You may be a good communicator, but are you a good facilitator?

You may be a good communicator, but are you a good facilitator?

Stephanie Dollschnieder

You are sitting in a meeting that you had thought was going to be valuable. You skipped another pressing engagement because you felt you really needed to be here. After all, this was supposed to pertain to a project you are working on.

Instead of gaining the information you had hoped for, you find yourself wondering if you are even in the right meeting. The conversation has nothing to do with your project, or at least the conversation you can hear…several are taking place at once. Just now, you have been asked to share some reports (you were not told to bring) with the rest of the group. All at once, you are wishing that you had forgone this whole ordeal and spent the time attacking your in-box. Sound familiar?

Or what about this one…you have finally chosen a training seminar that you think will teach you some valuable skills you’ve been wanting to acquire. You have convinced your boss to spend precious training budget dollars, and have committed to spend your own, equally precious eight-hour day to attend it. By 10 o’clock you are wondering how you can gracefully bow out of this. Perhaps, you say to yourself, you could salvage the day by contacting clients from the hotel lobby phone. But since you really pushed your boss to approve this expenditure, you feel stuck. Frustrated, you turn to an empty page at the back of the training binder and, instead of taking notes, begin making a new To Do list for the remainder of your work week.

Unfortunately, scenarios such as these are all too common. It is not, however, meetings and workshops themselves that are the problem. They are not, by definition, a waste of time. Actually, they represent one of the most effective means of disseminating information to more than one person at the same time.

So, if it’s not the format, what’s the problem? The problem is that many managers and trainers do not possess effective facilitation skills. And while there is much talk about the skills required to get ahead in today’s corporate world (presentation skills, writing skills, leadership skills, etc.), few mention the very real need to learn to facilitate a group interaction.

If you have been fortunate enough to have had the experience of attending a meeting that was worthwhile, you will relate. It is refreshing and satisfying. People who leave a well-facilitated gathering report feeling informed, valued and even energized. Moreover, they appear to hold in high esteem the person who is able to conduct such a workshop or meeting. Meetings are, after all, a wonderful opportunity for face-to-face interaction with cohorts, experts, supervisors, etc. And, when handled well, they prove not only quite productive in terms of the work, but also provide an excellent opportunity for the meeting facilitator to appear prepared, competent and efficient.

So, how do you become one of that elite group of people who can conduct a meeting or run a workshop effectively if you are called upon to do so? Well, just like any other skill, the ability to facilitate a meeting can be learned and sharpened. It is a matter of learning and using a few guidelines. Following are some pointers for becoming a successful facilitator. (Note: Technically it would be the leader, not the facilitator, who would be responsible for performing some of the following functions. However, these skills are included here because all too frequently, in the real world, one individual is required to both lead and facilitate group interactions.)

1) Be able to articulate the purpose/objective of your meeting or workshop in one or two sentences. How many times have you been asked to attend a meeting and not been certain you understand why one is being called, much less why you need to be there? If you cannot explain to others why you need to gather them together and take up their time, you have no business doing so.

Take a moment to ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish?” Until you can concisely and specifically answer that question, do not attempt to set up your meeting.

2) Make every participant feel important to the gathering. Greet everyone and thank him or her for attending. People who feel recognized and valued are eager to contribute and participate. What I am suggesting here does not constitute idle flattery. The truth is that every participant really should be important. Do not invite someone who does not have something to contribute or a need to be there. It is a waste of his or her time and everyone else’s too. You can always send a copy of meeting minutes to someone you simply want to inform.

While you do not want unnecessary people in the meeting, do not make the opposite mistake either. That is, do not overlook someone who should be in attendance. You will get no closure on an issue when a key decision maker’s vital opinion is missing. Sometimes a busy manager will send a delegate to a meeting. It is fine to accept substitutes, provided the person is well e n o u g h informed to be able to participate. If a genuinely crucial person cannot attend, change the date/time of the gathering.

You can see how important knowing your objective is. Only by being absolutely clear about the purpose of your meeting and what you want to accomplish can you correctly select those you need to have in attendance.

3) Develop and follow an agenda. Put together your agenda before the meeting begins. It will be particularly helpful to your participants if you can send them copies of the agenda at least a few days prior to the date. That way they have adequate time to gather any information that may be required of them, and otherwise prepare themselves.

Solicit input for the agenda from those who have a vested interest in the outcome of the meeting or workshop, but limit agenda items to those that pertain directly to the topic.

It is easy to fall prey to the “while we are gathered together anyway…” kind of excuse for veering from the stated topic of discussion. Do not throw in extraneous items.

4) Understand and respect the value of time. We are all busy people. And recognizing this is quite simply courteous, and thus good business sense. It is, therefore, essential to begin your meeting on time. Making the five punctual people wait for the two late ones (who are still gabbing in the hall) only serves to send messages you do not want sent. Those are: (1) it’s okay to be late to your meetings, because you don’t start on time anyway, and (2) those participants who cared enough to be punctual are not as important as those two who did not.

Likewise, if you said the meeting was going to be two hours long, stop when two hours are up. If your seminar or workshop was advertised as going from 8 am to 5 pm., end promptly at five. Again, this is a form of courtesy to your participants. They may well have made other commitments and relied upon timeframes you gave them.

If you find you are running behind in your meeting, you can always throw it out to the group by saying something like, “Well, folks, I told you the meeting would be from one to three o’clock, and it’s three o’clock now. We still have two items to cover. Would everyone be willing to take another 10 minutes to get through them?” Do so only if everyone is willing and able to stay. If not everyone can do so, schedule a follow-up meeting to complete those items and adjourn promptly.

These are just a few of the guidelines for effectively facilitating a group interaction. Practice these, and you will find yourself respected by employees and supervisors alike. Whether it is a gathering of coworkers or managers, clients or board members, people are impressed by someone who is able to effectively and efficiently conduct a meeting or workshop. And you can be assured that these skills will never go out of style. Group interactions will continue to be a vital part of our business world. For regardless of the advances of communication technologies, science has yet to invent something that can take the place of genuine face-to-face interaction.

Stephanie Dollschnieder is a communication skills consultant specializing in gender issues, conflict resolution, effective management of change, and employee and supervisor interactions. If you would like to learn more about facilitation skills, attend her presentation at the IABC international conference in June.

COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning