Archive for the Facilitation Category

The Balance between Results and Relationship in Meetings

results in meetings

Some people experience a tension between achieving results and building relationships in a meeting. They see these as two competing – and possibly mutually exclusive goals.

For me this is a false dichotomy. Good meeting outcomes are reached by people working together. Sharing ideas, working through differences and reaching agreement require human interaction. Meeting participants do not need to be best friends, but they do need to listen and learn from each other.

As facilitators, we need to consider both results and relations when planning a meeting or other group process. Here are four questions that every meeting facilitator should consider:

  • Do the participants know each other? If not, you must invest time at the beginning of the session to create enough trust and safety for the group to be able to communicate and collaborate. Even a simple check-in round or a request that people introduce themselves to someone they do not know can help establish a human connection.
    Key concept: Make sure that every person´s voice is heard by at least one other member of the group in the first few minutes of the event.
  • Is everyone clear about the purpose of the meeting? Sadly, many meeting organizers are not very explicit about why the group needs to gather. This lack of clarity creates a breeding ground for boredom and frustration and can be interpreted as a lack of respect for the participants’ time.
    Key concept: Help the convener define the purpose and expected outcomes from the meeting. This will give the participants a common cause and motivation to relate to each other.
  • Does the agenda include time for working in pairs or small groups? Long meetings in which all discussion occurs in plenary are a recipe for isolation. The extroverts talk a lot while the timid sit in silence and the rest are surreptitiously checking their email.
    Key concept: Create a results-oriented process that stimulates interaction among the group members.
  • Do group members collaborate between meetings? Not everything can or should be accomplished in meetings of the whole group.
    Key concept: Committees and other small work groups are an excellent way to both make progress on important tasks and for people to get to know one another better.

In short, every meeting has two priorities: attending to the (clearly stated) business at hand AND building the relationships that transform a group into a team.

Need help finding the balance of your skills as a facilitator? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

The Facilitator’s Tightrope

The Facilitator Tightrope

Inserting a facilitator into a group´s existing power dynamics is a risky business.

Often a facilitator’s help is requested because dysfunctional behaviors are inhibiting the group´s effectiveness. The client allegedly wants the facilitator to transform the way the group works together, generating miracles in the form of more participation, creative thinking, team collaboration and decisions that get implemented.

But do the conditions exist that would allow such profound changes to occur? Is the leadership really on board? Will the group accept intervention from an “outsider”? Is the facilitator skilled enough to deliver the desired results?

In the face of such uncertainty, the facilitator´s first step is to establish a healthy, collaborative relationship with the leadership team. Remember, they are taking a risk in hiring us. If we fail, they will look bad. We need the leaders to be very clear about the role of facilitator and the rationale for the participatory processes we propose. Without their understanding and support, our transformative mission is almost sure to fail.

Our next challenge is to earn the trust of the meeting participants. We cannot assume that just because we have reached an agreement with the leader, our presence will be welcomed by all. Many are likely to be skeptical or suspicious about our presence. Everything that we do (or say) will be subject to scrutiny and judgment. Everyone is watching.

We walk a tightrope on which we must set clear expectations about the group´s task at hand and also adjust to emerging ambiguities. We need to emanate confidence, but not arrogance, be respectful but not servile. We need to find ways for the traditionally silent or excluded to be heard, and apply strategies to prevent the habitually verbose from dominating the discussion.

And as we negotiate these competing demands, we must remember why we climbed up on that tightrope in the first place: to help the group achieve its highest aspirations. We are in service, not in charge. We have a responsibility to the group and those who hired us, and no authority to control the final outcomes.

So to walk the facilitator’s tightrope we need courage, poise, daring – and humility. As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, s said, “The leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Need help making the best use of time spent in meetings? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

Hidden Agendas in Meetings

hidden agendas

When you hear the words “hidden agendas,” what comes to mind? Clandestine plots? Power games? Conspiracies lurking in the meeting room?

