The Role of a Facilitator
Guiding an Event Through to a Successful Conclusion
Whether you're facilitating a one-off meeting or multi-session event, it's your role to manage discussions, to help bring ideas from all participants, and to get buy in for the outcomes you reach.
Here we explore the preparation you need to do, and provide tips and strategies for making your event a success.
What Is a Facilitator?
A facilitator plans, guides and manages a group event to meet its goals.
To facilitate effectively, you must be objective and focus on the "group process." That is, the ways that groups work together to perform tasks, make decisions and solve problems.  Good facilitation involves being impartial and steering the group so that its ideas and solutions flow.
It's difficult to both contribute and facilitate. So, if you have an interest in the outcome, or skills, experience or authority to add, consider bringing in an external facilitator.
How to Facilitate Effectively
To facilitate an event well, you must first understand the group's desired outcome, and the background and context of the meeting or event. With the group's objective clear, you can then structure the event and select the best tools to reach your outcome.
Let's explore a five-step strategy for doing this:
1. Plan Your Structure
An open, well-facilitated discussion could be the simplest option for your group. But if you have a large group, you may need a structured process to get everyone to participate, generate ideas, and cover a variety of topics.
Consider setting up smaller "break-out" groups (at an event or via virtual meeting apps) to make people more comfortable contributing ideas. Also, give participants time in the agenda to think about points they want to raise. You can schedule a brainstorming session to get ideas flowing.
Whether you're planning a straightforward meeting or big event, always keep the outcome in mind – and how you're helping the group to reach it. If the event spans different days and topics, be clear on the desired outcome for each and how they contribute to the overall objective.
Read our article, Running Effective Meetings, for more tips to set objectives and stick to them.
2. Create an Agenda
A solid agenda focuses on outcomes and lets the event flow. When planning it, consider the following:
- In what order will you present topics?
- How will participants get to know each other? In-person and virtual icebreakers can help.
- How will they understand the objectives? The Modified Borda Count is useful for prioritizing issues to reach a consensus.
- If an event is spread over separate sessions, how much time will you allocate each?
- Will all participants be in every session? As well as break-out groups, the Charette Procedure can help large groups to brainstorm effectively.
- How and when will break-out groups feedback to the wider group?
- When will you recap and summarize?
- How will the outcomes of one session flow into the next?
- How will you achieve closure of the overall event?
Other considerations when facilitating include:
Information and materials. What do participants need to know before or at the event? How and when will you provide this information?
Room or online arrangements. What set-up will best encourage participation? Do you need separate rooms or to set up a virtual meeting space?
Tech. Is your presentation saved offline in case of WiFi issues? Or do you need to give participants access to virtual whiteboards?
3. Guide and Control the Event
With the agenda and group process in place, it's time to think about how you'll guide and control the proceedings. These tips and suggestions will help:
- Set the ground rules: these could include respecting everyone's contribution, letting only one person speak at a time, and avoiding disparaging comments.
- Set the scene: Run through the objectives and agenda. Make sure that everyone understands their role, and what the group is seeking to achieve.
- Get things flowing let everyone introduce themselves, or perhaps use appropriate icebreakers to get the meeting off to a positive start.
- Keep up the momentum and energy: you might need to intervene as the proceedings and energy levels proceed. Make sure that people remain focused and interested. (If energy levels are beginning to flag, perhaps it's time to take a break?)
- Listen, engage and include: stay alert, listen actively, and remain interested and engaged. This sets a good example for other participants. Is everyone engaged? If not, how can you bring them in? How can you get better participation?
- Monitor checkpoints, and summarize: keep in control of the agenda, tell people what they've achieved and what's next; summarize often.
In addition to the above, watch for and close any side conversations. These distract others and people may be exchanging ideas that would benefit the group.
And keep an eye on timing. Be flexible and balance the need for participation with the need to keep things running efficiently. If a discussion isn't reaching a natural conclusion, you may need to park topics, gather more information, and schedule time to address outstanding points.
Also, intervene if one person is dominating discussions. Try a polite but firm, "Can I draw everyone back into the main issues for discussion." And watch out for the signs of Groupthink.
4. Record and Action
Last but not least among the responsibilities of a facilitator is the recording of outputs, and of bringing these together, sharing them, and making sure they are actioned.
The key to successful recording of outputs from an event is to be clear about what will be recorded, how and by whom. Make sure that people's responsibilities are 100 percent clear, whether they are yours or others' involved.
So, make sure participants hear, see and understand the information presented. Keep an accurate record of what's going on. If in doubt, record first and summarize later. When taking notes, try to use words that the group chooses. If you’re unsure, ask the group to provide the words for you to record.
Record all decisions and actions. You may want to enlist a note taker so that you can focus on the group. It's a good idea to take photos of brainstorming notes, or use collaborative whiteboard apps.
Remember to keep ;people focused and moving forward. If in doubt, ask for clarification before the discussion moves on. And record everyone’s responsibility for, and commitment to, action After the event, follow up to ensure agreed actions have progressed.
5. Reflect and Improve
After you facilitate a meeting, reflect on your own performance and consider how you could do things better next time. You could ask for feedback from the group or from a trusted colleague. Here are some useful tools and techniques to improve:
Strategy tools that help you understand your environment and think about the best way forward.
Creativity tools for finding solutions to complex problems.
Decision-making techniques for making difficult decisions.
To be an effective facilitator, you must plan and guide your event effectively, and remain focused on the group’s desired outcomes. To do this, follow these five steps:
- Plan Your Structure
- Create an Agenda
- Guide and Control the Event
- Record and Action
- Reflect and Improve
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