We have all been there: A meeting that could have been an email. A lengthy meeting that left all attendees confused about what was accomplished. A brainstorming session where strong personalities derailed the discussion.
Each of these situations needed an effective facilitator. Learn how to run respectful and productive gatherings with these tips to improve your facilitation skills.
What is Facilitation?
Facilitation is the ability to conduct organized, useful, and tolerant gatherings with a diverse array of participants. The best facilitation skills feel effortless, and many don’t realize they are under the spell of an effective facilitator. Instead, the experience just feels efficient and satisfying.
However, you can absolutely tell when facilitation is lacking. Frustration, poor communication, and disorganization reign when leaders lack facilitation skills.
Facilitation skills include:
- Organizing meetings in advance
- Encouraging even participation from all attendees
- Rephrasing questions or concepts for group understanding
- Guiding conversations and eliminating distractions
- Supporting the group’s decision making
- Collaborating and uniting a group toward a common goal
Why is Facilitation Important?
Facilitation skills are necessary in any professional environment. With proper facilitation of everything from board meetings to individual performance reviews, participants feel respected, heard, understood, and prepared to meet the team’s goals.
In the nonprofit world, facilitation becomes even more important because it is intimately tied to your organization’s culture of philanthropy. It is difficult to develop a culture of philanthropy if people feel ignored, if communication is unclear, or if people feel like the nonprofit lacks direction.
Top Seven Ways to Improve Facilitation Skills
Begin boosting your facilitation skills with these simple ideas. You can enact these facilitation skills no matter your job title or rank.
1. Set and Keep an Agenda
An agenda lets attendees know the basic topics that will be covered. When you share an agenda in advance, participants can prepare for your meeting and will be ready to discuss.
When it comes to an agenda, there are only a few things to remember. First, share the agenda in advance. Having an agenda ready for attendees only when they arrive reduces the purpose of the agenda almost completely.
Next, stick to the topics listed. By not letting the agenda guide your discussion, it may be frustrating to the people who gathered and expected to discuss only agenda items. Straying from the agenda can make nonprofits look disorganized.
Try to stick to the order listed on the agenda when you can, for the most organized facilitation. If you need to jump around, be sure to communicate this with your audience. Especially if you have virtual meeting attendees, letting participants know when you aren’t following the agenda is key to promoting universal understanding and clear communication for everyone.
- Abide by Ground Rules
Facilitators often develop simple ground rules to establish healthy boundaries during discussions. Especially if you feel the meeting may cover emotional topics, ground rules will help maintain order while having a conversation.
Refer to the ground rules before every meeting or post them clearly in the meeting space.
Common ground rules often used in facilitation include:
- Stay open-minded
- Be punctual and mindful of others’ time
- Do not interrupt
- Be respectful
- Be open to feedback
- Ask questions to understand
- Practice active listening
- Mute cell phones and watches
Meeting participants and facilitators demonstrate a commitment to having a productive discussion when abiding by ground rules. These rules also provide an objective way to address the behaviors of disruptive participants.
3. Use the Parking Lot
The “parking lot” is a useful device for facilitators to help maintain the flow of discussion while making sure everyone feels heard. That sounds like a tough balancing act, but the parking lot idea helps achieve that difficult middle ground.
If the group’s discussion is going off-topic, the facilitator can step in and add the new idea to “the parking lot.” The parking lot is usually a separate whiteboard or flipchart whose sole purpose is to capture the ideas of participants without derailing the meeting’s purpose.
Example: A community wellness organization is hosting a community conversation about setting up a new farmers market. A participant talks about how the city should also invest in a fleet of e-bikes for participants who may attend a farmers market. While this is a related idea, it is off-topic for the tight agenda of the farmers market meeting. The e-bike idea is put into the parking lot so it is not forgotten, but saved for a follow-up discussion at another time.
4. Practice Active Listening
Effective facilitators must practice what they preach. Be sure you understand the basics of active listening and how to truly hear what others are expressing.
Active listeners tune in when others are speaking and don’t just think about how they can respond and look smart. Good listeners can easily paraphrase what others have said for the understanding of the entire group and use tools such as eye contact and observing body language to help build cohesion within participants.
5. Conclude with Action Steps (and Set the Next Meeting!)
Nothing feels worse than walking out of a useless meeting! Spend the last few minutes of every meeting wrapping up what you have accomplished. This helps boost the morale of attendees by reminding them of their productivity. Take this time to use your facilitation skills and assign work for group members to complete before the next meeting.
Another underrated aspect of the action steps portion of an agenda is setting the date for the following meeting. Even if you always meet on the second Tuesday of the month, keep this review on the agenda! This will ensure everyone is aware of the logistics for the following meeting, and avoids confusion about whether meetings are canceled because of a holiday or other event.
6. Encourage Opinions
One of the most challenging aspects of facilitation, especially in today’s contentious environment, is encouraging attendees to respectfully share and welcome opinions.
Facilitators must encourage all participants to share their opinions and should probe the group continually for their thoughts on the subject. A simple question like, “Do we all agree with that statement?” not only helps promote discussion but also provides a gentle opening for dissenters.
If things start to get too spicy, guide participants back to the ground rules. Stay strong as a facilitator and remember that everyone agreed to abide by the rules before the meeting began.
7. Be Respectful of Time
Another fatal mistake when facilitating is not staying on track with respect to time. Meetings that run too far over their scheduled time can make your participants feel like the nonprofit does not care about the other obligations in their lives. Effective time management is a key facilitation skill.
A meeting that ends long before the scheduled time is not much better. While many participants may be happy to have unexpected time back in their day, others may be annoyed that they made a drive to attend the meeting. Use an agenda to ensure calling a full meeting is truly justified.
Facilitation remains a surprisingly elusive skill for many. Watch any televised political debate and you can see how challenging it can be to keep people from interrupting each other, answer questions, and stay on topic!
However, nonprofits should invest time and energy into improving the facilitation skills of their leaders. Proper facilitation skills not only boost productivity in everyday work, these skills also improve the culture of philanthropy by promoting a respectful and open-minded workplace.