What if, in the planning phase of a meeting, the group leader tells you that some participants have a hidden agenda and intend to manipulate the meeting outcome to serve their personal interests?

Even though these concerns may arise from the leader´s own insecurities rather from a real threat from within the group, facilitators need to be prepared to detect and deal with hidden agendas. Fortunately, we have the perfect tool: THE FACILITATOR´S FLASHLIGHT!

Like cockroaches, hidden agendas tend to scatter when exposed to light. And if a participant´s resistance to a proposal is based not on a conspiracy but rather on a lack of information or a simple misunderstanding about the issue, then light may dissolve their opposition.

Here are opportunities to use your flashlight.

1. At the beginning of the meeting. Clarify the purpose and expected results of the session. For example, “Our primary focus today is on the site for the upcoming staff retreat. By the end of this meeting we will have established criteria for the site selection and generated a list of possible locations. Are there any questions about our task? “

If a meeting participant believes that the group should not have a staff retreat or that some other issue is more important to discuss, you have provided an opportunity for him/her to express their difference of opinion. Even if the person says nothing at this this moment, you have established a clear point of reference that can help maintain the focus if later in the session someone tries to drive the conversation in a different direction.

On the other hand, leaving participants in the dark about the purpose of a meeting creates uncertainty, breeds mistrust and practically invites people to insert their own agendas.

2. Set ground rules. The nine ground rules for effective groups described by Roger Schwarz in The Skilled Facilitator are excellent examples of agreements that, properly used, can serve as powerful tools to shine light on hidden agendas. Imagine the possibilities for transparency and mutual understanding that agreements like these can promote:

  • Test assumptions and inferences
  • Share all relevant information
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
  • Explain your reasoning and intent

Do you propose ground rules that have the strength to illuminate power dynamics and improve communication in meetings?

3. Have a personal conversation. Find a time outside of the meeting to talk with the person suspected of having a hidden agenda. Share the behaviors you observed in the meeting and your assumptions about the meaning of those actions. Ask the person if he/she has a different interpretation about what happened. Be genuinely curious, not accusatory. You may be surprised by what you learn!

Need help dealing with hidden agendas in your group? Let´s schedule a short phone conversation to discuss your situation.

When facilitation is not the answer

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Facilitation, understood as designing and leading a participatory group process, can have a transformative effect. In the hands of a skilled professional, a facilitated process can help a group discuss difficult issues, resolve conflicts, make sound decisions and use its time well.

Facilitation is not, however, a panacea. There are circumstances in which even the best facilitator will not be able to function effectively – and others in which it would be unethical to try.

Here are few of those situations.

  • The decision has already been made. If the intention of bringing people together is to get them to “validate” or “buy into” a plan that they had no hand in creating and that they cannot modify or contribute to, a facilitator is not needed. A persuasive salesperson would be a better investment.
  • The only venue is an auditorium. As the same word suggests, an auditorium (from the Latin audire, to hear) is for listening. The fixed seats facing a stage do not permit group members to turn and face each other, form circles, meet in small groups, or otherwise exchange ideas and work together. If there are no other spaces where true participation can occur, a facilitator is not needed. A master of ceremonies will suffice.
  • No clear purpose or desired outcomes for the meeting. A facilitator can help a leader or organizing committee clarify what they hope to accomplish by bringing a group together. This planning is essential to creating an event that justifies the time and attention of those invited to attend. But until this work has been done, it would be better to cancel or postpone the meeting and take everyone out to lunch instead.
  • A miracle is needed – now. Facilitators can help groups achieve amazing breakthroughs, transform long-standing conflicts and/or deal with complex issues, but these kinds of results cannot be delivered “on demand.” Just putting key stakeholders in the same room for an hour or two is seldom sufficient to produce miraculous results. If you cannot give the facilitator time to prepare for a challenging job or give the participants time to work together, prayer may be your best recourse.
Want to know more about why, when and how to hire a facilitator? I recently created an online course that addresses these issues. You can learn more about this information-packed, three-session learning opportunity.

