A Great Facilitator Drives Successful Conversations

How to facilitate a great meeting

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How to Be a Great Meeting Facilitator

Being an effective facilitator of company meetings is no easy feat. Effective facilitators employ many skills and often must think and act quickly to prevent conversations from derailing. But what is facilitation, and is successful facilitation repeatable? Facilitation is not the act of clearly communicating to a group, though it is nearly impossible to facilitate a session successfully without being a clear communicator. Nor is facilitation commanding a conversation and deciding everything that happens, although facilitators frequently redirect sessions when the discussion ceases to support progress toward the right objective.

Fundamentally, facilitation is the art of guaranteeing a productive conversation—most typically in a business setting.

The Role of the Facilitator

Whether facilitating one-on-one, with a small group, or with a large audience, a facilitator’s chief role is casting constant light on the priority objective(s) and ensuring the conversation advances those objectives to the greatest extent possible. While this may sound easy, anyone who has facilitated under pressure, when stakes were high, can attest that much can go wrong. Deadlines, disagreements, politics, technicalities, interdisciplinary problems, confounding variables, clashing personalities, wrong priorities, and many other variables all have the power to frustrate or even completely block the progress a facilitator seeks to make.

This article reviews a set of considerations facilitators can use to baseline their approach. The facilitator who follows these principles will find it difficult to lose their way.

A meeting facilitator presenting information on a screen

Identify Your Objectives

Unquestionably, a good facilitator must know what a successful conversation outcome would be. Is it achieving agreement between business leads and IT developers on the build solution? Is it getting signoff from the VP of marketing to inundate a new marketing platform? Perhaps it’s getting two feuding decision-makers to agree to a compromise that will pull the project out of gridlock. Ideally, the facilitator identifies the priority objectives at the beginning of the meeting and secures alignment with the critical parties before proceeding further. The facilitator who does not conceptualize a successful outcome of their conversation or does not align the group to a common objective will struggle with steering the conversation productively.

Until the priorities of the exchange are known and agreed upon, does anything else matter?

Identify the Key Stakeholers

While all members of your business audience are important, it is common that a select few are critical to advancing the conversation to success. These stakeholders may be decision-makers, subject matter experts, or both. Therefore, identifying the target audience is essential. Often it is a helpful research exercise to model an organizational structure using an org chart. Org charts are an easy way to see interconnections between stakeholders and ensure that the correct audience is in attendance for a session.

Tailor Content to Your Audience

Once the target audience is known, a good facilitator prepares to give that audience the precise information they need in the most understandable format possible. For example…

Is the target audience primarily big picture thinkers? If so, visual models such as Business Objectives Model and high-level flows are an invaluable way of distilling the information to the high points while avoiding losing the audience in a sea of details.

Is the target audience highly technical and architecturally minded? Then the facilitator would be remiss not to have slides or documentation that cover the technical landscape. Having technical documentation to share that the audience can review offline at their leisure is a great way to prevent the conversation from becoming sidelined when facilitating with a mixed group of technical and non-technical resources. Additionally, the facilitator might prepare more technical models such as system flows, ecosystem maps, and various data models.

Tailoring preparation means curating the information necessary to facilitate a successful outcome from the conversation by analyzing the target audience and objectives to ensure that all relevant information is optimally represented for their understanding.

Facilitators Keep Things Concise

Proficient facilitators err on the side of brevity wherever possible to add emphasis to the points they wish to make. The more words a person communicates, the less emphasis they tend to place on their critical points. The audience’s attention tends to stretch thinner in proportion to how much information a facilitator or speaker shares with them.

To use an analogy from basic mixology, the more water one adds to a solution, the more diluted the original compound becomes. By parallel, many words can dilute a critical point.

Next time you facilitate a session, consider working in the above principles. While not all conversations require extensive preparation, every conversation is an opportunity to set a precedent of excellent facilitation that delights your stakeholders.  

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