The skills that every excellent facilitator brings to the table.

There are many reasons a company may find the need for a facilitator. Typically, an expert is called upon if an organization needs the following: help strategically planning a meeting, a neutral third-party to keep discussion on track, an outside mediator to lead so that company leaders’ participation can be maximized, or the company needs a fresh set of eyes to help solve a problem that it is stuck on. With the help of a facilitator, companies can solve problems and arrive at solutions to challenges they have not been able to overcome on their own. A successful facilitator possesses several key skills that make them such an essential asset in guiding meetings. In this article, we’ll address how to use the following skills to facilitate a meeting:

  • Create an inviting and open environment
  • Introduce the meeting topic and expectations
  • Stay on task
  • Facilitate Consensus
  • Record Findings
The skills that every excellent facilitator brings to the table.
The skills that every excellent facilitator brings to the table.

So, what makes a great facilitator?

The best facilitators help groups efficiently and cordially reach their goals or solutions to their problems by creating an inclusive and open environment for all attendees to share their ideas and views. They strategically plan a thorough agenda to follow that supports a strategy that will best produce the client’s needs.

A facilitator first identifies the needs and wants of a group by asking strategic questions. Then, they organize a timed out plan that includes appropriate activities, such as open or structured discussions, visuals, necessary breaks, etc. that best cater to the prospective goals. Every detail is planned and followed as closely as possible, as staying on topic and task on time is crucial to a successful meeting.

What makes a great meeting facilitator?
What makes a great meeting facilitator?

Facilitators serve as an unbiased leader, a reflection, and then an organizer of what is said.

Facilitators that can separate themselves from the opinions of the group are best able to guide the conversations and energy in the room. They serve as an unbiased leader, a reflection, and then an organizer of what is said. They frequently paraphrase and summarize discussed topics back to the group and keep everyone on track while highlighting the best ideas and possible solutions as the meeting unfolds.

Overall, they are most interested and concerned with how meeting participants interact with one another to attain solutions, and they make sure that conclusions are successfully reached.

Facilitating a Meeting

Once the facilitator identifies the meeting’s purpose, and the agenda is thoughtfully constructed, they must exercise a set of skills to lead the session efficiently.

The following skills are essential to facilitate productively:

  1. Create an inviting and open environment
    Set up the room for success. Based on the meeting design, what kind of seating arrangement, lighting, props (whiteboard, post-it notes, sketch paper, and pencils, etc.) are needed to support it? For example, if the meeting is best set up for open discussion, arrange chairs in a semi-circle or formation that will best foster communication among the group. Establish the kind of energy you want in the room before attendees even arrive and supply the group with everything they will need to be successful.
Set up the room for success.
Set up the room for success.

2. Introduce meeting topic and expectations
Start the meeting by informing the group what the gathering is about how it will work. Discuss the agenda outline: meeting duration, activities, breaks, voting, etc. so everyone knows what to expect. It can also be helpful to introduce and demonstrate tools you will be using–for example, hand signals that participants must use when they want to speak as to prevent people from interrupting one another and encourage a fluid environment. Now is the time to set all of the necessary ground rules, so everyone is on the same page, and the meeting can run as smoothly as possible.

3. Stay on task
The facilitator must keep the group focused on the agenda and the decision-making process. Has a discussion run long or a topic gone too far off track? Redirect the group back to the matter at hand and tackle one task at a time. Helping everyone participate also benefits the group dynamic. For example, encourage quiet people to share their views and limit the time more talkative people have the floor. Know when to intervene if there is aggression or bad behavior and when to let the flow of discussion take its course.

Set up the room for success.

4. Facilitating Consensus
The goal is to help the group reach a consensus in the allotted time. Not everyone will necessarily agree on one solution or conclusion. The most important thing is that everyone involved has the opportunity to voice their views and be respectfully heard and that everyone understands how and why the conclusions were reached. A facilitator can help this to happen by doing the following:

  • Actively Listen
    The ability to hear the underlying concerns and motivations of the group is crucial to helping everyone reach a consensus. A facilitator must ask strategic questions to understand all viewpoints and to help attendees understand one another. Attentively listen to each person as they speak and remain engaged by maintaining eye contact and open body language. Then, take in what they communicate, both verbally and physically, via body language, without judgment or opinion. This helps to relay back to the person what they said accurately. Then, you can receive confirmation from the speaker that you understand their views correctly and that they’re being heard.
  • Paraphrase and Summarize
    With varying and abundant points of view floating around the room, it can be beneficial to repeat back to the group the common ideas that have been discussed as well as the unsettled differences to keep everyone on the same page and on pace with the agenda. Incrementally paraphrasing content and summarizing after each planned activity or discussion helps to ensure everyone is up to speed and aware of how the meeting is unfolding.
  • Synthesize
    After ideas have been liberally discussed, common ground must eventually be found to reach a decision. It is the job of the facilitator to help the group fuse together similar and seemingly competing ideas to form a proposal for a final agreement. This may require combining pieces of some projects with fragments of another, solutions that best serve the fundamental needs of the group while finding the best compromise amongst all group members. It’s about finding the most efficient and inclusive solutions as quickly as possible.

The following is a guide of several useful verbal tools facilitators can use to aid in guiding group discussions and interactions, as provided by SessionLab:

Source: SessionLab
Source: SessionLab

5. Record Findings
Documenting the most important talking points and discoveries made is an ongoing and critical task for a facilitator during a meeting. It is vital to have a record of matters discussed for a few reasons. For one, it can be a helpful way to keep progress on track and to avoid repeating previously visited irrelevant topics. A written or audibly recorded record of the meeting also allows the client to revisit the information when it’s time to plan the next steps.

Working through ideas

A facilitator may choose to record highlighted findings visually for the group to see during the meeting, like displaying content on a white or chalkboard or post-it notes. This can be extremely helpful for attendees to organize and understand the group’s varying viewpoints and ideas. Once all of the information is gathered, the group can then begin to test their solutions in real-world scenarios.

Whether a company is looking to innovate, solve a problem, or gain a new perspective to help business, a facilitator can help. Outside of planned facilitation workshops, there are also numerous benefits for companies to adopt a design thinking methodology within company culture for long-term benefits.