Facilitating in the Modern Workplace

I’ve discussed the concept of “reading the room” with fellow facilitators countless times. As a seasoned facilitator, I’ve walked into many meetings and sessions and had to pivot based on the participants, goals, and other factors, always staying flexible and keeping a pulse on the room. In a conversation with a fellow facilitator, though, I found myself asking: is reading the room enough?

In today’s corporate world, the “room” is not always like it was in the past–an assigned conference room with a whiteboard at the front and participants gathered around a table. Many meetings are hybrid or virtual, bringing together participants from different cities and different backgrounds to work toward a common goal.

These meetings are also taking place in the larger context of the organization, the industry, and the current events going on in the world around. I realized that I needed to consider factors from beyond the walls of the room.

In order to be successful, I found myself modifying the art of reading the room. We have to look beyond the room—and read the system. In this article, I’ll break down what it means to read the system and how to implement this perspective in your own facilitation.

Understanding Systems Thinking in Facilitation

Let’s start with understanding systems thinking. Systems thinking is defined as “an approach to problem-solving that views problems as part of a wider dynamic system” which “recognizes and prioritizes the understanding of linkages, relationships, interactions, and interdependencies.” This method means problems should not be addressed in isolation, but rather as a part of the larger context of the organization.

As a facilitator, I strive to understand the interconnectedness of various elements within an organization or project. Changes in one part can affect the whole system, so it’s important to recognize key patterns, relationships, and dynamics, identifying opportunities for growth and potential points of weakness. When a facilitator understands the system, they can better select the right techniques and methods to pursue an optimal outcome.

A Note About Systems Thinking in the Workplace

What was true yesterday is not guaranteed to be true tomorrow. Systems are often complex and adaptive, meaning that we have to be aware that they can change at any time. Leaders must be nimble, aware that what they once thought about a room, system, or organization can change on a dime and must be adapted guide participants toward success.

As leaders, we have to consider how much we can trust data, even though data is key to our practices. We should continually question ourselves and probe the system to understand how it is functioning and responding to our actions and interventions.

6 Tips to Read the System

Let’s break down a few ways you can implement reading the system in your facilitation practice.

Take a Holistic Perspective

The key to reading the system is looking beyond the immediate and considering the underlying structures and processes at work. This holistic perspective can help ensure that the final consensus is sustainable for long-term success.

External facilitators will always have to work toward understanding the systems within the organization they are working with. When I’m in that position, I leverage techniques that invite the participants to examine their own system when addressing the problem at hand.

Embrace Empathy and Cultural Awareness

When I think about systems, I don’t just think about the systems of an organization—I also consider the systems of our society and culture. Each participant in a meeting has their own unique background and perspective, and their different viewpoints affect their interactions within the system.

By recognizing and respecting diverse perspectives and cultural backgrounds, we unlock powerful new ways to approach and address a problem and build a solution. In fact, it’s part of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) Core Competencies to honor diversity and promote inclusiveness.

It’s also important to consider who isn’t in the room. That could include other team members, company leadership, your customers, your clients, or the public at large. Consider the systems that those people are a part of and how that could affect them, and prompt participants to do so themselves. By imbuing empathy into your approach, you can anticipate the needs of the people who are not in the room, building a solution that works for everyone.

Support Conflict Resolution and Negotiation

There are inherent conflicts in systematic interactions, as different departments or factions have different priorities and approaches to solving problems. These conflicts, and conflict in general, are not bad. Healthy conflict can lead to creative, powerful consensus.

When I facilitate a meeting, I consider the conflict that may exist under the surface. Often, participants don’t even realize there are underlying conflicts in their systematic interactions, but by identifying and addressing those conflicts, a better solution can be found.

By reading the system, I can dip into my repertoire of facilitation methods and techniques for the right solution to balance different perspectives and move toward resolution.

Leverage Data

For me, one of the most exciting parts of the future of facilitation is the use of data to better inform our decisions and understand trends within the system. The amount of data available can feel overwhelming, but, as a facilitator, I help participants distill that information and focus on the right data points. It can be easy to get caught up on one particular piece of data and get stuck in a circular discussion, but proper facilitation can keep participants moving forward with that data. 

As an experienced facilitator, I’ve seen the power of being able to interpret and communicate data insights effectively. When moving out of the groan zone and toward a resolution, the right data can help streamline the decision-making process.

Navigate Virtual and Hybrid Environments

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the structure of meetings and events has looked very different. I’ve walked into sessions expecting a full room of attendees only to learn that half the participants were virtual! This unexpected change required me to shift my techniques to better operate within a hybrid system.

I’ve become attuned to the fact that the system could shift from in-person to virtual or hybrid at a moment’s notice. To read the system, facilitators must master adapting facilitation techniques for virtual, hybrid, and diverse environmental contexts. The facilitator does not get to control the setting, instead reacting to the environment and the system and working as a guide against those obstacles.

Cultivate Feedback

Even the most skilled facilitators are not mind readers, so it’s important to realize that there will be aspects of the system that are not apparent to you as the facilitator. The participants are the ones who are actively part of the system, for better or for worse, and they can be the key to unlocking insight for optimal success.

To garner this feedback, facilitators should conduct interviews, send surveys, and host communal listening sessions. Focus on providing a welcoming, comfortable environment where participants can be completely honest about their experiences, opportunities, and obstacles.

This feedback is critical to understanding how people are thinking, how they are experiencing the system, and how they are influencing it.

Learn to Read the System with Voltage Control

The Facilitation Certification Program from Voltage Control gives facilitators and collaborative leaders the knowledge and tools they need to properly read the system in every session. We also host Facilitation Lab, a vibrant community of facilitators and collaborative leaders committed to lifelong learning. Facilitation Lab offers a free virtual meetup every week that you can attend to get a taste of the community.

Contact Voltage Control to get started.