The Top Three Facilitation Challenges Every Facilitator Encounters
Facilitation is a new-ish word for an age-old art. Good facilitation begins with listening and like any art, doing it well requires skill. Anyone who’s facilitated a meeting or learning event knows it takes dedication, perseverance, and deep reflection on what the group really needs to progress…and the more carefully we listen, the easier it is to figure out! We asked three Integrated Work facilitators, to share their best strategies for overcoming three common in-person and virtual facilitation stumbling blocks: aligning diverse perspectives, handling silence and managing participation levels. Read on to find out what they suggest.
The challenge: aligning participants in a very diverse group. It can be tough to facilitate a conversation among people in the same field, but who have different roles and responsibilities. For example, imagine trying to get people to create a strategy to address a complex health care need for a large number of patients. Participants may include people from all parts of nonprofit organizations, medical centers, and government agencies including CEOs, middle managers, and frontline workers. Participants may also live in different locations (urban, rural, or frontier) and serve disparate populations (racial/ethnic, cultural, etc.). With all these variations, participants might have trouble seeing one another’s perspective.
The strategy: To address this, I frame the conversation using a few big questions:
- Who is most impacted by this issue?
- What is underlying the issue? What is the source of it?
- What are the barriers to change?
I also present a few responses from well-known sources (e.g., a state health department) or provide examples of how the group might respond to the question. These responses are typically things that most participants understand or already know about. They help get the conversation started and provide an opportunity to clarify terminology.
I preface the conversation by saying we’re here to align or level-set; participants can confirm what they’ve just heard and add to or challenge it. As participants work, I may also sit down at the table with them and ask clarifying questions. During the debrief, I make sure I go over the responses with the participants to ensure I understand what they intended.
The Challenge: A quiet group that doesn’t engage in the discussion. This is something we often call “crickets”—as in, the sound of crickets chirping in a dead-quiet room. As peer learning facilitators, our job is to create a space where colleagues learn from and inspire one another. However, to do that, they need to talk with one another. While members of our peer learning teams show up and are eager to support one another, there are often moments—sometimes long moments—of silence that ensue after I ask a facilitative question.
The strategy: I’ve integrated a few approaches into my facilitator’s “toolbox” to get past these silences. First, I had to come to terms with the fact that even the best facilitators experience crickets. I learned to get comfortable with silence. Silence respects the thought process and allows participants to consider their response. But still, there’s nothing more satisfying than having participants clamoring to be part of the conversation. One way to speed up responses is to paint a picture for them using a starting question. These questions start with a scenario that paints a picture of a scene from which they will be pulling their response. Take, for example, this starting question: “Think about the last training that you led. Consider the types of questions that were asked by participants. What were some of the prevailing issues?” By providing participants with a scenario they recognize, they can directly identify something from their past that they can then share with their peers.
Another reason for silence is that sometimes individuals don’t want to be the first to talk, or they worry they are talking too much. One approach we’ve taken at Integrated Work is to use the pointer or arrow feature in our webinar platform, which allows webinar participants to select from a list of predetermined responses to a question. When they click on the screen, their names appear on the pointer. Then, we can ask them to elaborate on their selection—in other words, we’re inviting them to be the first to talk. It also provides us with some context to ask more specific and relevant questions. For example, if the goal is to encourage participants to share their experience around a large-scale initiative, we might ask participants to use their pointers to let us know if they are in the planning stage, in progress, or at completion. So rather than asking participants to share their experience with an initiative in general, we can ask specific question tailored to each stage.
The Challenge: Managing participation levels. Every group has people who are always eager to share their ideas. These “over-participators” can often be helpful in carrying a conversation when the group has limited expertise. However, over-participators can also drown out the valuable perspectives of introverted individuals, or those who take longer to process information.
The Strategy: When I am facilitating a group and notice the participation levels are skewed, I use these approaches:
- Establish community agreements up front and ask folks to self-regulate during the meeting. For instance, I might encourage them to step back if they’ve been participating a lot or step forward if they’ve been quiet. Also, I’m clear about whether I will call on folks who raise their hands, or whether I’d like people to jump into the conversation. I remind them about these agreements throughout the meeting as needed.
- I may say, “I’d like to hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet,” directly after I ask the group a question. I sometimes call on small groupings of people who haven’t yet spoken. For example, “John, Judy, or Keisha, what’s your perspective?”
- Check in with the group openly if most people have been quiet. “I notice people don’t have much to share about quality improvement plans. Are most of you working on quality improvement plans, or is there something that is a higher priority right now?”
- In a face-to-face setting, I may have a quick check-in with under-participators. During a break, I ask them privately if anything is making them hesitant to participate. I encourage them to speak up and make sure they understand that their participation is valued. If a person is new to their role and nervous to speak in front of their more experienced colleagues, I point out the value of a fresh “newbie” perspective.
- Try using different facilitation formats to encourage quieter people to speak up, such as small breakout groups or exercises where answers are written down and then shared.