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