A guide to facilitation skills and why they are essential for navigating complex business problems.
Leadership is multifaceted and the lines often blur between roles, responsibilities, and core competencies. It’s a dynamic blend of vision, communication, and influence. Similar to the word strategy, it’s used more frequently than it is understood. But what if we were to reimagine leadership? In a recent conversation between Brene Brown and Adam Grant, the definition of facilitation became the focus of such a reimagination when Adam asked Brene: if the word ‘leadership’ didn’t exist, what would it be replaced with?
“Facilitation” – Brene Brown
Facilitation isn’t merely an add-on to a leader’s repertoire. It forms the foundation of effective leadership, enabling us to guide teams and entire organizations toward their goals while optimizing the meeting process for the most productive outcomes and fostering a culture of collaboration. Do you know anyone who hasn’t endured a meeting or training session that seemed to last forever with little to no substantial outcomes? It’s a common scenario, a clear indication that skilled facilitation is not an exclusive need of formal leaders. Rather, it is a critical competency that can empower anyone at all levels of an organization (and not just within formal leadership roles).
In this blog post, we’ll venture into every aspect of facilitation, focusing on five foundational qualities that embody the facilitation mindset – Purposed, Inclusive, Crafted, Clear, and Adaptive. Together, they embody the essence of effective facilitation, providing a roadmap to navigate the often complex terrain of leadership in today’s fast-paced world. As we delve into these qualities, we’ll shed light on the importance of the role of facilitator and how anybody, regardless of title, can step into this role. Keep in mind that these aren’t merely theoretical constructs. They are tangible skills that, when put into practice, can serve as the keys to unlocking transformative change and lasting impact within your teams and organizations.
For those eager to take a deep dive and master these skills, as well as the facilitator role, our Facilitation Certification Program is the ideal launchpad, providing comprehensive guidance and robust support as you embark on this journey of growth. We love training facilitators, and it’s evident in the care and depth we’ve put into this collaborative learning process.
Purposed: The Guiding Star of Facilitation
Any worthwhile experience begins with purpose. Why are you bringing people together in the first place? It’s the reason behind gathering a team, the goal you hope to achieve. More than just a motivational mantra, purpose serves as an anchor for decision-making and strategy development. Who should be involved? What activities should we engage in? How do we adapt when things don’t go according to plan? All these questions more easily find their answers in the clear light of purpose.
Purpose is often the missing link in many organizational gatherings and business discussions. Without it, teams might find themselves adrift, lacking direction and focus. This makes it all the more crucial for leaders and facilitators to clarify the purpose of their gatherings.
Leadership within an organization can sometimes feel like navigating a ship through foggy waters, particularly when the senior leadership hasn’t clearly articulated the organization’s overarching ‘why’. However, this isn’t an excuse to abandon the quest for purpose. As skilled facilitators, it is our responsibility to create clarity, to guide teams toward common ground and a shared understanding of why they are doing what they’re doing.
In fact, by showing up in our role as leaders and facilitating through our role as leaders, we gradually shift cultures across an organization. This nudging can eventually guide the organization back to a place where its purpose is much clearer.
Voltage Control’s purpose is to develop leaders through a method-agnostic approach to learning and mastering facilitation skills. We anchor in this purpose often to ensure we are staying true to the belief that this approach will create optimal outcomes and best support leaders in their dynamic growth. In fact, if you let go of method-centric facilitation perspectives, it is easier to anchor to your purpose.
Not only does clarifying the purpose give meaning to our work, but it also sets the stage for the other qualities of facilitation to come into play. Purpose also demands a degree of transparency, allowing leaders to acknowledge biases and use them constructively.
Develop the facilitation skills and confidence needed to transform meetings, inspire innovation, drive collaboration, and lead change.
While conventional facilitation wisdom advises us to remain unbiased, leaders often need to bring their own perspectives to the table. The key lies in transparency and conscious decision-making. There will be times when leaders should listen, be curious, and abstain from asserting their bias. Conversely, there will be times when leaders’ unique perspectives are needed to guide the team forward. Leaders must be present to purpose in order to attune to how their bias is helping or hindering the progress of the group.
Finally, clarifying the purpose can be a powerful tool for preparation and aligning expectations. When attendees understand the purpose of a meeting or gathering, they can better prepare and engage meaningfully.
