The Art of Facilitation

Article by Jamie Cleaver

It’s not about you and your ideas. The question is: how can you help this group of people solve whatever problem they are up against?

WELCOME to this regular slot that focusses on professional skills for chemical engineers. Here we are going to look at the art of facilitation.

Let’s say your organisation faces a challenge. It could be falling sales, exploiting new technology, managing growth, remote working etc. Challenges seem to be the hallmark of a thriving organisation. They are hard-wired to growth, improvement, and innovation, and without them life would be dull. 

Anyway, the organisation asks you to lead a group tasked with addressing the issue. You send an email to a collection of people from different parts of the organisation, giving a quick summary of the situation and inviting them to the meeting. Come the day of the meeting, people show up with various states of engagement. Everyone has got their own opinion about the situation. Some people are enthusiastic about sharing their opinion; others are keeping their opinion to themselves. I’m sure many of you have seen this film before. Some opinions may get pushed forwards more than others, some people may feel under-valued. People stop listening, stop sharing, and the outcome is less than satisfactory. How hard can it be for a group of intelligent professionals to play nicely together? The art of facilitation can help us get the best outcome from situations like these.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines facilitation as:

“the act of helping other people to deal with a process or reach an agreement or solution without getting directly involved in the process”

Here’s a list of ideas to help you get started, based on my own experiences as a facilitator. The principles of facilitation are the same whether you are meeting face-to-face or remotely online.

Before the meeting

  • Mindset: shift your mindset from solving the problem to think about how you might support and serve the group.
  • Homework: Review the background information and refresh your memory as to the motivation for the meeting and who is attending.
  • Plan: Facilitation is like a battle: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything (Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, World War II).

At the start of the meeting

  • Set a positive, and relaxed atmosphere. Lead by example here. If you are stressed, it will propagate into the room.
  • Clarify your role as a facilitator, and roles of others, eg problem owner, scribe, etc.
  • Establish groundrules for the meeting. You can lay these down, or get the group to generate them.  Rules such as no interrupting can be highly effective. It’s often beneficial for the group to discuss and capture thoughts on constructive behaviour.
  • Lay out a broad structure for the session.
  • Clarify aims of the meeting.
  • Arrange for a short summary of the key facts and information.

During the meeting

  • Get the challenge framed in a carefully-crafted question that addresses the issue. You could propose the question yourself, but it might be better to get the group to develop the question.
  • Depending on group size, dividing the group into smaller groups, or even pairs can provide effective parallel processing. If you are online, then breakout groups would work well here.  Share output in regular plenary sessions.
  • Doing a “go-around” is a good way of collecting views from everyone. Invite everyone in turn to share their thoughts. This works particularly well when you encourage attentive listening, with no interruptions. You can impose a time limit of, say, one minute per person if you sense that some people may waffle. 
  • Encourage the group or sub-groups to capture their ideas using some pre-agreed method.
  • Encourage the group to organise and evaluate the ideas. They might have to develop and advance the question statement, and have further iterations until they reach a point of clarity and unity.

At the end of the meeting

  • Agree actions, timescales, and responsibilities.
  • End on a positive note. Encourage reflection on what went well, or what progress has been made.

After the meeting

  • Follow up on any actions.
  • Seek feedback conversations with colleagues who were present. What went well?  What might you do differently next time?

Remember, it's not about you

Hopefully, this provides some ideas that will help you to be more effective at facilitation. There are many tricks of the trade that you can acquire. However, the important starting point is the right mindset. Put yourself to one side. It’s not about you and your ideas. The question is: how can you help this group of people solve whatever problem they are up against?

Experience and reflection are great teachers. Over time you will learn when to intervene, how to intervene, and when to remain silent. The most effective facilitators are often those whose guidance to the group is unobtrusive and barely noticeable at the time.

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Freelance trainer and facilitator, IChemE course leader on Mentoring for Chemical Engineers

Jamie Cleaver is a chemical engineer who works as a freelance trainer and facilitator, helping engineers and scientists to develop professional skills related to communication. He runs workshops on various aspects of communication, creativity and mentoring for companies and universities. He also specialises in explaining chemical engineering to non-chemical engineers. In his spare time, he lectures chemical engineering to undergraduates.

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