What Is Your Policy For Setting The Meeting Agenda?

When I ask people how the agenda is set for meetings in their organization, too often I receive responses like these:

  • Agenda? What agenda? Most of our meetings do not have an agenda, at least not one that is shared in advance with the participants.
  • The boss sets the agenda – and does most of the talking.
  • I have no idea.

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The agenda, understood as the work plan or road map for a meeting, is an essential tool for clarifying the purpose of the session, prioritizing the topics to be discussed, managing time, focusing discussion and knowing who should be in the room.

The meeting agenda —and the process for creating it— are also an indicator of the leadership style and collaborative values of the group. What may look like an innocent list of topics to discuss can also be a battlefield for power, prestige and control.

Whose agenda is it?

If the group has a formal leader, this person should have an important voice in the creation of the meeting agenda because he/she has assumed responsibility for the overall success of the team. Smart leaders, however, recognize that team meetings are opportunities to address issues that require collaborative effort; therefore, they involve the group in the development of the agenda.

The more horizontal the group’s structure, the more likely it is that the group members will expect to have a say in the creation of the agendas for their meetings. But even in these “leaderless” groups, there is usually a small cadre who step forward to develop the agenda.

In both formal and informal groups, however, the leaders tend to lament that most of the group members do not take the initiative to propose issues to discuss at the meetings. They obediently attend the sessions, but do not feel “empowered” to bring their concerns and proposals to the table.

Verbal encouragement is not enough

Tepid requests for suggestions are unlikely to transform passive meeting attendees into proactive contributors to the development of meeting agendas. Here are some suggestions that can add muscle to the good intention to make your meetings more participatory.

  1. Create a procedure that specifies when and how suggestions for agenda items can be made.
  2. Provide a standard format for the proposals that includes information about why the issue is important for the whole group to address.
  3. Define who will make the selection for each meeting and expect them to be prepared to explain the reasoning behind their choices.
  4. Publicly recognize the issues that were proposed but not included in the meeting agenda and suggest when and how they might be addressed.
  5. Treat every agenda as a proposal to be modified and accepted by the group at the beginning of the meeting.

Having a clear intention to involve group members in the creation of the agenda and procedures for submitting and selecting topics to be included can result in more productive meetings and more effective teams.

Want coaching from Beatrice for planning or facilitating your meetings?

How to be inclusive without being boring?

With the good intention of “being inclusive”, meeting organizers sometimes propose dynamics that are more boring than productive.

Some typical examples of these mistaken practices include:

  • A round of introductions in which each of the 100 participants say their names and what they expect from the event (one hour or more in total).
  • Discussions in which one participant after another is asked to express their opinion on a subject, even though many repeat what others already have said.(If there are 20 people, this could go on for 30-45 minutes.)
  • Each one of 35 experts is given five minutes to make a PowerPoint presentation in plenary (almost 3 hours in total), with no time for discussion or questions.

The error in these examples lies in the belief that requiring everyone to speak, one by one, IN PLENARY, is a show of respect that will create a feeling of belonging to the large group.

The truth is that after the first few interventions, participants stop paying attention. Although they remain seated in their places, they do not take in new information. They do not remember what colleagues have said. They get distracted and endure the situation until the seemingly interminable activity comes to an end.

As group facilitators, we have the opportunity —and the responsibility— to question these practices and propose alternatives.

Here are some options:

Introductory rounds in groups with more than 12 people

  • Introduce and integrate. Ask that only new members introduce themselves in plenary and then integrate them into small, mixed groups (veterans and new arrivals) for a discussion of a burning question to which they all contribute.
  • Move! Propose a dynamic that is performed standing, preferably with motion. For example, play music with the instruction that everyone walks randomly. When the music stops, each participant introduces himself or herself to the person who is standing closest.

