Are you (Really) Ready to Lead this Meeting?

April 2, 2013

I was recently asked to do a training session for facilitators. I have facilitated many meetings  over the years, of many types of groups, but never received any formal training to do so.  As a relatively young executive director, it was assumed that it was something I could do, and I was just expected to facilitate staff and volunteer meetings.  I am sure I made my share of ‘mistakes’ and had a few moments of thinking ‘what do I do now??’ but over the years of working with different groups I gained more experience and more confidence.  The request to design a training session made me think more reflectively about what makes a good facilitator and how we can strengthen these skills which are so valuable to any kind of effective group work.

In a preparatory survey for this session, here are some of the attributes participants identified in facilitators they’ve admired:

  • Relationships/confidence which allows you to ‘interrupt’ and transition the group
  • Keeping to schedule
  • Calm, authoritative, respectful presence
  • Flexibility
  • Energetic/dynamic/engaging
  • Humorous/easy going
  • Humble/approachable
  • Quick-thinking

This list underscored to me the importance of developing one’s own style and being genuine.  For example, not all of us are at ease telling jokes/being humorous, and humor doesn’t always translate well from culture to culture so it may not be appropriate for all facilitators in all settings. I also added in ‘observation’ skills.  Being sensitive to the nonverbal (as well as verbal) messages that the group is sending you can help you tailor your approaches to the group’s needs.

Facilitating meetings with participants from different geographic locations and cultures adds another level of complexity….Here are a few of the approaches I have found useful:

  • Language – You can increase the potential for all to follow the discussion by encouraging speakers to minimize the use of acronyms or expressions and speak slowly and clearly. (You may also want to allow “whisper translations” by one bilingual participant more comfortable with the meeting’s main language to another participant sitting next to them). Repeating and/or paraphrasing on a regular basis throughout the session can help those who may not be as comfortable in the main meeting language.
  • Participation – Do not assume that silence is agreement.  You may want to try some different approaches to encouraging participation.  For example going around the group and asking everyone for comments may encourage those not as comfortable in the language or with a participatory format of the meeting to participate.
  •  Graphics – Using images (even basic ones) to help transmit ideas can help to facilitate the conversation among those of varying language abilities.
  •  Attitude – Never underestimate the importance of attitude.  Recognizing that there are different cultural approaches to viewing situations or solving a problem, and being open to new perspectives, will go a long way to creating a comfortable space for meeting attendees to participate. Convey respect for those with different approaches, and be willing to go in different directions than you may have originally envisioned.

What tips would you share from your experiences?

Some Resources

  1. Knowledge Sharing Toolkits / Meetings
  2. Creative Facilitation
  3. International Association of Facilitators publications store
  4. Shared Learning Guide
  5. World café
  6. This Meeting Sux: 12 Acts of Courage to Change Meetings for Good
  7. Facilitating between on and offline

  • Good tips to share Bonnie. I agree this very important set of skills is too rarely talked about in our space. Whether you are chairing a meeting, conducting an interview, or delivering a training, being a competent facilitation is a huge determinant of success. This means being able to create and sustain an environment where people can speak openly and where collaboration, dialogue, and learning occur. A person has got to have the right mix of communication and listening skills, tact, resourcefulness, creativity, and perhaps most important as you say, a willingness to be yourself, warts and all. The ability to display warmth and quickly establish rapport with people may be considered a “soft skill” but it’s probably the most challenging and most important skill to build.

  • These are some good and important thoughts. I agree with all your suggestions, especially with the fact that when facilitating we always have to be very conscious about the use of humour – and anything else that might not be easily understood across different cultures such as puns or stories requiring a certain background for understanding.
    When facilitating or when being part of a group, I like it when different media are used and when participants have the chance of participating in different ways, e.g. do group work, short presentations, stage small role plays in order to reflect on a session, etc. to give everyone a chance to use the kind of sense she prefers when learning.

  • Joitske Hulsebosch

    Good reflections about what works – I like the idea of finding your own style. What also helps in meetings to get participation going is to start with a round (introductions or something else). Once people have spoken it is easier for them to speak up again!

  • Tips I would share from my experience? These days, I find that that most of my work as a facilitator happens before the meeting. More often than not, the client comes to me and says: We have a date, a group of people and an objective – can you take care of the rest? From there, I sense into the flow of the meeting: How would participants feel on arrival? What do they need in order to have conversations towards this objective? How can I make this playful, engaging, fun without exhausting them? How do I expect the energy to change throughout the meeting? I then select and adjust facilitation tools to support the flow. I try to build a clear and structured container of space and time for the participants so that they can bring in their needs, creativity and expertise to reach the best possible outcome – and then adjust it throughout the meeting.

