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Frustrated, exhausted, ready to go home and unwind: Your team at the end of too many days. The job gets done, but at what cost? You have good people on your team – but are you helping them get along, be at their best, and be proud of what they create? Are they better off as a team at the conclusion of projects, or are they growing apart?
Facilitation is becoming an invaluable management tool: a competency critical to helping teams be effective and organizations sustainable. At its core, facilitation is the art of balancing tasks with relationships. Helping teams get the job done while supporting them in developing deeper and more supportive relationships with one another.
Businesses, as well as non-profit and community groups, have been making the development of facilitation skills a priority for managers and leaders at all levels. Employees, stakeholders and customers increasingly demand being engaged with sincere interest and attention, and being involved in communications and decisions as partners.
Here are some questions a colleague has asked recently about supporting staff in developing their facilitation skills.
A. Employees are often hired for a particular skill set or expertise, such as research, analysis, design, or finance. Regardless of the industry, a growing portion of such professionals’ work involves communicating with colleagues, coordinating with other teams, or ensuring that the work is aligned with changing standards, priorities, or budgets. And these relational aspects of work are often not something that individuals had been trained or mentored in, so while they may be experts at executing their individual tasks, it’s not always a smooth sailing when teamwork, or project work with multiple parties is needed.
A big part of facilitation in the context of organizations is balancing tasks with building and nurturing relationships. You want every employee to contribute to the organization’s work, not take away from it because of a struggle to get along with colleagues, or respectfully clarify interests with stakeholders, or ensure that all parties at the table feel welcome and included in project communications and, where appropriate, joint decisions.
Traditionally, organizations have hired facilitators to help groups get along and be productive together. A facilitator would invite the parties, clarify the purpose of the joint work (such as brainstorming or decision making), invite everyone’s input, keep the conversation on track and on time, and record the outcomes that the group produced. This approach has not usually led to building capacity in the facilitation abilities within the team, and the results are not always repeatable in future projects.
A manager skilled in facilitation practice can help a group not only be productive, but also leave a meeting or project better off in terms of their personal connections and work relationships than when they started. This focus on nurturing relationships among team members can be of critical value to today’s organizations pursuing greater cost effectiveness, retaining talent, and overall sustainability.
When teams are supported in their work by someone who is an effective facilitator, they feel valued and respected for their contributions, and they become more deeply connected to colleagues and project partners. A team well supported in its interactions will be better positioned for continuing its work in the future.
Since facilitation is rarely a part of formal education, employers are increasingly looking for customized options to support their staff in developing and practicing facilitation skills in the context of their specific roles. This can of course range from an introductory workshop to an ongoing professional development program where employees evolve their facilitation practice and obtain feedback on both the process and the results that they create.
A. In my experience, understanding the client’s reality and challenges, and then working together to create or tailor a course or program that addresses their employees’ needs, are key to success in putting forward a solution that is going to be of most value.
I should also point out that a highly structured course may not be what the particular team really needs. It could be a less formal exploration of specific facilitation challenges, or periods of facilitation practice involving peer observation and feedback, or one-on-one coaching to help a facilitator gain confidence in specific areas. Every group’s needs and contexts are going to be a bit different, so finding an approach that is a good fit is key.
When a client first reaches out, I ask a range of questions about their organization, what clients or communities they serve, how they go about engaging their stakeholders, what relationships are like among their team members, and what results they are the most keen on seeing their facilitators create as a result of taking a course, program, or a series of coaching sessions.
Sometimes the manager who is reaching out sees just a part of the picture, so whenever possible, I like to engage the people for whom the program is intended and ask them to share some of their facilitation challenges and questions. I might ask:
“What does facilitation mean to you, or what does it ‘look like’ in your work?”
The responses can give me a sense of the context in which this group serves as facilitators: Is their main role process facilitation: helping external groups do their work by inviting everyone to contribute, keeping time, and taking notes? Or is it content facilitation: managing meetings where the facilitator is a part of the team, or its manager, and has their own view of what the meeting’s outcomes should be? Sometimes, employees are involved in facilitating learning – a distinct form of facilitation where the facilitator offers gentle guidance towards predetermined learning outcomes or set developmental intentions.