Being ‘purposed’ in facilitation allows for insightful preparation, alignment of expectations, and transparency, creating a more cohesive and effective gathering.
Inclusive: The Heart of Facilitation
A common misconception is that being inclusive means involving everyone all the time. However, as Art of Gathering author Priya Parker brings into focus, optimal inclusion sometimes requires deliberate exclusion. This doesn’t mean permanently sidelining certain individuals but rather knowing when and where their involvement is most beneficial.
Having a clear purpose allows us to be intentional about who should be part of a gathering and at what stage. It’s not about creating a permanent state of exclusivity but recognizing that not every conversation requires every person. Not never, just not right now. Understanding this allows leaders to strategically gather parts of the team, depending on the purpose and desired outcomes of the facilitated moments.
Additionally, inclusivity goes beyond the mere presence of individuals. It’s also about creating a psychologically safe environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas. This nurturing of psychological safety becomes easier when the right people, connected to and committed to the purpose, are involved. It fosters a sense of vulnerability and nudges people to contribute more freely.
Another key factor in inclusivity is patience. Good facilitators should allow participants to express their thoughts and opinions freely, knowing when to let the conversation flow and when to intervene or redirect. The facilitator’s patience often correlates with the depth and quality of the participants’ input. For example, working with an interpreter invites a slower pace, allowing more time for consideration and deepened understanding.
This patience also nurtures an internal focus in facilitators. Instead of focusing only on external progression, excellent facilitators embrace pauses and allow for thoughtful consideration. This fosters better understanding and reduces confusion among the participants. A facilitator who talks incessantly or aimlessly just to fill the silence is usually not deeply anchored in purpose and inclusivity.
Being inclusive in facilitation requires leveraging our purpose to be deliberate about who to involve, creating a psychologically safe environment, and exercising patience to allow for meaningful engagement for all in the room.
Crafted: Designing With Care
A crafted approach requires understanding that everything we do in our professional lives – from our work to our collaborations to our culture – is designed in some way. As such, leaders need to see themselves as the designers of the experiences their teams and coworkers engage in.
Being ‘crafted’ in facilitation is about caring. It shows that you care enough about your purpose and the outcomes you want to achieve that you deliberately design the space and process in which these outcomes can be realized within established time limits. Sadly, we often come across instances where there isn’t enough deliberation or care, sometimes due to the demands and pressures of the organization.
When we talk about care, we must also consider intention. Are we taking the time to be purposeful, to have intent, to be planful? This reflects in the way we craft our facilitated spaces.
A crucial concept we teach in our facilitation certification, from Gamestorming, is the idea of creating temporary worlds. These temporary spaces allow people to have impactful experiences, meet their desired outcomes, and realize their potential for change and growth. And if these temporary worlds are that impactful, then participants want them to become part of their day-to-day worlds.
The crafting process involves considering many elements, from the overall design of the meeting or workshop to the pacing and cadence. Effective meetings are seen as learning experiences, not just as items on an agenda. Furthermore, the design should not be confined to a single approach or methodology. As facilitators, we should remain method agnostic to best serve our participants’ needs and circumstances.
This process also requires careful attention to the amount of work and dialogue expected from the participants. What is reasonable, and what is exhausting? How many activities are too many? These considerations are vital for crafting effective experiences.
A well-crafted facilitation process is akin to a well-designed product. It emphasizes simplicity and focuses on what’s essential rather than overloading with unnecessary features. Such simplicity can be a powerful design technique, provided we understand our purpose, know our audience, and keep them at the forefront of our design decisions.
Being crafted in facilitation involves careful design, clear intention, and an understanding of the people and purpose at hand.
Clear: Concise and Transparent Communication
The notion of being clear aligns with our earlier discussions on creating space and patiently pausing ensure understanding. After all, all meetings, brainstorming sessions, workshops, and learning experiences need clarity in instruction, setup, and an invitation to achieve optimal outcomes.
The responsibility for clarity lies with us as leaders and facilitators. One simple language shift we recommend is moving from asking, “Did you understand that?” to “Is there anything I might further clarify or better explain?” This subtle shift places the responsibility of understanding back on the facilitator rather than the participants, where it should be.
