Effective Facilitation – Interpersonal Radar
During risk assessment facilitation training sessions, people often ask me: “Do I have what it takes to be a good facilitator?” This is an important question, and it applies to managers or anyone who runs meetings and gives presentations. The response is actually simple; for just a moment, throw out all the models, the facilitation techniques, and the psychological tests. Knowing who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, and using them to your advantage is the key behind being an effective facilitator.
Learning to facilitate can be anxiety provoking, because it calls on so many internal and external faculties that must be used simultaneously. Facilitating can be equated to a juggling act; one must listen to ideas being offered, animate quiet people, contain dominant participants, and think about what question should be asked next—all at the same time!
When asked, I offer this comprehensive definition of what it means to be an effective facilitator: “A great facilitator weaves overriding strategies with specific facilitation tools, while monitoring the group process using interpersonal radar.” “Fortunately, you don’t have to do it perfectly to do it well!”
The idea in this last sentence usually provokes a reaction. Most people argue: “If I’m going to the trouble of standing in front of a group of people, I need to do it perfectly!” In fact, this sentiment often echoes inside the heads of new facilitators during the workshop process: “You idiot! Why did you ask them that question?” and “Oh no! No one is talking! What should I do?” That mean little voice can be quite effective at letting us know when we are performing at a less than “perfect” standard.
Perfect vs. Effective
Perfection in facilitation isn’t necessarily the same thing as effective facilitation, however. As a result, one of the first major factors in becoming an effective facilitator may simply be to learn how to ignore that negative voice, the voice that demands some vague standard of perfection in facilitation. Effective facilitators develop techniques and strategies for making that inner voice work for them instead of against them.
No standardized test consistently determines who will or will not be an effective facilitator. The answer lies in how you interact with people; your willingness to keep practicing, make mistakes, continue practicing; and your ability to trust yourself, as well as the people you are facilitating. Taken together, proficiency in these areas will create effective facilitators. What psychological and other inventories can help you with is achieving greater understanding of your personal facilitation style—your own unique approach to working with others, effectively infusing all of who you are into the facilitation.
But I’m Too Introverted to be a Good Facilitator!
For example, there are tests that can determine if you are more introverted or extroverted. A person who is introverted by nature is one who becomes energized through his or her own ideas. The extroverted person, on the other hand, gains energy from interaction with other people.
Based on this simple distinction, it appears at first glance that the extroverted person would be the better facilitator. After all, one of the ““golden rules” of facilitation is to demonstrate good interpersonal skills. An extroverted person would tend to focus more on the group participants and listen more closely to what they have to say, instead of retreating inside themselves to their own thoughts. Although this theory may be true, it has never been proven; there is no data to suggest that introverts can’t also be exceptional facilitators.
Indeed, a person who is too extroverted may not be a good listener at all. They might make a good keynote speaker, but that requires a very different skills set (some of which are used in facilitation) in order to be successful.
The Unlikely Facilitator
One of the best facilitators I ever observed—
someone who originally thought she could never be a good facilitator—was a quiet, introverted young woman I will call “Carol.” When facilitating, Carol would position herself between the flipchart easel and the group, a “cardinal sin” of facilitation. She would ask the group a few intelligent, provocative questions to get them started and then simply record the discussion on the flipchart as the participants took off on her creative questions.
She would also sense when the discussion on a topic began to wane. Politely, in a quiet voice, Carol would jump in and ask the next question, once again eliciting a round of responses from the group. She would then turn around to the flipchart, writing with her back to the group, instead of maintaining eye contact with the participants. Once again, Carol broke another important facilitation rule: always maintain good eye contact. Interestingly, Carol’s tactic had the effect of forcing the group to talk to each other, which was needed at this particular point in the meeting. As she wrote with her back to them,
Carol would continuously nod her head as they made pertinent points, occasionally turning to the group to interject a question or clarification. She did this just often enough to let them know she was still present. It was the combination of both turning her back while still maintaining contact in these other, subtle ways that made her facilitation so effective.
