Effective Facilitation for Productive Trainings and Meetings

It isn’t just a fantasy…meetings can be productive, efficient, and lead to increased team productivity and staff motivation! This module focuses on the development of techniques and strategies to effectively facilitate meetings using a shared leadership style in which all team members have an equal opportunity to actively participate and contribute to the process. Techniques and strategies outlined in this session may also be used to facilitate successful training sessions.

Objectives

  • Identify the roles and responsibilities of team facilitator, team lead, and team members
  • Learn the tools to develop consensus building, problem solving and effective agendas
  • Learn strategies for keeping the group on-task, while encouraging full participation by all members

An Overview of Effective Facilitation

Work groups or teams are convened for a purpose. The purpose may be to share or learn information, to determine how to solve a problem, or execute a planned project. For groups or teams to be at their top performance potential, all members must understand and practice an agreed-upon and shared set of values and behaviors. The facilitator has a responsibility to guide the members through the process, using these values and behaviors as a guide.

Frequently, meetings are held in which participants have not seen the agenda ahead of time. Team members may leave the meeting uncertain of what was accomplished other than reporting out information that could have been covered in an email. In this module, the essentials of how to focus and facilitate a productive meeting will be covered. We can’t promise that in the future, you won’t be asked to attend unfocused meetings, but you should be able to help guide the meeting to a more productive outcome using the techniques outlined here.

Facilitation is broadly defined as the process of making something easier. For teams, facilitation may be described as the process of assisting a group to focus its energies to accomplish a given task (Page, 2001). While the facilitator has significant responsibilities and the primary role in guiding this process, the skills and techniques a facilitator uses must be understood and practiced by all team members for the process to be most effective.

Three Types of Techniques for Effective Facilitation

There are three types of techniques used for effective facilitation, as either a facilitator, or as a team member. They are:

Preparing for the session

Facilitators set the stage for the team or group to work together to accomplish their goal within the specified time frame, with equal input from all team members. Ensuring this effectiveness includes being organized about the flow and agenda of the session, as well as communicating and upholding values that the team agrees upon for how they will interact with each other. These values may be ‘ground rules’ for a one-time session, or they may be ongoing organizational culture values that are expected to translate into the work of the team.

Participation is an essential component of effective training or meetings, and should be encouraged by all members. Encouraging open, honest dialogue is important, as well as being prepared for how to move the group through conflict in difference of opinion, or difficulty in coming to a decision or agreement. Prior to the session, the facilitator must work with the group to learn about the current culture or climate of the group.  All members must agree to create a climate in which everyone can trust that they can share their thoughts, ideas and opinions without negative repercussions either during or after the session.  The facilitator also has an important role to make sure that important information including decisions, next steps and important points are recorded and shared with all members following the meeting or session.

Procedure—Preparing for the Session

Adequate planning and preparation are important before the session. Make sure that key questions are answered before convening the meeting.  Consider the list of preparation questions here, and add others you think may be useful.

Creating the Agenda

Create or co-create an agenda prior to the session that will provide a clear ‘roadmap’ for what will be accomplished. Using an outcomes-based agenda can be a useful tool for keeping the discussion on track and ensuring that the key elements are covered.

Using an Outcome-Based Agenda

Outcome-based agendas provide clearly stated topic areas and a clear expectation for what will be accomplished by the end of the topic discussion. An outcome-based agenda helps all participants remain aware of the goals of the meeting, and assists the facilitator to guide the discussion toward the intended goal without drifting off track. Below is an example of a standard agenda item and the same item as described in an outcome-based agenda.

Standard Agenda Item: Staff Holiday Party Planning

Outcome - Based Agenda Item:Staff Holiday Party Planning

Details of staff holiday party will be confirmed, including:

  • theme of party, location, date and gift
  • exchange assignments

This additional step in the development of the agenda gives an opportunity to both plan the goals of the session more clearly and communicate them to participants.

Additional elements to include in the agenda are the length of time devoted to each item for discussion and the person or persons responsible for leading the discussion (especially useful if a presentation is involved).

Opening the Session - Setting the Tone

Use the following tips to help open the session and set the tone for a successful meeting or training:

Arrive early to be sure room is set up as you wish, and to greet participants as they arrive, creating a welcoming environment

Review established ground rules, or assist the group in creating norms for how they will agree to work together. Examples of ground rules include:

  • One person speaks at a time
  • Members refrain from personal attacks when they disagree
  • Group is focused on objectives of the session
  • No retribution
  • Each session ends with feedback from group members
  • All members contribute full attention to the session—no phones

Select/identify members to take responsibility for the roles of Recorder and Timekeeper. Clarify your role as the facilitator—to help the group to move through process, not to provide or make judgment about content

Review the objectives and agenda for the session, and reach agreement from the group regarding each topic and the amount of time allotted for discussion of each topic

Allow each member or participant to share are the beginning of the session by facilitating introductions, and asking each to share their expectations for the session

Review the concept of the ‘parking lot’ with participants as a way to capture ideas that are outside of the scope of the session but will be retained for discussion in future meetings. Use a flip-chart and Post-It’s to create the ‘Parking Lot’ for the session on a wall

 

Behavioral Facilitation Techniques

The behavioral tone of the session is created by the Facilitator, as a role model for participants. The Facilitator’s behavior and approach to the session sets the tone and may significantly impact the outcome of the session. Explore the following characteristics of an effective facilitator.

