Standing in front of a room, trying to get 6, or 60, or 600 people to do something you’ve planned is both terrifying, and rewarding when you pull it off.
That is the essential challenge of facilitation: knowing the organization well enough in order to develop a plan or an agenda that achieves the organization’s outcomes – that’s the rewarding part. And knowing when to abandon the plan and develop an alternative in the moment–that’s the terrifying part.
When I ask colleagues what they mean by “facilitation,” they say things like, “meeting the group’s goals,” and “getting everyone involved,” and “creative energy.” And while all of those things can happen in a well-designed and well-facilitated meeting or retreat, they don’t really get at the essentials, which have more to do with you, and how you show up, not only for the big event, but throughout the entire project.
So, what is it actually? For me, facilitation is the use of your self, grounded in the principles and practices of the behavioral sciences, enabling groups to be effective and productive.
So, what does that mean practically? Here are the four areas that are essential to your success as a facilitator:
- Know the system you’re working in. It is vital to know what the organization does, how it does it, the goals and strategy of the organization, who does what, how they do it, why they do it, what they count, how they count it, and the power dynamics in the system;
- Know the specifics of your contract. It is vital to know the outcomes that are desired from your project, as expressed both overtly for publication but also covertly in the mind and heart of your client. That contract – not just the piece of paper but more importantly the psychological contract between you and the client — also includes the budget for the project, who else in the system should be involved and in what ways, the risk threshold of the organization, and how the leadership wants the meeting to feel – how serious, how fun, how participative, how detailed, how much follow-up, etc.
- Know where you’re intervening. In any good organization development project, the work is occurring at a minimum of four levels: the intrapersonal within each individual, the interpersonal among at least two people, the group with whom you are working, and the organization as a whole. Finding that right balance among those four takes a bit of practice, and depends entirely upon how well you have done #2 above. It also takes discipline and practice to be able to observe and intervene on the group’s process, and to avoid getting sucked into its content.
- Know yourself. In the end, you are your best instrument or tool for success. It is not only what you say but how you say it. It is not only having a good design, but knowing when to tear it up. It is knowing your own threshold for conflict and managing your inclination to avoid it or to lean into it too aggressively. It is knowing how much of your own story makes a difference to the client’s work and using self disclosure sparingly and strategically to make a larger point on behalf of the work.
There is one more skill that is embedded in all four of these essentials, and that is the skill of listening. Great facilitation is not only hearing what people are saying, but being able to listen, deeply, to the multiple layers of thought, feeling, and identity that are embedded in every message, and to reflect back clearly and faithfully the core elements of that message without getting yourself in the way.
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There is more in Facilitation 101 in Handbook for Strategic HR: Best Practices in Organizational Development from the OD Network.
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