The Art and Science of Facilitation

meeting facilitation

In recent posts, we’ve talked a lot about what to do when you’re the central speaker in a business situation. But there’s another role you take on when you lead a meeting, deliver a presentation, or lead a training session: facilitator. Too often, business communicators think of facilitation as simply a matter of fielding questions or noticing whose hand was raised first. Some may take it to the next level and plan some open-ended questions or remind themselves to ask a follow-up question. But there’s so much more to facilitating a fruitful, inclusive discussion.  

A good facilitator understands the art and science of facilitation. What this means is that a successful meeting is both well-planned, clearly framed, and easy to follow (the science) as well as spontaneous, free-flowing, inclusive, and comfortable for everyone (the art). Here’s what’s needed to achieve both goals.    

The Science of Facilitating Meetings 

Have a Plan 

In all our training, we talk about framing the conversation. The frame is delivered in the first 30-90 seconds of your meeting to let your audience know what you are setting out to accomplish and why. When you need to facilitate a substantial discussion beyond Q & A—when there’s a decision to make, a conflict to iron out, or a new project to set up—the frame is especially important, and it’s different than the frame of a presentation in a couple of ways. 

  • Get Clear on the Goal of Your Meeting: Your goal is what you hope to accomplish through the conversation. If your stated goal is “talk about how to redesign widget packaging,” you’ve defined a topic, not a goal. Instead, think in terms of “identify branding must-haves for the new packaging.” You know that’s a goal because you can envision the outcome of the meeting: a list of requirements for the new packaging.  
  • The Agenda: Sometimes, the agenda for a facilitated discussion is less specific than the agenda for a presentation, especially if the purpose of your discussion is to explore people’s thoughts and feelings. As the facilitator, you should have a clear plan, but it might be good to let participants share their top-of-mind thoughts instead of confining them to a strict agenda. If this is the case, your agenda may simply refer to how you’d like the meeting process to proceed: “I’d like to hear from everyone today so that we can zero in on what each of you feels the new packaging has to have.” 

You’re in Charge of the Conversation 

No matter what type of agenda you use, consider how you plan to control the conversation as it takes place.  

  • When you deliver your frame, keep it short. 
  • Include introductions only if people don’t know each other or it isn’t obvious why certain people are present. For example, “Rochelle is here from legal to ensure that the new packaging is truthful.” 
  • Once you’re into your topic, move from general to specific. For example, start with, “What message do we want our new packaging to convey?” rather than “What color palette should we use?” This way, you let people discuss the overall direction and broad ideas before moving into details.  
  • Use open and closed questions to control how quickly the conversation moves forward. Closed questions speed things up.  

Yes or No: “Should it be green?” 

Forced Choice: “Should it be green or blue?” 

Open-ended questions slow things down.   

“What color should it be?” 

“What should it look like?” 

  • Be prepared to improvise in the moment. For some, this type of spontaneity might feel uncomfortable. If it does, remember that every conversation takes on a life of its own. Letting that happen will eventually lead to your goal. If you’re like others and like to improvise, remember that meetings need to feel efficient for everyone involved. That means that a conversation you’re enjoying sometimes needs to be shut down.   
  • Leave a few minutes at the end of your meeting for a wrap-up and next steps.  

The Art of Facilitating Meetings 

Create an Atmosphere of Safety 

This may sound extreme or touchy-feely, but the overriding responsibility of a facilitator is to make participants feel safe asking questions, proposing ideas, and offering opinions candidly. Often the work does not get done unless the conditions are right for people to share their ideas, ask seemingly basic questions, and feel like the facilitator has their back.  

The people who may have the greatest need for this sense of safety and freedom to speak are new hires, people who are recently promoted or in new roles, and people from other parts of the company or further down the org chart who have been brought in to consult on an issue. People who are in the minority in the room—women, people of color, people with disabilities—especially need that sense of safety. How do you make this happen? 

  • Welcome Dissenting Views: In your intro to the conversation, especially if you’re working with a team that doesn’t know each other well, plant the idea that disagreement is fine. In your frame, include a few sentences like, “As we talk about this, we’re bound to come from different points of view, which is the benefit of working as a group. I want everyone to feel free to express their wild ideas and ask whatever questions come to mind. 
  • Model the Behavior You Hope to See. Engage in active listening, ask clarifying questions as needed, don’t interrupt, and if a comment seems to come from left field, ask the commenter how they see it tied to the subject at hand. 
  • Be Inclusive: Be self-aware enough to check your microaggressions or “othering” behavior. The fastest way to shut someone down is to make it clear that their difference, rather than their expertise, is the first thing you see in them.  

Facilitate the Discussion with Genuine Curiosity 

Your curiosity and desire to reach the goal of the discussion should drive the planning of a facilitated discussion. Remember that the work of a meeting takes place through the conversation. This means you should 

  • Get Curious:  Think of the meeting as an opportunity to explore ideas different than your own. Suspend your judgment and listen well. 
  • Clarify: Ask clarifying questions when you think there’s more to be gained. “How come?” “What more can you say about that?” “What’s behind that suggestion?” and simply “Because . . .?” are all good ways to get someone to go further.  
  • Trust the Process. There will be times when you genuinely don’t know how the conversation will play out. Trust it. And trust yourself to be able to use what is said to achieve your goal.  

Achieving the Goal…or Not 

Of course, every meeting begins with the hope of achieving its stated goal through a fruitful, inclusive conversation. When that happens, congratulate yourself. Remember, though, that the art and the science of facilitation do not come with guarantees. Sometimes the conversation takes off in unexpected directions, and it’s up to you as the facilitator to decide in the moment how far and for how long to let things go. Sometimes, it’s best to reign things in; other times, the benefits of the interaction outweigh achieving the stated goal of the meeting. By following the guidelines here, your next meeting will be a good use of people’s time, regardless of the outcome.

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