F*** the methods approach – learn to facilitate meaningfully

I do a lot of facilitation training – for my colleagues and for clients who want to introduce more participation into their teamwork or communication with partners, publics and customers. It’s a real pleasure to teach facilitation: somehow I feel the skills we learn and use make us look at people – their thoughts, desires and characters more intensely. It makes the world a more interesting place!

Here’s a list of my priorities. In other words, focus on the top (absolute musts!) and make your facilitation better and better by taking the lower points (pretty much musts too!)  on board too. And avoid the methods approach – learn to facilitate meaningfully and with impact:

  1. Have a clear contract with who ever is asking you to facilitate (What are you supposed to be doing with which objective, participants and results, embedded in which process with which consequences for participants’ results, establishing which role your client wants to play and how you’re going to be paid!)
  2. Ensure that all participants a) can participate (they have the necessary resources and information and are free to take part without dreadfully stressy organisation); b) want to take part (participants will be able to not only recognise extrinsic benefits, but also have an intrinsic motivation to be there and be active); c) are allowed to take part (there has to be some true and real possibility for participants to have their voices heard and influence some changes – however small – and these areas of influence or decision making have to be totally transparent)
  3. Enjoy interacting with your participants and be keen to learn about how they see the topic. They’re not your friends, but like them, be interested in what they have to say and how they feel about the topic and the group!
  4. Make sure people know what they are supposed to be doing without mentioning too much method. Don’t say “Now you’re going to use the card method,” as people will concentrate on the method and start discussing the process instead of the topic. Tell people: “So as to capture everyone’s immediate thoughts on the question xxxx, I’m giving you some cards for each of you to write down 1-2 ideas…” Participants who refuse to “do” the process they way you want them too often feel like they’re in Kindergarten and are taking part in a group exercise. They feel uncomfortable. Keep them focussed on the topic, make the instructions clear,  and matter of fact (i.e. your whole concept doesn’t depend on the group feeling passionate about using the methods you’re suggesting)  and they’ll be willing and able to get down to work in any way which seems to help them get to goal.
  5. Create a design that’s logical. It can be full of exciting and creative methods, but make sure one step leads on logically to the next. Facilitation and participation is all about learning, so it’s great when participants notice the relevance of firstly dealing with issue 1 before building up on the results of that in dealing with issue 2. Keep the design focussed on objectives and results rather than on methods. That way you’ll stay flexible and be able to keep participants on track. Changing methods should be easy and uncomplicated. Changing objectives demands a critical decision making process with both participants and client. However, we’re never going to get a group to work on an issue that they’re not interested in.
  6. Pose clear and challenging questions which open up participants’ thought processes and lead to the overall objectives. You’re responsible for the process, participants are in charge of defining the content. It’s ok to suggest how the process is going to work, but always ask participants to suggest and give answers. If you tell people what to think, you’ll either relegate them to possive viewers of your expertise or create antagonism – against you!
  7. Ensure that participants’ basic needs are satisfied: light, fresh air, food and drink need to be easily accessible or participants will go on strike!
  8. Allow participants to transfer-in to the topic, the group and the process. This means accessing the “whole person” of each participant – right from the beginning. A good transfer-in (lasting about 15-20 minutes), will stimulate both sides of participants’ brains (rational and creative) to think about the topic from outside of the box. Use stimulants such as pictures to ask how participants view the topic. Participants are often surprised at how creatively and individually they can think about the topic and articulate those thoughts. The transfer-in replaces the usual introduction round, in which participants generally aim to show their relative importance (“I’m an expert in… and have been important for … years…”). Participants bring in their personality and their experience from the start, paving the way to generate unique solutions and answers.
  9. Keep up the form! Make sure you know everything you need to about your hosts, experts and formal surroundings. There’s nothing less professional than having to look at your notes whilst introducing an expert because you’ve forgotten his/her name! Learn your first 2-3 lines of welcome off by heart. The start – your first impression – has got to have the right impact!
  10. Wrap up, synthesize, summarise constantly to make sure you and the group is on track. It also proves you’re listening and taking the process seriously. Use visualisation if you need formal approval from the group. In an open discussion, try and sort out your thought process to verbally summarise briefly and succinctly. Believe me, if you do this well, it’s really impressive!

There are lots more things I could and will say about this, but it’s about time I posted something again. Hope it’s helpful! Let me know what you think.

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