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  • Writer's pictureJ.D. Solomon

Ask the Experts: The Lost Art of Facilitation

"The Cow and the Calf" is US Coast Guard Electricians Mate Second Class Paul Frantz artistic interpretation of facilitation based on an observation from this month's moderator, Charles Wingard. This visual reminds us of the good that often comes from any well-facilitated session.

This month’s Ask the Experts is a one-on-one lightning round with Jeff Lineberger. Jeff has served as both a facilitator and a participant on many large, controversial projects involving natural resources, investor-owned utility relicensing, and regional collaboration. Over the course of his long and successful career, Jeff has worked with a variety of paid and unpaid facilitators on projects that have ranged from single sessions to multiple sessions over multiple years.

We were pleased to have Charles Wingard moderate the conversation. Charles is a leader and partner of a large, family-owned agriculture corporation with major farms in four states and contract suppliers in several others. Charles is a “go to” policy leader in his home state of South Carolina and spends a fair portion of his time in Washington, DC collaborating on agricultural issues.

- J.D.


What does facilitation mean to you?

JL: Facilitation is helping other people advance a relationship.

JD: Bringing a group of people to a common direction

JL: Facilitation involves listening very well and helping other people get to where they need to go. It involves helping people find their own solutions, without telling them how to do it.

JD: Yes, it’s bringing the group together to collaboratively resolve their issues.

Can anyone be a good facilitator? A great one?

JD: You can learn to be a good facilitator. I don’t think everyone can be a great one.

JL: I agree. There are a lot of great training opportunities to teach people to be good facilitators. But I think the best of the best facilitators have certain abilities that are hard to teach.

JD: Empathy is a key one. Great facilitators have a natural ability to understand where their participants are and where they are coming from.

JL: The best of the best were born with that skill. They have outstanding natural abilities to size up people and understand where they are coming from. They can listen but they can also understand what is not said. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes is something that is born into great facilitators.

Should a facilitator spend time with participants before the session?

JL: Yes, they should. And they need to be open and honest about it as part of the approach.

JD: Agree. The pre-session work helps for the meetings to be more efficient. It also helps the meeting be more effective by providing the facilitator with some of the potentially sensitive issues.

JL: Facilitators may be told some things in confidence and they need to respect that confidence. But you also must share some of the non-confidential information in ways that maintains the group’s trust. But it’s all part of understanding where participants are and building trust.

JD: People open up when they trust you. The trust and rapport that you build is essential. The pre-session interactions are important.

Do you prefer to walk in “cold” as the facilitator so that you do not have bias, or do you prefer to understand the subject matter before you facilitate the session?

JD: I like to do my homework. You are not expected to be an SME. I do like facilitators to know enough not to waste the participants’ time.

JL: I agree with JD. You need to have a good idea of the material subject matter. You are not expected to be an SME, but you do need to recognize the very high value of the collective time investment. The facilitator really needs to do one thing – prevent participants from feeling like in the end that they have wasted their time.

JD: I really like that.

JL: If the facilitators are not prepared and do not understand the interests of the participants, then the process is likely to be less efficient and will have a greater chance of wasting everyone’s time.

What are a couple of your favorite tools or techniques for getting a group to common understanding?

JL: Pre-session training is one. I have been a part of interest-based negotiation training, which may sound odd, but it really gets people to a better foundation up-front. Humans are naturally more inclined to be positional bargainers where you are trying to get “what” you want by getting everyone to your position. Interest-based negotiation really looks deeper into “why” people want what they want. Pre-session training in areas like interest-based negotiation really helps get to a successful conclusion.

JD: The training piece hits home with me. I do both “non-technical” facilitation like strategic plans and more “technical” facilitation like failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) and root cause analysis. With the more technical facilitation, it is usually important to do some up-front training in the process you are using and how you intend to bring the group to the end product. Without a common foundation, subject matter experts tend to spend time being suspicious of where you are trying to lead them, which can hurt the end product or cause the process to be inefficient.

JL: My second technique is to set a deadline. Many people want more information and never can get enough. Deadlines drive people to make decisions with the information they have.

