Using a facilitator is usually a good idea if you want to keep a meeting focused and productive. Can meetings be effective without a facilitator? Of course. Thousands of meetings take place every day without a designated facilitator.
However, the perils of meeting without a facilitator are many, and often lead to a high level of frustration among participants. The dangers include drifting from the agenda, lack of participation, running overtime and many more. It has been my experience that once group members experience the benefits of well-facilitated meetings, they will never want to hold a meeting any other way. There are two main choices: using internal facilitators and hiring outside professionals.
When should you use internal people and when should you engage a professional facilitator for your meetings? As with most questions, the easy answer it "it depends." For groups that meet regularly – project teams, staff groups, task forces, committees, department heads, etc., consider training several people in the skills of facilitation and rotate the job. Several of my clients have a cadre of trained people scattered throughout their organizations, who are available to facilitate anything from a one hour meeting to a full day work session.
For meetings that have higher stakes, you may want to engage the services of a professional facilitator. Such meetings might include retreats, idea generation sessions, strategic planning and problem-solving meetings. A professional facilitator can also help your group get "unstuck" – to identify and focus on key issues, make decisions and move forward. Perhaps the number one reason people hire professional facilitators is the objectivity and "distance" they bring.
One of the biggest traps is for the group's leader or senior person to assume the role of facilitator. This is an invitation for a dysfunctional meeting. Why? It is virtually impossible for the leader to be neutral on content issues, which is a prime requisite for an effective facilitator. When group leaders facilitate their own meetings, they often cross the line into control and advocacy for their point(s) of view. In turn, this will shut down participation from others. Separating the leader and facilitator roles will help ensure that at least one person is focused on group process issues, e.g., staying on agenda and keeping people involved.
Whether you decide to develop facilitators internally or utilize outside consultants/facilitators (or both), knowing what skills to look for is important.
Skills and Traits of Effective Facilitators
Effective facilitators know the dynamics of group process and are skilled in using techniques for keeping the group task-focused, encouraging creative thinking, building consensus and keeping all group members involved. A critical skill is the ability to create and maintain a safe, open and supportive environment for all group members. Another is being able to recognize and deal with disruptive behaviors.
Skilled facilitators should always be "issue neutral" during a meeting. They should never advocate a point of view, regardless of their expertise and opinions on a given subject.
Listening and observation skills are essential for facilitators. They need to be listening and watching for nuance, content, body language and other feedback and anything else that impacts the group. They are always aware of a meeting on two levels simultaneously: content (what is being discussed or decided) and process (how the group is functioning).
The best facilitators blend assertiveness with tact, discipline with humor. They need to know how to effectively intervene when the meeting is veering off the subject or otherwise not moving toward accomplishing its purpose.
Growing Your Own Facilitators
For groups that meet regularly, it is smart to have several members act as facilitator on a rotating basis. It is not enough to simply appoint people to the job. Training of internal facilitators will ensure that they are aware of the many skills required to keep a meeting focused and productive, and will give them opportunities to practice these skills with an experienced facilitator/coach.
In the training workshops, novice facilitators should receive lots of practice; videotaped feedback is one of the most useful learning devices. After the training, your newly minted facilitators should be given plenty of opportunities to facilitate meetings until they build their skills and confidence. It is important that group members be understanding of new facilitators while they are honing their techniques.
Hiring Professional Facilitators
There are several places to look when you are in need of a professional facilitator, either to work with you on an important meeting or to train people in the skills of facilitation.
A natural choice might be a consultant who is familiar with your organization who also has considerable experience in facilitating – both are necessary. Why? Consultants are usually hired for their subject matter expertise and opinions. While this background helps in understanding group issues and terminology, unless the consultant is able to step into a neutral role when facilitating, the group's effectiveness will probably be compromised.
While many facilitators also do other things, the demand is such that some professionals are full-time facilitators. Most limit themselves to a few fields or types of meetings in which they have developed competence. The safest bet is to engage a facilitator who has experience in your industry or similar fields.
Where can you find professional facilitators? One organization – the International Association of Facilitators – is dedicated to developing the profession of facilitation. Its members include professionals and internal facilitators from many fields. While it is not a "booking agency" per se, the IAF may be a good place to start. The Innovation Network is another source for facilitators, especially for idea generation sessions. Another organization, the National Speakers' Association has recently begun offering training workshops to its speaker/trainer members in the art and skills of facilitation. Alas, many speakers have had to learn the difference between speaking and facilitating – while both involve standing up in front of a group, the skills required are dramatically different. Always ask for references before hiring a professional facilitator.
More Power to your Group
The choice to use facilitators for your meetings – whether homegrown (internal) or outside professionals – can pay great dividends. At a minimum, you can expect shorter meetings that are more focused and productive. Group leaders can put their efforts toward substantive issues, while leaving process issues to the facilitator. Over time, group members will learn the skills of facilitation through "osmosis" and practice. Such awareness can only help the group perform more effectively in meetings and in any team endeavor.
Make Meetings Matter – book by Charlie Hawkins
About the Author:
Charlie Hawkins facilitates business round tables, strategic planning retreats and idea generation sessions for businesses and nonprofit organizations who want to improve their results. He is the author of Make Meetings Matter, a comprehensive resource for anyone who wants to plan and facilitate more effective meetings.