Characteristics of an Effective Facilitator

Positive

By maintaining a positive attitude about the session, others will share the positive energy

Flexible

While a planned agenda is a must, if the group determines another topic is relevant to their goals, let the group know the agenda is flexible

Uses Humor

A light-hearted approach or smile can help keep things smooth and relieve tension in the room

Neutral

Keep the focus on the process of the session, not the content

Genuine

Stay true to your own style and personality. When you’re comfortable, the session moves smoothly

Active Listener

Use paraphrasing, reflection, empathy to communicate to the speaker they are heard and understood


Behavioral Skills for Effective Facilitation

To encourage participation by all members and create an effective group process, the facilitator must use a variety of specific skills.

Active Listening — Use words and body language to acknowledge understanding and to encourage the speaker to continue.

ACTIVE LISTENING DO’s and DON’TS

Using questions, reflection, and skillfully redirecting

Skillful facilitation includes using questions to help guide the discussion in a meaningful and productive way. Prepare some questions prior to the session, based on the agenda to guide the discussion, and also use these questions to help clarify, go deeper, and bring out participants feelings and opinions about the topics.

Types of questions for the facilitator’s toolkit

Open-ended: All questions that are not easily answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Includes ‘who, what, when, where, why and how’ questions

Explore feelings and opinions: “What are your thoughts about this?” or “Why do you feel that way about it?”

Clarify the point: “I want to be sure I understand. Do you mean…?”

Reflection helps the group ‘see’ blind spots…

Reflection techniques help the group to make sure that they are on the right track, and helps demonstrate ineffective group behavior patterns. The facilitator is able to see the group objectively, and report from that perspective. Occasionally during the session, to help the group refocus or see where group conflict patterns are, the facilitator can use comments that are focused on the content or the process of the session, asking the group to respond to what was observed. Examples of this include:

“I’ve noticed that whenever you discuss this topic, the conversation has only included the disadvantages of taking this approach”

“It seems that not everyone agrees, yet you’re moving forward to the next topic”

Skillful redirection brings the focus back

Skillful redirection can help the group to get back on track, to keep the discussion on target. This facilitation skill is a purposeful interruption of group process to help the group to come back on track. In this technique, the facilitator will step in with a comment, using one of the following types of statements or questions:

Redirect—“OK, let’s put that one to the group. Who would like to respond to that?”

Get Specific—“Please give an example of what you mean?”

Focus the Group—“OK, this is a topic we seem to be overlooking or having difficulty talking about. Can we agree to spend a few minutes to discuss this?”

Ensuring Participation and Handling Problem Situations

It is not unusual in group settings for a few participants to be active in the discussion while others remain silent. It is important that all members of a group participate and contribute to the discussion and process. When facilitating, observe the process and note if some members are not participating. Promote participation by all members through direct techniques, for example, “ John, what are your thoughts about this idea? ”, or, using a more subtle tactic by encouraging different points of view by posing a question, such as, “ We’ve only discussed one view of this approach; what are we missing?” Allow use of silence. It may take several seconds for those who have not participated to decide to engage.

Problem Situations

Generally, when a session is well-organized and all participants are clear about their roles, things go smoothly. However, meetings often can easily begin to drift, or, underlying dynamics within the team can surface, potentially impeding the group’s progress. The facilitator must take great care not to attempt to solve the problems for the team. This may quickly lead to conflict between the facilitator and the team. Instead, the facilitator can skillfully redirect the problems back to the group to solve, posing questions and statements to assist them to do so.

Group Problem - Solving Techniques

Brainstorming

Present the problem to the group and clarify to be sure everyone understands the issue. Next, members may either spontaneously call out ideas, or they may take turns ‘round robin’ style. To facilitate this method effectively, consider the following tips:

  • Allow ideas to flow without critique or process. Let them surface, process them later
  • Keep the brainstorming to no more than 2 minutes
  • Capture every idea on a flipchart exactly as it is stated to be sure no ideas are lost
  • Get as many ideas out as possible—don’t worry if they overlap!

