Learn from facilitators and add this pro-level skill to your leadership toolbelt
Not having good meeting facilitation is like blindly sailing a ship without a captain. However, all you need are some tools for your facilitation toolkit and you'll be sailing in no time. Let's dive into the essential role of facilitation and show you how to utilize this skill set to get the most out of meetings. We will cover what makes professional facilitators so great and share practical AND fun ways you can begin honing your facilitation skills today.
“Great facilitators create magical meeting experiences — the kind of gatherings that all participants feel they were better off because of it. To facilitate is to make things easier. A skilled facilitator makes it easier for all of us to listen, understand, consider, imagine, take action, and focus. They are able to go beyond individual intelligence and harness the power of a group’s intelligence.”
💡 John Fitch, Master Facilitator | Voltage Control
Throughout this series, we’ve talked about how it's not enough to just get the right people in the same room, or the same virtual space, and expect magical things to happen. Those people need to work together in such a way that the sum of the group is greater than the parts. That can mean calling forth insights from the introverts, mixing and mashing the expertise of wizened pros and passionate newcomers, or simply curating the information discussed and synthesizing it to take next steps. Like the best coaches, excellence in working together requires a magical form of teamwork.
So what makes the magic? Let’s look at a few things we've learned from experts in the field — the heroes of our story today — the facilitators.
Characteristics of good facilitation
We’ve previously covered nine fundamental problems with meetings (and how to avoid them). But if we step back and look at the big picture, we see four foundational concepts that are especially important — they’re table stakes for working together. And they reveal how facilitation can uniquely help.
1. Everyone has a voice
It can be a real challenge to ensure that the ideas of every single person in the room are heard, especially during larger meetings. One person may hold the floor for too long, more introverted attendees may be hesitant to speak up, and the flow of conversation can be hard to manage. How do you overcome these problems? You incorporate a facilitator — that is, an unbiased, third-party leader whose role is to swiftly guide the group through the decision-making process so that they can meet their objectives and have fruitful conversations to achieve the best outcomes. A facilitator helps you get the most out of the meeting by being a neutral guide.
FACILITATOR: A facilitator is someone who plans, designs, and leads a key group meeting or event. Their job is to ensure that the group meets their objectives, has fruitful conversations, and walks away having accomplished their objectives. Facilitation, itself, is emerging quickly as a critical skill individuals need to collaborate effectively every day.
2. Room intelligence
When you hear the ideas of just a few people in the room, you’re unable to fully tap into the power of room intelligence – the idea that the collective intellect of the entire room is more clever and innovative than any single thinker. Collaboration is much mightier than individual brainpower if the team can work well together. Hearing and incorporating diverse perspectives makes for richer outcomes; synergetic intelligence breeds more creativity, therefore producing more possible ideas and creative solutions. A facilitator has the ability to cultivate and harness room intelligence so that your team’s skills and perspectives are fully utilized.
ROOM INTELLIGENCE: the collective intellect of an entire room; the idea that the smarts of the whole group add up to more imaginative, innovative thinking than any solo thinker.
3. Psychological safety
If a meeting environment doesn’t feel like a safe space for attendees to voice their opinions and be heard, it can immensely stifle creativity and productivity. Any judgment or fear of being reprimanded or criticized can hold people back from sharing their perspectives. A psychologically safe environment is one where everyone in attendance feels accepted and respected. You can create this environment by including everyone from the very start of the meeting. Establish that you want to hear everyone’s ideas and have their contribution. As previously mentioned, the best meeting outcomes are ones with diverse perspectives. Don’t allow any one person to speak for too long, and encourage quieter participants to join in. You can also hold space for an “open floor” discussion for people to freely ask questions or speak their mind.
PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY: an environment where each team member feels safe to take risks, ask questions, challenge authority and admit mistakes.
4. Playful, productive imagination work
“Why so serious?” Yes, it’s important to stay focused during work gatherings, but it can be exceptionally beneficial to incorporate a dose of fun. Embracing the child’s mind at work creates a safe environment for failure, and it makes room for marvel rather than judgment. When you are active, present, curious, and playful, you create a bedrock of discovery and productivity that will lead to more creative solutions. A great way to do this is by incorporating improv exercises at the beginning of your meeting to help people open up and get the juices flowing. Establishing a high ceiling for creativity signals to your team that anything is possible.
CHILD'S MIND: playful and carefree mindset that creates space for fearless risk and imagination.
How a facilitator helps
A designated meeting guide — a facilitator — can have a significant impact on all collaboration, especially benefitting workshops and meetings. A facilitator is the North Star that leads a team to the desired destination. Skilled facilitators also make the journey smooth and as fruitful as possible. Here are a few key advantages of incorporating a facilitator into your meetings and workshops.
Can take on an ‘outsiders’ perspective, which is critical to being an unbiased leader removed from office politics.