The context makes a big difference to designing a session, or a series of sessions, that can be of most value to the group. The structure of the sessions, questions asked, activities and how participant groups are set up, all play a role in creating a learning experience that offers the greatest benefit to each particular group of learners.
Another question I might ask a group of participants coming to a session is,
“What does facilitation look like when it goes really well?”
“What has been your most satisfying experience supporting a group in its work?”
This type of question can help give the participants confidence that they already have been successful in some aspects of facilitation. That gives us a strong starting point, something concrete from the participants’ experience to build on. Most of us have an easier time being engaged in a new form of learning when our existing strengths and achievements are recognized.
My next move is to understand where the course or program can offer the participants the most value:
“Tell me about a situation where being more effective at engaging a group or facilitating a tricky conversation could have helped create better outcomes. What made the situation challenging for you, and what would help you approach similar situations more effectively in the future?”
A question like this helps me develop specific scenarios or cases that are relevant to the group. Familiar, real-world contexts help groups get right into active exploration and discovery learning, benefiting from their collective wisdom and taking away new ideas and approaches that they can instantly apply in their next on-the-job facilitation.
A. I like to look at facilitation courses and programs as opportunities to try and practice fresh approaches to engaging groups, creating a respectful environment, asking questions, and addressing emotions that often arise. Facilitation is a helping role, and each group will need different kind of help. So while a facilitator will find it helpful to master the ‘science’ elements – like knowing when to ask an open-ended vs. closed question depending on whether they want to invite deep input from a few individuals or quick input from everyone – I would suggest that facilitation is mostly an art. This makes the courses less about learning the right answer or approach to every situation, and more about being fully present to the participants and the group’s mood, and making gentle ‘moves’ to help the group forward towards the intended goals.
That said, there are so many situations that may arise, and so many ways of addressing them, that it takes time to develop a full range of effective facilitation practices. Playful experimentation and reflection are keys to evolving facilitation skills, just like many other skills of helping and communicating.
When an organization chooses to schedule only a day, or just a few hours, for facilitator development, we start with what’s on top of participants’ minds, and aim at helping everyone leave with new ideas and approaches to try in their practice. But there are many ways that learning can unfold – one that I find very effective is starting with an initial session, and then inviting the participants back together every month or two to share new experiences from their facilitation practice, learn and try new skills, and set new developmental goals to pursue in their work. Teams of facilitators can also be an invaluable source of feedback and inspiration to one another when they exchange tips, observe a colleague in action, or co-facilitate a session with a colleague.
Regardless of length, a facilitation course should prepare learners to:
A. Many teams indeed connect from different places these days, and more events and meetings are being held virtually or in a format where some participants meet in person while others connect remotely. We have better tools now that help us connect, share contents, vote, even translate conversations and produce transcripts – yet, regardless of the format, interactions or decisions can still prove difficult, prompting strong emotional responses.
The good news is it is definitely possible to have engaging, respectful and productive experiences in the online environment. Most teams have already mastered the technical skills needed to use tools like Zoom, Teams, or Skype. With further practice, we can easily adopt additional tools like virtual whiteboards and breakout sessions, that help enable more engaging environments in which participants can share contents and ideas, brainstorm, analyze, integrate, and create.
But the key to helping everyone feel welcome, included and productive in online sessions or classes as much as in those held in person is to stay focused on our human connection in everything we do. Once again, the key role of the facilitator is to balance the task before the group with making it easier for everyone (which is what the word facilitation literally means) connect more deeply and nurturing relationships, so that everyone is better off as a result of connecting and working together, with the gentle support of a facilitator.
A. For those new to engaging teams and facilitating group process, I would suggest gathering a group of 4-6 colleagues and signing up for the Engagement + Facilitation course. It is a powerful introduction to the art of facilitation, with opportunities to practice and receive friendly and helpful feedback. Beyond that, I am always happy to connect with prospective clients – both organizations and individuals – in a complimentary call so we can explore what would be of most value to them. Think of your 2-3 most pressing needs, and book a virtual call here.