At the end of a ten-minute session, she turned away from the flipchart and back to the group, showing them what she had captured from their discussion. The group was astounded at the amount of information she had collected in such a short period of time. In addition, she had been so unobtrusive that after a while they almost forgot she was present during their discussion.
When the group is so involved in carrying out the task that the facilitator exists almost solely to capture their ideas, it represents facilitation at the highest level. At these moments, the whole group experiences a synergy that feels energizing, highly creative, and purposeful. To the facilitator, it feels effortless.
What we are witnessing in scenarios like this one is the ability of a person to take a potential liability or “imperfection” for facilitating—Carol’s introverted nature—and turn it around for everyone’s benefit. In other words, Carol used her interpersonal radar to detect what would and wouldn’t work in the facilitation. Her innate talent for creative thinking framed ideas and questions that kept the conversation on track. She took advantage of her quiet, less social nature basically to stay out of the group’s way, maintain her neutrality, and act as a conduit between the group’s ideas and the flipchart.
There was yet a third obstacle that Carol used to her advantage. Carol is very short in stature, and research suggests that short people command less power and authority in managing a group’s dynamics than their taller counterparts. Once again Carol broke the “rules” using her height to her advantage. Because she was so short, she was able to pull the flipchart very close to the group to hear them better in the slightly noisy room. Later, when her proximity to the group was brought to their attention, group members either did not notice it; or if they did, they did not feel that it was obtrusive. In fact, they felt a closer bond to her, because it seemed to balance her otherwise more distant nature.
The Effective Facilitator
Instead of trying to present herself as something she was not, Carol decided to use all of herself in the facilitation to as much advantage as possible. She broke some rules, but because she trusted that her group had the knowledge to provide the needed information, she was able to latch onto the value of their ideas instead of her own. This was not easy for her to do; it took a concerted effort to focus outward. Because she focused on the group’s ideas, however, it became easier and easier as time went on. By the end of the facilitation course, she was beginning to develop an effective facilitation style that was uniquely hers.
A week later, Carol’s director called me to express his surprise. He had sent Carol to the course because he knew she was an excellent auditor, despite her reluctance toward presenting information to groups. The director noted that since her return, Carol had co-facilitated a portion of a company-wide audit conference to rave reviews. I last heard that she and other co-workers who attended the training were taking turns facilitating the department staff meetings to keep their skills fresh.
While it appears that this is an isolated example and a unique event, the fact is that it could hold true for any other facilitator. Carol was bitten by what I call the “facilitation bug,” and she definitely isn’t the first. Many technical professionals become quite dedicated and skilled at facilitation and begin applying its principles to many areas of their lives.
In my opinion, these people are effective because they are committed to developing and refining their facilitation skills. They practice, practice, and practice. Effective facilitators are also supportive co-facilitators, who do whatever they can to make their partners look good and make their partner’s job easier when they work together.
Effective facilitators are risk-takers, willing to stretch as they apply their facilitation skills and previous experience to a variety of group situations. For example, a number of organizations that have been running facilitation workshops are beginning to facilitate all types of meetings in their organizations, often at higher levels.
Many facilitators find that as they broaden their endeavors, they need to increase their understanding of organizational culture and dynamics to handle the more challenging situations they encounter. Facilitation requires practitioners to use all dimensions of their personalities. As the situations become more challenging, growth must occur to meet new opportunities.
Anyone—introvert or extrovert—may have what it takes to be an effective facilitator. It is more an issue of personal interest, dedication, and willingness to meet a substantial challenge. It doesn’t always require extensive technology, though knowledge of technological options is always useful. It doesn’t take an advanced degree. Effective facilitators believe in the value of facilitating and, most importantly, they have fun with it
Originally published in the association magazine of the Institute of Internal Auditors.
© 2019 JPA-International