How can I become a more effective facilitator?

A facilitator helps a group move through a process to make necessary decisions to accomplish mutual goals in the available time.

An effective facilitator leads so that participants know the group is in charge, that their business is being conducted and in a way that enables each person to play a role. A facilitator suggests ways and uses tools to help the group move forward, but makes no decisions for the group.

The facilitator is responsible to the group and its work, not to individuals within the group. Therefore, a facilitator should not be afraid to:

  • Interrupt a speaker if they are off topic, not being concise or are repeating another person
  • Make suggestions to assist the meeting process
  • Make minor adjustments to the agenda as the meeting progresses

A good facilitator will:

  • Develop a detailed agenda after discussion with organization leaders. What exactly does the group want to accomplish? Focus, focus, focus! If discussion wanders, refocus the group on that agenda item.
  • Use participants’ names. If you don’t know everyone, make sure to provide readable name tags or make a seating chart during introductions. (Admit that you are making a "cheat sheet" so you can call people by name.)
  • Call on people in the order in which they raise their hands. Mention who follows whose comments, so people can lower their hands and focus on the discussion. “OK, first Dick, then Jane and then John...”
  • Make eye contact. When a person raises their hand, acknowledge them to let them know they have been noticed and added to the list. Eye contact is important; it establishes a relationship between the facilitator and participants. It allows the facilitator to read faces and know if anyone appears confused, restless or unhappy, and should be called on to speak. Eye contact helps keep everyone centered in the reality of the meeting.
  • Use the ground rules (mutually agreed upon meeting rules for participation) early on. For example, it is fine to respectfully interrupt someone if they are off topic and ask how their point fits with the agenda item being discussed. If it doesn't, tell them where it will be dealt with or write it in the "parking lot.” This is where items and ideas that aren't immediately pertinent are put for later consideration. A tactful, early application of ground rules strengthens the facilitator’s role and helps everyone be more self-disciplined.
  • Encourage the group to make a decision when discussion has slowed and no new information is presented. The facilitator can summarize what has been said and suggest a consensus proposal for the group to discuss, or the facilitator can ask someone in the group to suggest a proposal. For example, “What I hear everyone saying is..." or "A rough consensus might be...." Do not hesitate to ask the group for help to move forward.

This is part one of a two-part article series. Part two, "Techniques of Successful Facilitators: Minor, yet Major, Things to Remember" (available January 9), will describe additional tips and techniques that a good facilitator will use.

Michigan State University Extension offers educational programs and assistance to organizations in areas of strategic planning, board member professional development, conflict resolution and many other topics! To learn more about this and other programs, contact an expert in your area.

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