  • BonnieKoenig

    Thank you Jennifer, Claire, Joitske and Wiebke for your comments and tips. You’ve all underscored in one way or another how facilitation is something we do need to work at; and how important it is to be in tune with our own styles and that of the specific group – both before and during the meeting.

  • Hi Bonnie,

    Thanks for this! I agree with almost all that you say – particularly with finding your own style and tone. The only thing that I’m not sure about is paraphrasing. I agree it’s important, but not always possible (I end up facilitating a great many meetings for which I totally don’t master the technical research lingo and approach that all participants seem familiar with).

    For me facilitation is really about listening, letting go, feeling the moment, engaging with others and about ‘fun, focus and feedback’.

    I’ve blogged quite a bit about facilitation myself: and particularly 3 posts of a series I have yet to finish, starting with

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts openly, as ever…

    • BonnieKoenig

      Interesting comment re: paraphrasing, Ewen. I think your general comment: ‘important but not always possible’ may be the guiding principle here, and what makes facilitation a ‘practice’ more than a set of rules. What may work well in some situations, may not work as well in others.

      And thanks for sharing your blog. As you know I’m an avid reader, but I’m happy to share it with readers of this blog!

  • Hi Bonnie, great reflections, and some great comments here too. Working with people from multiple countries and cultures certainly adds complexity, and in my experience, nothing ever goes to plan. Therefore I’d add flexibility to your list – the flexibility to incorporate, for example, the cultural greeting that takes twice as long as anticipated, and then adjust the program accordingly; to notice what is actually happening in the room – the energy, the mood, the vibe, if you like (compared with what you ‘expected’ would happen) and respond. I’d also add curiosity. I try and live up to this (and often fail 🙂 – when someone says something I don’t agree with or find confronting, I try and not judge and think to myself ‘that’s interesting’ and try and unearth some more information. And one final comment: when training I try and avoid the ‘teacher trance’, sometimes referred to as being the ‘expert’ or SME. Facilitation is a practice art – rather than talking about how to facilitate, I try and get people practicing and facilitating each other. This provides a practical platform for reflection and hopefully, the confidence to keep trying small ‘f’ facilitation (i.e. everyday facilitation at meetings etc) compared with big ‘F’ facilitation of large, multi-day events, which can be a bit daunting. And my only rule of facilitation – finish on time! 🙂


    Wonderful message. Even after so much experience, we have to learn continuously to facilitate meetings in an interesting manner. People appreciate and remember if the facilitator does his/her role perfectly with humour and also to the point.

  • Peter Moore

    Bonnie, thank you very much (belatedly) for the ideas and prompt. Reflecting on my own facilitation work, which is often across national cultural differences, I find much to echo what you and others have said and little to add. I would emphasize the following:

    1. GET THE BASICS RIGHT: Those things you need whatever the mix of people. For me that includes: a) rapid mastering of everyone’s name if at all possible; b) get everyone “into the room” (cf Joitske) right at the start – a process that helps with a); c) back up for all the IT, pens, adhesives etc (The other day I said as we walked in that the one back up I never carry is flipchart paper. Lo and behold… Minutes later we began by sticking together sheets of notepaper…), d) careful design of room layout/seating; e) clarifying what outputs and outcomes are really sought; f) ensuring the customer knows they own and can change the process at any time and g) finish on time (cf Viv).

    2. FLEXIBILITY (cf Viv). As you say one has to be comfortable with ambiguity. Ideas about punctuality vary a lot – South Sudanese colleagues were relaxed about a meeting where only one person had arrived at the start time though most of the other 30 turned up by 30 minutes later including several not originally invited.

    3. STATUS of those attending can be very important. That may be the key to when to start if people are trickling in. It may be felt very important for certain people to say something at the start and/or end (even if they do not attend in the middle) and the order of their speaking needs local advice. Titles like “Your Excellency” and “Professor” may have added weight.

    4.PRAYERS at start and end, quite common in East Africa, are another area needing local advice. In an international meeting I used a time of quiet reflection as an alternative to be more inclusive in a group that was largely but not wholly Christian.

    5. LANGUAGE: I agree with your emphasis. This is one of several reasons why I like to use a lot of group work. In some cases it enables a language group to work together in a comfortable shared language, subject to understanding on reporting such as a rule that only what gets reported back in the shared language is recorded.

    6. BREAKS are especially important when many people are operating in a 2nd/3rd/4th language – it is really tiring for them.

    Many thanks to all and sorry to join so late

    Peter Moore

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