a facilitator is usually a good idea if you want to keep a meeting focused
and productive. Can meetings be effective without a facilitator? Of course.
Thousands of meetings take place every day without a designated facilitator.
However, the perils of meeting without a facilitator are many, and often
lead to a high level of frustration among participants. The dangers include
drifting from the agenda, lack of participation, running overtime and
many more. It has been my experience that once group members experience
the benefits of well-facilitated meetings, they will never want to hold
a meeting any other way. There are two main choices: using internal facilitators
and hiring outside professionals.
When should you use internal people and when should you engage a professional
facilitator for your meetings? As with most questions, the easy answer
it "it depends." For groups that meet regularly project teams,
staff groups, task forces, committees, department heads, etc., consider
training several people in the skills of facilitation and rotate the job.
Several of my clients have a cadre of trained people scattered throughout
their organizations, who are available to facilitate anything from a one
hour meeting to a full day work session.
For meetings that have higher stakes, you may want to engage the services
of a professional facilitator. Such meetings might include retreats, idea
generation sessions, strategic planning and problem-solving meetings.
A professional facilitator can also help your group get "unstuck"
to identify and focus on key issues, make decisions and move forward.
Perhaps the number one reason people hire professional facilitators is
the objectivity and "distance" they bring.
One of the biggest traps is for the group's leader or senior person to
assume the role of facilitator. This is an invitation for a dysfunctional
meeting. Why? It is virtually impossible for the leader to be neutral
on content issues, which is a prime requisite for an effective facilitator.
When group leaders facilitate their own meetings, they often cross the
line into control and advocacy for their point(s) of view. In turn, this
will shut down participation from others. Separating the leader and facilitator
roles will help ensure that at least one person is focused on group process
issues, e.g., staying on agenda and keeping people involved.
Whether you decide to develop facilitators internally or utilize outside
consultants/facilitators (or both), knowing what skills to look for is
Skills and Traits of Effective Facilitators
- Effective facilitators know the dynamics of group process and are
skilled in using techniques for keeping the group task-focused, encouraging
creative thinking, building consensus and keeping all group members
involved. A critical skill is the ability to create and maintain a safe,
open and supportive environment for all group members. Another is being
able to recognize and deal with disruptive behaviors.
- Skilled facilitators should always be "issue neutral" during a meeting.
They should never advocate a point of view, regardless of their expertise
and opinions on a given subject.
- Listening and observation skills are essential for facilitators.
They need to be listening and watching for nuance, content, body language
and other feedback and anything else that impacts the group. They are
always aware of a meeting on two levels simultaneously: content (what
is being discussed or decided) and process (how the group is functioning).
- The best facilitators blend assertiveness with tact, discipline with
humor. They need to know how to effectively intervene when the meeting
is veering off the subject or otherwise not moving toward accomplishing
Growing Your Own Facilitators
For groups that meet regularly, it is smart to have several members
act as facilitator on a rotating basis. It is not enough to simply appoint
people to the job. Training of internal facilitators will ensure that
they are aware of the many skills required to keep a meeting focused and
productive, and will give them opportunities to practice these skills
with an experienced facilitator/coach.
In the training workshops, novice facilitators should receive lots of
practice; videotaped feedback is one of the most useful learning devices.
After the training, your newly minted facilitators should be given plenty
of opportunities to facilitate meetings until they build their skills
and confidence. It is important that group members be understanding of
new facilitators while they are honing their techniques.
Hiring Professional Facilitators
There are several places to look when you are in need of a professional
facilitator, either to work with you on an important meeting or to train
people in the skills of facilitation.
A natural choice might be a consultant who is familiar with your organization
who also has considerable experience in facilitating both are necessary.
Why? Consultants are usually hired for their subject matter expertise
and opinions. While this background helps in understanding group issues
and terminology, unless the consultant is able to step into a neutral
role when facilitating, the group's effectiveness will probably be compromised.
While many facilitators also do other things, the demand is such that
some professionals are full-time facilitators. Most limit themselves to
a few fields or types of meetings in which they have developed competence.
The safest bet is to engage a facilitator who has experience in your industry
or similar fields.
Where can you find professional facilitators? One organization
Association of Facilitators is dedicated to developing the
profession of facilitation. Its members include professionals and internal
facilitators from many fields. While it is not a "booking agency" per
se, the IAF may be a good place to start. The Innovation
Network is another source for facilitators, especially for idea generation
sessions. Another organization, the National
Speakers' Association has recently begun offering training workshops
to its speaker/trainer members in the art and skills of facilitation.
Alas, many speakers have had to learn the difference between speaking
and facilitating while both involve standing up in front of a group,
the skills required are dramatically different. Always ask for references
before hiring a professional facilitator.
More Power to your Group
The choice to use facilitators for your meetings whether homegrown
(internal) or outside professionals can pay great dividends. At
a minimum, you can expect shorter meetings that are more focused and productive.
Group leaders can put their efforts toward substantive issues, while leaving
process issues to the facilitator. Over time, group members will learn
the skills of facilitation through "osmosis" and practice. Such awareness
can only help the group perform more effectively in meetings and in any