Leadership tips – What is facilitation and how to excel at it

There are many business leaders who may feel they have a good handle on what it means to be a skilled facilitator, having the experience of leading meetings, engaging with staff and generally being key decision-makers that like to get things done.

However, when it comes to appreciating the nuanced role of the facilitator, and what these individuals can bring to to their business, some may be lacking the in-depth understanding that is required to truly have an impact.

What is a facilitator and why are they important?

Many people might think that the facilitator is simply the leader of a meeting; the person who choreographs the discussion and ensures each topic up for debate is successfully covered. However, a true facilitator can do so much more than this.

What many people fail to understand is that the role of the facilitator is not to be a decision-maker (indeed, having to be actively involved in making decisions within a session can diminish their effectiveness), but instead it is to encourage all other participants to share their knowledge, thoughts and insight to further a specific goal.

Developing the right skills is therefore essential to success in the art of facilitation, and these include the ability to think on your feet, engage with others on their terms, adapt quickly to new situations and understand the path to progress lies in collaboration.

Ultimately, the facilitator should be viewed as a conduit for knowledge rather than a bringer of knowledge themselves, while also acting as guardian of the process that will drive business forward.

Becoming an excellent facilitator requires understanding of the process

The key to becoming an excellent facilitator rests in understanding how to get the most out of people and to ensure everyone is encouraged to have their say in a fair and constructive manner. This can be easier said than done, however, and key to this is the ability to productively manage the overall dynamic of any meeting of minds.

Some of the most important elements in this process are the ability to:

  • Effectively manage dysfunction and ensure a cohesive discussion that is open to all involved
  • Bring participants back on topic should the discussion begin to wander off point
  • Build consensus among those involved to ensure a productive end to the session
  • Optimising energy and understanding when it might be time to take a break and allow the creative juices to rekindle
  • Managing the phases of a meeting – understanding when to move forward and to push for progress

Skilled facilitation requires an individual to demonstrate all of the above key characteristics, but also essential to success is understanding the process itself, and here it is:

Prepare like a master

The facilitator must adequately prepare to be a leader in any meeting or session they chair, and this requires the development of a number of key attributes. These include in-depth design and planning of the itinerary of any meeting, as well understanding the key goals that this session is hoping to achieve.

A skilled facilitator will be able to set a clear agenda and relay this information to all involved. In addition, they must develop strong presentation skills and an air of authority that ensures all participants will willingly follow their lead. Setting out clear ground rules at the outset of any meeting is equally important and these should be prepared in advance.

Appropriate participation

During the meeting itself, the role of the facilitator becomes one of overseer and organiser. They should be able to direct the flow of a meeting, but not necessarily have a direct impact on what is being said or discussed. As previously mentioned, it is not the role of the facilitator to have all the answers; instead, they act as an adjudicator and director to get the best out of others.

This attention to service to the group rather than having all attention directed to themselves manifests in a number of ways. These include the ability to focus the group on the important questions and ideas up for debate (avoiding detours of thought); providing the tools to help participants process the topics up for discussion; providing questions and interventions to ensure fuller answers, and; capturing and recording the moment to enable all those in attendance to focus solely on the agenda at hand.

Closing the session with clear actions

Perhaps the most important stage in any meeting or discussion, the end of the session is the time when the facilitator can ensure they are adding the greatest value. Individuals taking part in a meeting must be aware of not only what has been talked about during their time together, but also what is now expected to happen next. This is where the facilitator comes into their own.

A skilled facilitator will ensure that no-one leaves their time together without having a clear understanding of their responsibilities moving forward. This can be as simple as providing a summary of what was discussed and setting out a future plan of action that people clearly understand. Overall, it is essential to remember that time spent in any meeting is ultimately fruitless if it does not lead to action. This is where the facilitator should take charge.

Effective facilitation keeps focus and forward momentum to achieve lasting change

In the end, those businesses that understand the impact that skilled facilitation can bring are the ones that are most likely to achieve forward momentum when seeking to achieve their goals.

By providing a focus on the bigger picture and ensuring this is kept in sight at all times, during meetings, seminars, work groups and conferences, the facilitator is the individual businesses should entrust to keep projects, plans and ambitious goals on track if they hope to achieve lasting organisational change.

You can find out more about the impact of skilled facilitation and how those wishing to be more effective in this role should adopt one important skill in particular in our recent blog, ‘We could all benefit from the power of generative listening‘.

  • Warwick Abbott, Director at Primeast