Facilitating a group discussion always brings with it a unique set of challenges. Every group involves different personalities, perspectives, and needs. Facilitators have to work hard to create an environment in which a productive conversation can take place.
When the facilitator is also the boss, the process gets even more complicated. The atmosphere in the room will be affected by who you are. Inevitably, the people reporting to you will feel their response is being evaluated—even if you set up the discussion as a judgment-free brainstorming session. This will affect both how they respond and their willingness to participate.
While you can’t change who you are or your role in the organization, you can facilitate discussions with your team successfully. You just have to remind yourself that your responsibilities as facilitator are different than your responsibilities as manager.
Process vs. Content. The facilitator’s role is all about process. It’s not their job to add to or comment on that content. But it is their job to encourage participation and control the direction of the conversation. That requires two things: demonstrating trust in the individuals in the group and showing respect for their needs.
Demonstrating trust. A successful facilitator creates an environment in which information and ideas can be freely exchanged. That means that the individuals in the group need to feel their questions and comments are welcome. The level of participation from individuals in the audience will vary, of course. But what’s important is not equal participation from everyone, but equal opportunity for participation. So as a facilitator, you need to
- Be patient, curious, and unafraid to listen. Don’t waste the goodwill of the group by not listening or glossing over nuance.
- Demonstrate through your actions that all input can be useful. As a leader and manager, it’s often important to assess situations quickly. This is an asset in your daily responsibilities, but it can be a liability when facilitating. During a discussion, it’s important to let ideas percolate a little.
- Level the playing field by allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Remember, you’re the only person in the room who doesn’t feel a little vulnerable already.
Showing respect. The discussion you lead needs to be as efficient as possible. While the group wants to feel that they are free to contribute, they also want the conversation to achieve something. Because you are their manager, individuals might be reluctant to challenge your decisions as facilitator or point out that a topic has run its course. Here are some recommendations.
- Do your homework. Respect the group’s time and energy by doing the work that’s required beforehand. This involves creating a framework for the conversation that communicates your goal, the problem you’re trying to solve, and what you expect from your reports during the discussion. This framework should be strong enough to keep things on track but flexible enough to include unexpected turns in the conversation.
- Remember that the framework exists to make participation easier for everyone. It should serve the conversation, not dominate it.
- Appreciate the work the group is doing and the risks they’re taking.
Because you are the group’s manager as well as the meeting’s facilitator, there will be times when you’ll want to contribute to the content of the discussion as well. When you do, just acknowledge that you’ve taken your facilitator hat off. Say things like, “I can clear up that question for you, so allow me to speak now as your manager.” When you’re finished contributing your manager perspective, put your facilitator hat back on.
Remember that the people involved in the discussion are your resource, just as they are when they’re going about their everyday responsibilities. When you’re facilitating, give them a safe, productive environment and the time they need to work through the ideas they’re sharing.