It’s also beneficial to avoid yes/no questions as they often close off opportunities for further clarity. By framing questions more openly, we can better coalesce toward a shared understanding.
Clarity is also connected to design. It’s about being concise and distilling information down to its essentials. Anything that does not directly serve the purpose can act as a block, preventing participants or team members from understanding the direction and how they can contribute to reaching the goal.
Keeping a ‘clarity journal’ can be a powerful tool for self-improvement. Make a note of instances where your instructions were met with confusion, then reflect on what may have caused the ambiguity. This reflection can help you craft clearer prompts and instructions.
Fostering clarity in a facilitated session involves clear and concise language, real nouns and verbs, and questioning the necessity of every other piece of information. Asking for feedback can further improve clarity, helping identify areas of potential confusion or misunderstanding.
Clarity is not only about our ground rules and prompts but also about the understanding shared in the room. Internal and external facilitators alike must be attuned to situations where participants might not be on the same wavelength, using different metaphors or similar words with different meanings. By pointing these out and helping disambiguate, we enable the group to reach alignment.
Facilitators are witnesses, connected to the group’s purpose and helping the group help itself to become clearer. Clear and concise communication is essential for a facilitator to guide decisions and convey information to the group effectively. This not only involves conveying information but also helping the group understand what they are there to accomplish and how they are expected to participate.
Facilitating with clarity demands intentional communication, distilling information to essentials, actively resolving misunderstandings, and continuous self-reflection. As facilitators, we provide a clear path for understanding and participation, paving the way for effective collaboration and ensuring all voices are valued in the shared pursuit.
Adaptive: Dancing with Change in Facilitation
Having a plan is crucial; however, sticking rigidly to that plan despite shifting dynamics is a recipe for disaster. Being adaptive, serves as a balancing act between having a strategy and knowing when to pivot in service of the purpose. After all, the magic of facilitation often unfolds in its adaptability to what’s happening in the room.
It’s less about discarding the other qualities we’ve discussed and more about holding them with an open hand, ready to modify our approach in line with the changing needs of the group. We shouldn’t see this adaptability as abandoning our carefully laid plans. Instead, we are staying present, attuned to the dynamics of the room, and ready to pivot our approach to serve our purpose effectively.
Leaders should be adept at reading the room, picking up on non-verbal cues, gauging the energy and engagement of the participants. This is a skill, foundational as it may seem, that can be cultivated over a career, enriching your practice and enhancing your adaptive capacity.
Active listening skills are key to facilitating from an adaptive perspective. Active listeners use questions to gain deeper insights into what’s transpiring within the group, empowering everyone to make decisions that best serve the purpose. In moments of conflict, which can emerge as a testament to inclusivity and diversity of perspectives and a safe space, being adaptive equips us with the ability to mediate and guide the group toward resolution and progress.
The adaptive nature of facilitation is also evident in the fine balance it requires; not only does it involve allowing the group adequate time to move at their own pace, but it also entails knowing when to steer them toward the main objective. This interplay between flexibility and firmness, as well as effective time management, may seem like an art, but it’s actually a craft that can be mastered with experience and conscious practice.
Remember, being adaptive doesn’t mean we throw the other four qualities to the wind. In fact, our ability to be adaptive is a testament to how well we’ve anchored in our purpose, fostered inclusivity, crafted our process, and ensured clarity,. Being adaptive allows us to respond dynamically to the realities of the room, enhancing our ability to guide the group toward the shared goal.
The dance of facilitation is one of conscious movement between structure and flexibility, control and release, all the while keeping our gaze fixed on the guiding star of purpose. Embrace this dance, cultivate your adaptive nature, and witness your growth as a transformative leader and facilitator.
Embracing the Qualities: The Path Towards Effective Facilitation
I urge you to actively practice and nurture these qualities. Embrace the challenges and opportunities they present. Seek feedback, learn from your experiences, and continuously strive to learn new facilitation techniques and enhance your facilitation skills. Consider joining a community of practice like our Facilitation Lab as a stepping stone on this journey of growth and improvement.
The journey may be challenging, but the rewards are immense. By cultivating these qualities, you’ll not only become a more experienced facilitator but also a stronger leader, capable of inspiring, guiding, and empowering your team toward achieving common goals.
The path to effective facilitation awaits. Embrace the journey.
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