Once the ideas are all captured, a variety of techniques may be used to help process the ideas into possible solutions. Some options and steps for implementation include:



Clustering

  • Ask the group to identify related ideas and group them together visually. If an idea doesn’t fit with others, agree to leave it as a stand-alone idea for the time being
  • Label the groupings, asking the team to identify the labels
  • Begin discussion regarding the groupings, and prioritize the ideas








Prioritization

  • Take a few moments to review all surfaced ideas to be sure they were captured accurately
  • Ask group members to vote for their top 50% of the ideas presented
  • Select ideas with the most votes, narrowing the field to 4-5 ideas
  • The most important key to emphasize is to avoid a majority vote. The goal is to prioritize ideas or gain consensus from the group.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is often used as a quick and fun way to generate ideas quickly. It is a useful tool for people who enjoy doodling or drawing sketches to help make a point. Mind mapping can be a useful tool to help a group to develop solutions to an issue. The process is simple:

Begin with a word or short phrase that describes the issue in the center. Then, as quickly as possible, write down all of the words or phrases associated with the issue. It is a free-association exercise that allows for spontaneous flow, keeping the pen moving, working quickly. Once the page is filled with words, look for associations and themes, drawing connections, circling themes, to begin to group ideas that relate. This simple exercise can often generate a solution that cannot be surfaced by attempts to ‘think it through’.

 

Mind map by Tony Buzan

Try it out Today

Explore mind mapping online. This free access tool allows you to create and save mind-maps using the internet. The tool can be found at https://bubbl.us

Building Consensus

Reaching consensus is an important achievement to help the group to come to conclusion regarding an issue. Organized, facilitated discussion is often the process that leads to consensus. Consensus occurs when:

  • All participants agree on a single solution or alternative
  • Each member can truthfully acknowledge that their point of view has been heard and understood by the group
  • Each member, regardless of their preference for the decision, can support it because it was reached in a fair and open manner.

Consensus is not necessarily an agreement with the decision, but is an agreement to support the decision as the best solution at the time, with a firm commitment to make it work.

All members must feel that they have been heard and understood, and that all alternatives have been thoroughly explored. When all members feel that they can support the best decision for the group, even if it is not their first preference, consensus may be reached. Ask the group to give a gesture as a way to ‘take the temperature’ of the group to determine their stage in the process.

Thumbs–up: Agreement

Thumbs sideways: Neutral

Thumbs-down: Do not agree

If members express ‘thumbs sideways’ or ‘thumbs-down’, continued work toward consensus building needs to occur. Surface concerns and treat differences of opinion as a way to seek more information, clarify issues and develop additional alternatives.

As a team member, listening with an open mind is important for the process. Be willing to consider other perspectives and opinions as valid, and perhaps more effective toward reaching the goal than your own. If you disagree, express yourself respectfully, but be prepared to support a decision made by the group that may be different  than the one you prefer following your opportunity to be heard.

Common Behaviors That Can Take a Session Off-Track

With different personalities in a group, and a variety of feelings and ideas about the agenda, it is common for disruptive behaviors to take the meeting off-track. The facilitator’s responsibility is to recognize and help redirect challenging behaviors before they derail the session, while being respectful and maintaining an atmosphere of safety and openness. Below are a list of frequently encountered behaviors and possible facilitator responses. As you read through them, note if you encounter these behaviors in meetings you attend, and…if you engage in any of them yourself!

Adapted from Page (2002) and Guion and Bolton (2003)

 

Wrap-Up and Closure

Close the session with a well-designed plan to recap key points, reaffirm group decisions and assign tasks for follow up. Effective sessions conclude with a summary that relates to the session’s purpose. Consider these questions to guide the summary:

What was the goal of the session?
Was it achieved?
What decisions were made, and what remains to be done prior to the next session?

Assist the group to create an action plan for the next steps. Include in these elements in the plan:

Specific task
Person Responsible
Due Date for Completion

Ensure that each person agrees to commit to complete their assigned task, and schedule the follow up session (if needed) while everyone is present.

Ask participants to evaluate the effectiveness of the session at the end. This can be accomplished through brief discussion, or with a written evaluation form focusing on the following questions:

How was the facilitator effective?
If you could do this over again, what would you want to do differently?
What suggestions would you offer to the facilitator for the next session?

Follow up with the session’s Recorder to distribute meeting minutes or highlights and key decisions made for all participants.

Module Review

This module covered several key issues related to effective facilitation of meetings and training sessions including:

  •  Outcome-based agendas help to define the goals of the session and are most effective when shared with participants ahead of time to help prepare and engage their buy-in
  • Facilitation involves the active participation of all members, who agree to take active roles in the session, including timekeeper, recorder, and team member
  • Three main types of facilitation skills include those that involve procedural, behavioral and problem-solving skills

Effective Facilitation for Productive Training and Meetings Quiz

quiz-graphic

References

1 Buzan, T. (2009) Exercises for relaxation mind map. Retrieved online from www.mindmapart.com on December 15, 2011.

2 Page, P.A.G. (2002). Facilitation Techniques. Commonwealth Center for High Performing Organizations, Charlottesville, VA.

3 Scholtes, P.R. (1996). The Team Handbook (2nd. Ed). Joiner Associates.

Module Acknowledgements

Author: Leslie Langbert, MSW, RYT 

Reviewers: Bryna Koch, MPH, Christine Bracamonte Wiggs, MPH, MS and Lynne Borden, Ph.D

Formatting Editors: Sandra Fletcher, MS, Pranav Gidwani and Kaustubh Khole

Web Developers:  Troy Dean and Will Simpson