Facilitation is like treading on the thin ice of trying to stay focused on the “how” of things (process), while not getting into the “what” (content) part. It’s a perpetual feeling of being at the risk of falling into the trench of getting too involved and influencing a group’s decision.
Now why is getting involved in content risky? We as facilitators know that our role is to aid groups work towards a goal, and not to interpose opinions or get into the content of the meeting. We allow the group to do the thinking while we watch the process by which they arrive at a decision. If in anyway the group uses our opinion or gets influenced by what we think – then we as facilitators have failed somewhere. Our job is to unbridle the group’s ability to lead ensuring differences of views co-exist.
But how do you not get in to content or express yourself when asked something like, “Do you support death penalty for rapists?” You sure feel strongly about it. My usual response is flinging the question back to the group.
“Death penalty for rapists is a subjective matter. What do you think are the consequences of having or not having it?”
Sometimes each one in the group is highly vocal and opinionated. Or the group itself might ask for your opinion if it is unable to reach a constructive end. Clients might ask you to facilitate meetings whose goals have been already decided. There are instances when you are the subject matter expert of a session.
How do you stay away from the content when you know you can steer the discussion into the right direction? How do you ensure that the ice continues to hold the water and doesn’t melt into it?
Creating the right structure is what I rely on at such occasions to lead the group to an answer. It’s a good thing to be prepared on client’s industry, operations and business issues. As a facilitator if you have a view, help the group come up with or consider similar views by creating an appropriate structure. Remember, no one likes to implement other people’s ideas. So the idea must come from the participants. Facilitators lead through structure and never through actual content.
Sometimes getting external experts to talk to the group helps. I was working with a client that was into the transport sector. The group needed customers’ insights, understand their aspirations and what matters to them. I got a teenager to talk to the group who mentioned how being connected on the go, ability to chat with friends and send and upload photos mattered to him. Following the talk one of the members came up with the idea of adding wi-fi to their transport services to address the needs of their modern customers.
Facilitators act as consultants who 1) deploy the knowledge of decision making process with a moral responsibility to abate any manipulation 2) and an equally strong responsibility to steer the group in the right direction and not let it wander in the haze.
When groups ask for your suggestions, take a look whether it has enough tools and methods to place a particular context into perspective. We have to continue our core belief that the knowledge lies with the group. Go back to the structure, is the platform right to come up with ideas. If it is about a group that is designing an aircraft I would facilitate it at bird sanctuary. Structure and environment is the key. I am not an expert in aircraft designing so I will not get into the content. If need be I will reflect the question back to the group and divide the group based on their divergent views.
During occasions when I am the subject matter expert, for example, if it is on presentation skills, I would carry two hats one that of a subject matter expert and the other that of a facilitator. And everytime I change my position I would announce it to the group and do so. I will define the role I am playing before commenting/participating in the discussion. One point of caution is unless you are an expert in the subject you are facilitating don’t get in to it.
At times clients expect you to facilitate a meeting whose outcome has been predetermined!
What do you do? Your credibility is at stake if you facilitate something that is already decided. Try convincing the client to go with what the group decides based on the structure you as a facilitator have created. You can share with the group the desired outcome. However the group can still go ahead and take its own decision keeping in mind the practical constraints of the situations under which the same will be implemented. Even get the client to talk to them.
If there are words, actions, values or knowledge that can impact an effective outcome let that be a part of the facilitation with as much transparency and authenticity as possible.
1) Right structure where ideation can happen
2) External experts for insights when required
3) Defining your role (whether a facilitator or a subject matter expert)
4) Absolute transparency and flexibility for the group in case a desired meeting outcome exists
…Are the four pillars of my facilitation that hold me and hold the thin ice I can walk on from melting into water and losing its purpose!