By Steve Adubato, Ph.D.
Many people in business are asked to lead or facilitate meetings, conferences or forums. Being asked to do this is often an honor and sometimes turns out to be an excellent opportunity to show your stuff and make a meaningful difference in your organization. Unfortunately, just as often, the facilitator falls flat on his face.
Facilitating is not the same as giving a speech on a specific subject. It doesn't mean you are supposed to be the expert on whatever issue is being explored. Great facilitation, regardless of the venue, is about creating an open, relaxed and interactive environment in which all participants feel comfortable asking questions and expressing their views.
The ability to facilitate is not something people are born with. Rather, it is something that people have to learn through coaching and practice. It is something that corporations and other organizations must be committed to if they want their meetings, seminars, workshops or employee conferences to be successful. In that spirit, next time you are asked to facilitate, consider some helpful tips:
--Set the tone for the conversation right up front. Make it clear exactly what the group is attempting to accomplish. Say it early and often so that there is no confusion.
--When you ask questions, ask them of a specific person for a specific reason. Make sure you understand who is in the room and why he or she is there. One of the biggest mistakes that facilitators make is to throw a generic question out to no one in particular and then they wonder why they can't get the dialogue going.
--Be proactive. If someone says something that is especially provocative or controversial, ask someone else to comment on what has just been said. Your goal is to have the most honest, meaningful dialogue possible about an important but often unresolved issue. Shying away from sensitive but relevant subjects is a mistake. The more your audience sees that you are comfortable with straight talk, the more comfortable they will be.
--If a participant is going on too long and won't get off of their soapbox, move closer to that person. That's right, move away from the podium. As you move closer to the person, they'll begin to get the hint that it is time to wrap up. If they don't, politely but directly say something like, "Bob, we appreciate your points but how are they connected to the problem or issue we are here to talk about?"
--Paraphrase what you think you've just heard so you can avoid confusion and people walking out of the session in different directions. The facilitator's job is to clarify and focus everyone.
--Finally, great facilitators understand that they aren't really the stars or the focal point of the meeting or event. The facilitator's job is to draw others out. Therefore, great facilitators understand that they shouldn't be doing most of the talking. They should be asking succinct, open-ended but very direct questions.