Get the best out of those tricky group meetings

Businesses are now benefiting from facilitation methods, write Judith Martin and Jean Woollard
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Facilitation is now an accepted word in the business vocabulary, following a growing recognition that groups or meetings can be more effective if someone is there to help those present reach a decision, resolve an issue or generate creative ideas.

To be a superb facilitator, you need clarity about what you are there to do, the skills and confidence to deal with disruptive individuals or difficult situations, the ability to intervene to move the group forward, and to assess your own performance.

If you are looking to improve your facilitation skills, here are seven steps which should be of interest and value.

Set the boundaries: You can often prevent problems arising if you set the ground-rules and create a conducive climate at the outset. It's always best to start by helping the group clarify an outcome that is achievable in the time period. Try to reach a consensus on how disagreements or conflicts will be handled and make it clear what you are and are not going to do.

Let go of the content: The challenge is to influence the group but not to dominate. You have to suppress your ideas/solutions and encourage others to talk.

It is important to restrain the impulse to steer the discussion in a particular direction, and control any need to express impatience with other people.

Focus on the process: The "process" relates to how people feel about taking part. You need to use your senses, your intuition and your instincts to pick up the atmosphere and the group dynamics. Do people sound enthusiastic, lively, excited? Are people expressing their feelings, or sitting on them? Who's talking? Who isn't? Try to read the body language.

Be - don't do: The role of a facilitator is more about "being" than "doing". "Doing" refers to the techniques you use to help the group move on. `Being' is more about the energy you bring and your personality. In order to create a safe environment where people are going to be open and honest, the group needs to respect and trust you, feel confident that you are strong enough to deal with any incidents which may arise. All this comes as much from your personal style as from anything you might say.

Intervene when appropriate: You should be noticing what's going on and making sense of it. Then you can make a decision about what to do about it. You could keep quiet and watch what happens or you could intervene and say something. Your own body language can be a powerful intervention - with a look, a smile or a nod, you can indicate support or challenge to what is going on.

John Heron, an author and consultant on facilitation, highlights three types of intervention: hierarchical interventions (telling the group what to do), co-operative interventions (making suggestions and asking for group consensus) and autonomous interventions (leaving the group to decide how to proceed). The challenge for a facilitator is to be able to work in all three styles and to know which is appropriate.

Don't shirk difficult situations: Often facilitators feel intimidated about intervening with more senior managers or with people exhibiting disruptive behaviour. You need to develop skills and strategies to overcome these barriers. If a difficult situation arises, you could suggest taking a break, having a coffee, changing the scenery, working in pairs or brainstorming the issue.

Evaluate afterwards: At the end of the meeting or event, look at what has been agreed and how it will now move forward. Try to get some feedback from the participants and also review your performance against your own assessment criteria. Did you raise the difficult issues? Could you have handled a situation better?

Remember, there is no such thing as perfect facilitation. You're constantly making decisions about what to do in every situation: some you get right, some you get wrong. But the skills involved - observation, listening, reading body language, understanding human behaviour and stepping out of the content - can all be improved through practice.

Judith Martin is Assistant Director at Roffey Park Management Institute in Horsham, West Sussex. Jean Woollard is an Associate of Roffey Park. Tel: 01293 851644. `The Complete Facilitator's Handbook', John Heron, 1999, Kogan Page.