Facilitation Skills that Keep Conversations Productive

Facilitation Skills that Keep Conversations Productive

Sep 23, 2020

By: Catherine Saar

Helping people who have diverse perspectives and opinions get engaged in productive dialogue with one another to work together toward a common solution, is at the heart of what good facilitation and project leadership is all about. Good facilitation skills can be applied in all kinds of meetings and circumstances, including strategic planning, peer learning and any kind of gathering where a diverse group of people come together to have a conversation which enables them to work toward a decision or a plan of action.

For those who have been in the trenches, you know it is not easy to facilitate with confidence, grace, and courage. It takes time and skill building to create desired outcomes through the art of conversation.

There are several skills that a facilitator or a project manager (PM) can embody which assist teams and groups to work together to solve problems with greater ease. Some foundational facilitation skills include deep listening, staying very present to what is happening in each moment, and constantly considering, “What is needed now to move forward?”

Regardless of whether your meeting is virtual or in-person, facilitated meetings are greatly aided by prework and preparation. Listening well during prework enables the facilitator or PM to learn what the team really requires in order to make progress toward their objective. One of the best ways to garner this learning is co-creating the agenda with at least some of the participants of the actual meeting. This allows the facilitator to make sure that the material and the approach is on-target and time together will be valuable for attendees. As you gather information, you are building an understanding of the participant’s world, so that you may draw a facilitation map that helps both you and them navigate through their perceived challenges.

Unfortunately, there are many examples of facilitators and PMs who walk into a meeting unaware of underlying tensions and conflicting agendas that can derail their intended outcome. As a result, everyone may walk away from the encounter feeling unhappy and dissatisfied – including the bewildered facilitator! How many project leads have come out of a meeting thinking “That was clearly a good idea, how can there be so many detractors?” So, preparation and co-creation make it possible for facilitators and PMs to unearth potential landmines and to craft an effective approach to a gathering before the gathering even begins. Listening for the needs and concerns of various stakeholders early in the process is essential to good planning.

Here are a few key questions you might address as part of your preparation:

  • What is the objective of the gathering (or the project)?
  • Who will be participating, what roles do they play and what perspectives do they have about the issue at hand?
  • What is going well regarding the topic at hand?
  • What are the perceived obstacles, now and in the past?
  • What is the definition of a good outcome for this meeting (or this project) and for this audience?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to connect with at least a few representative participants prior to the meeting to get insights, create alignment, and identify any existing sore spots that may be important to consider. You may want to create a formal or an ad-hoc Advisory committee. If there seems to be sensitive issues at play, meeting one-on-one is advisable, and there may be a need to offer confidentiality to a participant who shares controversial insights. Any sensitive information the facilitator gleans may be used to inform facilitation design (or a project plan), and should not be disclosed verbatim in the meeting itself.

It is also important for facilitators and PMs to encourage and include a variety of opinions. There may be an underrepresented person, perspective or group that can add a lot of value to the proceedings and assist in better outcomes if their insights and concerns are brought to the table. It is also the work of the facilitator to find ways to help the team really listen to each other when they are together, so that a variety of perspectives may inform solutions under consideration.

In the design phase of the agenda, consider how to best partner with the meeting sponsor (if it is not you) to create a gathering that will support the desired outcome. For example, sometimes a team with trust issues may require more foundational team building before they can work toward a decision or a plan that will be embraced by all. In that case, as an artful facilitator, you may need to shift the approach and work with the meeting sponsor to align, and this can be challenging if your sponsor already holds a strong opinion about how things should go.

Team members who have unpopular issues to share, or who may feel anxious about being honest, may be aided by tools that allow them (and the rest of the team) to remain anonymous. Examples of such tools include word clouds or polls (using polling software) or preparing visuals, like anonymous quotes or questions, to represent issues that need to be addressed.

Once you’ve gathered your data, you have the opportunity to determine how to best frame the conversation in a non-threatening way that encourages collaboration and contribution on tough topics. For example, rather than asking, “What are the problems in our department?” you might ask, “What is going well in our department, and what could make it even better for clients and for staff?” Consider also what framing and what agreements you can create to support participants to slow down enough to listen to one another and to be more open to an array of perspectives that could lead to even better solutions.

This may seem like a lot of work to do before you even begin a meeting, but experience shows that investing your time up front actually saves time and trouble overall, while enhancing the likelihood of achieving an outcome that will serve your team’s needs – and yours!

Interested in learning more about facilitation and change leadership? Check out our Leading Virtually Course or get in touch with us to learn more about the kinds of training and support we can provide to you and your team. We also offer ECHO Listening Assessments to help you and your team take communication to the next level.