Expert in guiding groups through tough, complex, or politically charged conversation and discussions
Equipped with a vast toolkit of professional methods and activities to get you to the outcomes you want
Able to ensure the whole group participates and is present for optimal outcomes
Frees up critical stakeholders to engage in the work-at-hand instead of worrying about the agenda or logistics; they operate the machine so stakeholders can be active participants
Can bring clarity to groups, helping them navigate through critical or fuzzy decision points
What makes a great facilitator
A facilitator has the power to help you transform your meetings, but what gives them these superpowers? The best facilitators have developed specific qualities that allow them to lead without judgment or rigidity. Here are the 5 characteristics of a good facilitator:
Impartiality: Skilled facilitators don’t arrive with a personal agenda or their own opinions about the topic at hand. Instead, they are objective, unbiased, and experts at directing groups through decision-making processes.
Confidence: Keen ability to skillfully control the room and keep all participants interested and engaged throughout the meeting.
Humility: Separate themselves from the meeting; they know it’s not about them and relish that fact. They understand that the team is the star of the show and that it’s their job to help the group shine.
Flexibility: Adaptable to any and all change. Whether participants want something different or the agenda needs to change, facilitators are comfortable course-correcting as needed during the gathering.
Curiosity: Genuinely interested in their client’s problems, product, or challenge and is excited to learn more about it so they can help guide them to the best possible outcome(s).
"People hate meetings, and yet so many of us crave connection. Most of us are inclined to be successful, yet often meetings don’t foster productivity. Skilled facilitators know how to nurture our motivation to be successful by removing the blocks that prevent us from accomplishing together what we know we cannot do alone … Your job (as a facilitator) is to help group members express their observations, feelings, and insights so they can take collective actions.”
A facilitator sounds pretty great, but when exactly should you call upon an expert? It’s typically not necessary for your everyday meeting, but they can be instrumental for workshops and larger initiatives, such as:
What about when you’re holding regular, day-to-day meetings and can’t hire a facilitator? Next, let’s talk about how you can bring the skill of facilitation into your everyday work life.
How you can use the skill of facilitation every day to improve your meetings
You may not need a pro to help you navigate an everyday situation, but the skills of facilitation can be applied to your daily work. In fact, all teams can benefit from the skill of facilitation.
Imagine making your weekly stand-ups, monthly planning sessions, and ad hoc project meetings more effective. You can! You don’t have to be a full-time facilitator to benefit from facilitation. The skills of a facilitator can be learned and built upon. And what's more, in today's world – where teams are often distributed across screens, rooms, and timezones – facilitation is perhaps the most critical leadership skill you can have.
Facilitation skills can help you during meetings in the following ways.
Before: Planning and logistics
Determine goals: Help identify the specific reason for the meeting as well as the team’s desired outcomes.
Build an agenda: Based on the team’s goals, establish a plan and design the exact activities that will take place during your session to support them. Also, only invite the essential people that need to be there. Make sure you have a range of perspectives and there aren’t too many or too few people in attendance.
Logistics: Determine what tools you need to get the job done well and make sure all attendees know how to use them. Make sure to choose the tools that best fit your needs. For example: a virtual meeting needs a space to meet like Zoom, and to do the work in the meeting, you’ll need a digital whiteboard like MURAL to work asynchronously with your team. Also, keep an eye on the time and make sure you are following your agenda accordingly. A tight schedule keeps things rolling.
During: Lead the group
Guide the group through the agenda and the decision-making process. Help team members where they get stuck; answer questions and redirect the conversation back to the task at hand if it goes off course. Herd the sheep!
Ensure equal participation amongst the group. Keep an eye on people who eat up time talking, and encourage those who haven’t shared to contribute their perspective. Here is a helpful example script: “I’m noticing that we haven’t heard from everyone in the group throughout most of this discussion. Who hasn’t shared their perspective yet?”
Synthesize the information gathered during the meeting. If you’re taking notes or working in MURAL during the meeting, you have the opportunity to combine similar ideas and group common themes together in real-time. Synthesizing the data also serves as a living document to refer back to as your team takes next-steps.
After: Playback and reporting
Debrief: Always circle back with the group about what was discussed and what needs to be done next. This helps with retention as well as maintaining forward momentum. Assign the appropriate people with corresponding tasks to complete, and make sure everyone knows their responsibilities before the meeting is adjourned. Follow up with attendees with an email after the meeting with a list of the designated tasks and due dates to complete them by.
Summarize what happened: Take photos and notes and synthesize everything in one place, like a mural, so you can share and reflect on what you accomplished at your meeting. This type of summarization provides evergreen visual artifacts that you can refer to when needed.
You can implement facilitation skills in your own meetings as soon as today! And we encourage you to. Why wait? There’s no time to waste when magical meetings are possible. Facilitation skills will bring your meetings, and therefore the work your organization does, to the next level. We’ve created two MURAL templates to help get you started.
The Team Facilitator Finder is a discovery tool you can use with your team to locate the right facilitator inside of your organization. This is helpful for identifying the best person to lead specific meetings.
The Personal Facilitation Growth Plan will help you curate your own facilitator development plan. First, explore your strengths as a facilitator, and then dive into opportunities to develop your weaknesses.
The final part of our Effective Meetings Series addresses the future of facilitation and how the culture of collaboration is changing (for the better!). We’ll tell you about all of the cool need-to-knows regarding the future of work, what to look out for, and what becomes possible.
About the author
About the authors
Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual.