What are the skills that expert facilitators use to plan and lead successful meetings?

Bringing people together to help them understand common objectives and how to solve them is a crucial component in resolving problems and achieving success. We rely on team members and leaders to carry out these actions and facilitate the process. Without the skill set and work required to guide group organization, meetings, and community events, vital factors to collaboration and achievement would not be productive and profitable.

Perfecting the art of facilitation is one of the most important and beneficial skill sets that make a successful leader.

Perfecting the art of facilitation is one of the most important and beneficial skill sets that make a successful leader. Where and how can you use them? Facilitation skills are crucial to exercise when planning and running meetings to make them as participative and productive as possible. After all, the act of facilitating is to make an operation or process easier. It’s imperative to company profit and culture to conduct successful meetings.

Facilitation skills are crucial to exercise when planning and running meetings.
Facilitation skills are crucial to exercise when planning and running meetings.

What makes a great facilitator?

A great facilitator fluidly guides the process of people working together to achieve set goals. They are a neutral supervisor that helps group members discover ideas and solutions, rather than an omniscient ruler who already has all of the answers; they don’t take sides.

An excellent facilitator’s focus is on how people participate in the learning and planning processes, and they serve as a conductor to help the group navigate reaching its goals. A significant component of being a proficient facilitator is knowing how to properly plan for the facilitation process, establishing and building a meeting’s structure and design.

Three Facilitation Skills for Facilitation Planning

The following skills are necessary for successfully outlining and initiating facilitation:

  1. Ask questions to identify objectives
    Each meeting has a goal, and it is imperative to identify and understand it before the session begins. Ask questions to help you determine the meeting’s driving motivation as well as the needs and desires of the clients/attendees. What does everyone involved want? What are the goals, obstacles, and desired outcomes? Gather as much information as possible. The more you know, the more prepared you will be to lead.
Working through sketches

2. Pick your process
Once you’ve determined the group’s needs and objectives, it’s time for a plan of action. The method of facilitation can look differently depending on the meeting’s goals. For example, one purpose may call for open discussion, while another may require more structure. Choose a process that will best aid the group to share viewpoints, evaluate issues, develop ideas, and reach conclusions. Always have the desired outcome in mind.

Two cognitive approaches can help lead discussion: convergent and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is systematic and linear and narrows down various ideas into a single solution. It tends to be more focused, analytical and centered on what’s best. Conversely, divergent thinking is more open-ended and, like a web, flexible in its approach. It focuses on the connections between ideas. This wider, “think outside of the box” method is used to generate as many ideas as possible and encourages creative risks. The combination of both approaches can be an effective process to make decisions.

First, use divergent thinking to foster creativity and generate new ideas and solutions; here, the possibilities are endless. The underlying question is, “Why not?” Then, use convergent thinking to focus on the “why” and reel in focused ideas to reach a conclusion. The ebb and flow of these two approaches create a fluid, continuous work cycle–cast the net wide to brainstorm limitless possibilities, focus on ideas that stick, flush them out, identify solutions, repeat.

3. Outline an agenda
Ready, set, (almost) go! Now that you know the objective and have a process in mind to reach it, you need to set an agenda. How will you seamlessly weave the logistics of time (meeting duration, start and end times, breaks), group dynamics (number of people, type of group interaction), setting (location environment, seating arrangement, etc.), and meeting content (opening, transitions, closing)?

Create a detailed plan of action, set up your space to support your process, and remain in open communication with your client or your team to ensure everyone is on the same page, and all preparations go smoothly. As Alexander Graham Bell said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Looking at a whiteboard

Six Facilitation Skills for Facilitating a Better Meeting

You’re prepped and ready to rumble. Now it’s time to facilitate! The following are skills that will help you successfully lead the group meeting or workshop:

  1. Encourage an inclusive environment
    Open communication is one of the most important aspects of having a successful meeting. Attendees need to feel comfortable sharing their ideas and expressing their views. Inspire fluid and respectful communication by including everyone.

This requires the facilitator to read the group, both verbally and non-verbally, and adjust to its needs throughout the meeting while keeping everyone focused and on task. It is also beneficial to paraphrase back to the group progress that is being made as you go and also to reflect back all conclusions reached.

2. Build and foster relationships and group synergy
Trust and empathy are essential components of building healthy and successful relationships within a group. The ability to identify the common goals and interests of a group and then steer everyone to the completion of found goals is what facilitation is all about.

Group synergy can be created by encouraging group members to share their ideas and points of view, and most importantly, respect the opinions and views of others. Doing so will help the group effectively brainstorm and later reach a consensus.

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3. Active Listening
According to a study analyzed by the Harvard Business Review, a good listener does the following: conducts active conversations where they periodically ask questions to the speaker to promote exploration and observation, creates a safe environment where speakers feel supported and heard, holds a cooperative two-sided conversation that is uncompetitive, and provides feedback and constructive suggestions on alternative paths to consider. A good listener serves as a mirror; they reflect to the group what is said and provide clarity on the content discussed as well as the meeting’s focus.

“While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.”

Team at work

4. Conflict Management
When conflict arises, it is important to immediately identify its cause or source to understand it before evaluating and discussing all possible solutions holistically. To healthily manage conflict, one must be able to empathize with other people’s viewpoints calmly and respectfully.

A good facilitator always has an eye for compromise and faces conflict head on to find common ground amongst all sides. They stimulate teamwork by encouraging shared goals of the group rather than highlighting disagreements, and they ensure each team member has a clearly defined role, outlining the distribution of responsibilities.

The facilitator can defuse tensions by injecting a dose of humor to redirect the group’s energy, initiate a well-timed break, or calm the room by maintaining composure and exposing alternative points of view to foster understanding.

5. Build Consensus
Because the main objective of a facilitator is to help a group find common ground among varying opinions to reach a conclusion that everyone accepts, a consensus must be reached among all group members. This does not necessarily mean that everyone will agree with the final decision(s) made, instead it is making sure that all group members have the opportunity to voice their opinions and that everyone understands how the conclusions were made. When everyone feels heard and also follows the process of how a decision was made, an amicable consensus can be reached.

Talking over issues at a table

6. Manage time and recordings
The method of brainstorming with various opinions can take detours that eat up significant amounts of time. Time is of the essence! Ensuring that the meeting flows as close to the planned agenda as possible is imperative for optimum efficiency and success. Be aware of the passing time and notify the group when they’re nearing the end of the time allotted for an activity or exercise to keep them on track.

A facilitator must know how to adapt and steer the group back on course if time runs long. At the same time, they are responsible for documented key messages the group identifies. This can be done visually by recording on a whiteboard, post-it notes, or another medium the group can see, audibly recording the conversation than going back to highlight key points, or keeping written documentation of conclusions. Documenting the most valuable insights will help the group later plan actions and tangibly carry out their conclusions.

“Staying neutral on content while being an expert on process.” -SessionLab

The more you exercise these facilitation skills, the better you will be at facilitating. It is not an exact science but rather an art form. The skills are flexible; they can be expanded, explored, and experimented with. Each group setting is different; thereby, you will acquire new insights and experiences that you can add to your tool kit. Above all else, remaining educated on the facilitation process as well as unbiased during facilitation will help you to be a lucrative coordinator in varying situations and find success.

Need help building a better meeting? Bring in a professional facilitator from Voltage Control.

Voltage Control designs and facilitates innovation training, Design Sprints, and design thinking workshops. Please reach out to us at hello@voltagecontrol.com if you want to talk.

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