Sharing opinions

  • Listen, pause, summarize. Give the floor to 4-5 people and then pause and summarize. Then ask if anyone has a different perspective from those already expressed. Repeat until no new ideas emerge. Identify the areas where there is apparent agreement and where there are divergent points of view. Work with the group to decide on the next steps.
  • Non-verbal survey of preferences. Write all the ideas under discussion in legible print on flip chart sheets. Then give participants one or more sticky dots, and ask them to affix the dot(s) next to the option(s) that they like most. (This may be done also drawing a ? instead of using the sticky dots.) Review the results in plenary and work with the group to decide the next steps.
  • Work in small groups. Ask groups of 3-6 participants to share ideas and then emit a collective opinion.

Presentations from many experts

  • Breakout session. Group the experts by topic and ask that they share their knowledge with each other and with other interested attendees in a breakout session.
  • Art Gallery. Ask the experts to prepare a summary of the main concepts they want to share (preferably with pictures) and mount them on 50 x 70 cm posters. Then the experts stand next to their posters and answer questions from the rest of the participants who tour the exhibits as if they were in an art gallery.

In summary, do not oblige participants to suffer through long, plenary sessions in which their principal contribution is to listen. A much more inclusive and productive strategy is to give people the opportunity to express their opinions in small groups, working on a subject of common interest and then merge those contributions in plenary.

Uncertain about how to eliminate boredom in your meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

Stage fright: It happens to all of us!

In the same way that an actor can have a moment of stage fright before the curtain goes up, facilitators sometimes experience a similar sensation before taking our place in front of a group. Although we do not necessarily enjoy it, the truth is that pre-performance anxiety comes with the territory. The challenge is to recognize what it is and to be prepared with a few
coping strategies.

Let us first consider the positive meaning of stage fright. It is a sign that we are living beings —not robots— about to embark on a participatory process for which, by definition, we cannot predict the outcome. Even though we have done our best to plan an interactive agenda that will produce the results desired by the group and/or its leader, it is always possible that our plan will fail.

In the end, the group is in charge of its own destiny and is free to reject or radically transform our beautiful plan. ARRGH!

Faced with this level of uncertainty, a little stage fright is understandable. As long as the fear does not paralyze us completely, the adrenaline rush can be useful.

So what are the options?

In the moment

  1. Breathe. This is a good time to take a deep breath and remember why you are there. Connect your feet to the ground and give thanks for the opportunity to serve the group.
  2. Take Rescue Remedy. This mixture of five Bach flower remedies helps in any stressful situation in which you need to regain balance and get control of your anxieties.
  3. Activate your spiritual support network. Discretely invoke the images, colors or sounds that are your sources of calm and confidence, asking for their guidance in this difficult moment.

Preventative measures

  1. Establish a collaborative relation with the event organizer (your client). In conversations prior to the meeting, become familiar with the concerns and aspirations of the group. Get agreement on the agenda design well in advance, and to the extent possible, identify potential sources of resistance, conflict or other challenging situations that might arise.
  2. Establish a relationship of trust with the group. Clearly explain the parameters of the facilitator’s role and your intention to support the group’s process without intervening in the content they will work on. Ask them to help you do a good job. If a member of the group suggests ways that you could improve your performance as a facilitator, say thanks and if possible, immediately correct the error.
  3. Take classes in improvisation.

One last piece of advice

Remember this refrain from The Facilitator’s Prayer
Grant me the faith to trust the Process
Give me the love to trust the Group

IIFAC offers coaching to help facilitators cover the challenges of working with groups. Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs.

Unmotivated people or badly planned meetings?

Our students and colleagues often ask us how to motivate people to attend meetings. If you face a “motivational problem” in meetings that you convene or facilitate, please take a few moments to ask yourself some important questions.

Recall a meeting to which you were invited and felt really motivated to attend.

What was it about the invitation that contributed to your motivation?

  • Did the topic interest you?
  • Was it clear why your presence was important?
  • Were the time and place convenient for you?

Then recall what happened when you arrived at that meeting.