JD: A second technique for me is using normative processes where everyone can speak and feel that they have been heard. I use everything from simple notecards that we compile on a dry board to electronic audience response systems. Everyone needs to feel like their ideas and positions are heard, and it is a key job of the facilitator to make sure that happens.

What approaches do you use as most effective for handling troublesome participants?

JD: The pre-session interactions that we discussed earlier is my first one. Having a good idea of participants’ interests and building rapport up-front really lowers the odds of having troublesome behavior. Back down from making too much of an emotional scene.

JL: I agree with JD on that one and would add that it’s important to use that knowledge to ideally separate the people from the problem. If someone is really emotional, then it is really easy for others to get emotional and personal. Then you have a big argument.

JD: Another technique I like to use is to find the other experienced facilitators in the room. I am always amazed in any group I facilitate that there are usually participants who are also trained in facilitation. If I make those connections up-front and can use those people to help me control the room, then that is what I will do. It is subtle, but the instincts of trained facilitators will kick in if things start to get a little sideways. You need to be intentional in using this technique before you encounter an issue in a session.

JL: It is also imperative for the facilitator not to get mad. And that is a hard thing to do. The facilitator must remember that they are working “for” the process, regardless of who may be paying them or who they like or dislike. The best facilitators set up ways to avoid getting mad or wrapped up in the emotion. Sometimes everyone just needs a time-out. The best facilitators don’t get trapped by a troublesome participant.

What is the most overlooked or underappreciated aspect of facilitation?

JL: Listening skills. It is not verbal skills. Listen and understand. One of the most important needs of participants is to have their opinions heard, understood and respected.

JD: Listening is big. The structure in how you ask questions or get clarification is important. Tough questions or comments. We all learn some of this in training, but I am not sure it is fully appreciated. There is a natural ability in some facilitators to be able to ask questions and not get people mad at what people think they may be asking.

JL: Pay attention to who is not talking. Great facilitators recognize this and understand everyone is there for a reason.

JD: I agree. Listening to what is not said is usually more important than what is said.

What has surprised you most over the years, either as a facilitator or as part of a facilitated group?

JD: A good surprise is the power of the charter. It really helps to get the problem framed, and the ground rules established. I am constantly surprised with how important and helpful it is when you get to the end and have sticking points with getting a good result, especially when the facilitation involves multiple sessions.

JL: My good surprise is the willingness to invest time in long stakeholder processes. The ones that are getting paid to be there have many other priorities and responsibilities and regular participation is not always high on the list. There many non-paid participants who freely give their time. I am constantly surprised and appreciative of the time that dedicated people give to finding good solutions.

JD: My bad one is dishonest brokers. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I continue to be surprised when it happens. You spend the time with people, and you think you have rapport and trust. Then in the end you find out that they really were not there to find a successful result. It is expected from time to time, but I am still surprised when it happens.

JL: Two bad ones to share and one similar to JD. There are some people who will engage but they are really not there to reach agreement---they are there to sow confusion. I am better now at spotting them early and not letting them tank the process, but I am always a little surprised and disappointed.

JL: Another one relates to long processes. Oftentimes when you get to implementation you do not have all the same people who were involved in the beginning. You really need to continue spending time with participating organizations after the decisions are made for constant education in order to make sure you fulfill what was agreed upon in the facilitated process.


Wingard’s Warnings

  1. Facilitation is like helping birth a calf. You need to know where to stand - close but not too close. You are probably going to get kicked anyway. You may even get some “dirt” on you. But usually in the end something good is produced. Your role as a facilitator is to help make that happen.

  2. The picture frame activity that JD used with the SC Water Plan was highly effective for getting a very diverse group on the same page. It is important to get everyone of the same page in the beginning of the process.

  3. We often appreciate the end product, the great dialogue we have, and the great communication with people from different perspectives. We usually do not fully appreciate the important role of a great facilitator in making it all happen.

  4. As a committee chairman, I use many of the same techniques to get groups to consensus.

  5. Many of the same techniques can be used every day, whether at home, in business, at church, or in other social activities.


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