every facilitator can give a group something unique. A facilitator doesn’t have to possess all of the desired qualities to be able to facilitate a meeting well. In fact, rotating professionals will help balance the organization of company meetings.
Most effective facilitators share certain traits, qualities, and skills. They are good listeners who are always respectful to all participants. They have a real interest in what each participant has to offer. They can use questions to perceive and grasp individual viewpoints clearly and are confident in the group’s ability to cooperate and find solutions. They are highly attentive to both the discussion process and its contents. They know when to give direction to a meeting and when not to intervene.
Finding a Facilitator
Facilitators do not play roles that are the responsibility of individual participants or the group. They remain neutral throughout the process, helping attendees realize that they are responsible for conducting their business. This way, every member becomes aware of their vested interest in the meeting’s successful outcome.
Sylvia Peters is a Collaborator for Find A Facilitator and a mother of two.She’s also an expert to bringing the most credible, experienced and personable facilitation to every meeting she attended. In her free time you will find her meditating and making her favorite salad.