What organizational and logistical elements motivated your participation?

  • Did you feel welcome?
  • Was the work plan (agenda and expected outcomes) clear?
  • Did the meeting room have natural light and good ventilation?
  • Was the coffee and refreshment table close at hand?
  • Did the session begin and end on time?

Finally, recall your degree of satisfaction at the end of the meeting.

What elements of the experience contributed to your feeling that this was a good use of your time?

  • Did you spend more time interacting with the ideas presented and the other participants than listening to speakers, or observing long, ritualistic protocols?
  • Were the results of the meeting and the next steps clearly articulated?
  • Did the meeting organizer express gratitude for the contributions of the group?

Now, apply the lessons from your own experience to the planning of the meetings that you convene or facilitate.

Personal motivation is directly related to the clarity and relevance of the initial invitation, the participatory dynamics during the event, and the usefulness of the meeting results.

IIFAC offers coaching to help organizers plan meetings that motivate participation and produce results. Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your needs.

Facilitator – Not super hero, not martyr

Facilitating a participatory process is not the job of one person. Even though those who are in the role of facilitator usually stand in front of the group where we can see and be seen by all the participants, | we should not be the only ones actively supporting the group process.

Consider some of the tasks that need to be attended to in order for a meeting to go well. In your experience, which of these are clearly the job of the facilitator? (Note: If you do not usually have a facilitator, who does these tasks?)

A. Planning the agenda
B. Issuing the invitation
C. Recommending meeting room size and layout
D. Reserving the meeting room
E. Preparing material to be shared during the session
F. Arranging the chairs
G. Controlling the room temperature
H. Welcoming people as they arrive
I. Keeping track of the time during the session
J. Focusing the conversation
K. Detecting and working with conflicts
L. Seeking agreement and carrying out the decision-making process
M. Taking photos of the group
N. Cleaning up the room after the meeting
O. Editing and sharing the meeting minutes

If any one person (including the group leader) is doing all or most of these jobs, STOP! Consider the negative consequences of this approach, including the following three possibilities.

  • Diluted focus. The facilitator’s energy and attention are diluted, making him/her less effective in the key parts of the job. (Which of the activities listed above do you think are among the facilitator’s primary tasks? See our answer at the end of this article.)
  • Lack of shared ownership. When other members of the group are deprived of the opportunity to share responsibility for their own process, they tend to become passive, apathetic and/or disconnected from the needs of the group as a whole. They think of themselves merely as meeting “attendees” or ”observers,” not as active participants in a collaborative initiative.
  • Burnout. Relying only on the designated facilitator to handle all aspects of the meeting process is unsustainable. Sooner or later, the facilitator becomes exhausted, frustrated, angry. Worse yet, this facilitator feels like a failure, which in a way is true. He or she has failed to grasp that effective facilitation is a team endeavor.

ACTION: Have a conversation with your team or group about the process-related jobs that need to be done before, during and after every meeting. Ask yourselves “Who is doing these jobs now? Who else could be recruited to help? What would be the possible risks and rewards of involving more people?”

Keep in mind that the role of the facilitator is to serve the group. No heroics. No martyrdom. Just good teamwork.

Answers: We think that the facilitator’s key tasks are A, C, H, I, J, K and L. Does this match your answers? Let us know in the Blog.

Want help sorting out your role in meetings? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.

Technological support for facilitators

While the primary tool for a group facilitator is his/her own, integral presence expressed through gestures, tone of voice and gaze, other technologies exist that can make our work more efficient and effective.

Here are seven tools that we have used successfully.

World Clock to find out the local time for participants in different parts of the world.

Doodle to offer a range of options for the date and time for a meeting and find out the participants’ availability for each – without generating an avalanche of emails.

Time management
Time timer

Timer for iPhone and iPad

Meeting software
Lucid Meetings. Interface available in several languages.

Audio conferences

Need help deciding what facilitation- technology to use? Contact us to schedule a free consultation to discuss your coaching needs.
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