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Facilitators can focus on process so you focus on content

BRANDON — Rob Benson, president and CEO of First Steps Training & Development Inc., has a short answer to the number one value of having a professional meeting facilitator: A facilitator is someone who can focus on the process so you can focus on the content.

Meetings are more complex than we think, says Benson, who is a certified meeting professional with the International Association of Facilitators. Each meeting has a “content” side (the ideas you need to generate, the problem to address, the plan you need to conceptualize, the decisions you need to make, etc.) and a “human” side (how people feel about the task and each other, levels of trust between participants, who has the power in the room, what everyone’s energy level is at the moment, etc.). Each side needs to be managed well for a meeting to be successful.

Maximizing participation

“A professional meeting facilitator maximizes team participation, including yours if you’re the team leader,” Benson said. “His or her process engages all of the players and serves to focus each participant’s knowledge, experience and insight on the same issue at the same time, for better results in a shorter time frame. When the topic is important, you want to be able to focus all of your energies on the content itself, while knowing the group dynamics are also being addressed.”

Benson lists other benefits of using a trained facilitator:

• Objectivity. Someone who doesn’t “have a dog in this fight” can simply reflect to the group what he is observing, without any group members’ wondering if he’s taking sides.

• Experience with various processes. Choosing a new vendor, reducing overall defects or creating a strategic plan each requires a different process, and the “right” process, to be effective. Certified professional facilitators bring a wealth of experience assisting different clients to achieve different ends and can choose the best process to meet the client’s needs.

• Experience “herding cats”. Each person arrives at a meeting with their own needs, and during the course of the meeting will have his or her own insights, questions and concerns, whether spoken or not. Professional facilitators are adept at picking up on participants’ moods, in hearing what they say or don’t say, in bringing out what they do have to offer, and in keeping everyone moving along the same track.

Benson’s top 10

Benson says the following are the top 10 most important elements of successful meeting facilitation:

1. Preparation. Be very clear on what the client expects to achieve in the meeting. Help the client set realistic objectives and time frames for the meeting.

2. Process design. Choose the best process to achieve the objectives.

3. Agenda preparation and review. Develop an agenda prior to the meeting. Forward this to all team members for comment and input well in advance. Follow up with each person to ensure that your agenda addresses the pertinent issues. People who agree beforehand are less likely to sabotage your effort.

4. Manage time. Set time frames for each discussion, with group input, prior to start. If you finish a topic early, move to the next one. When you run into your time limit but there’s more to be done, pause and give the group the choice of tabling the topic (and keeping to time) or extending the time for the topic. Have them decide how much time, and then adjust your overall agenda.

5. Get help. Have a volunteer monitor the time. If you’re less than stellar with flipcharts, ask someone for assistance.

6. Develop ground rules. Depending upon the task, engage the group to develop its own norms or ground rules for the meeting. This becomes your leverage and tool if (no, when) someone gets out of line.

7. Set the example by modeling behaviors that you want to see such as listening for understanding, appropriate questioning and admitting when you don’t know.

8. Prepare for the basic human needs. “The mind cannot absorb more than the behind can endure,” so schedule a break every 60-90 minutes. Have some coffee or water available, with light snacks.

9. Summarize. Periodically paraphrase back to the group the substance of its conversations, the direction it seems to be going, and any conclusions. This will help them avoid repetition and move on when there is agreement, and it will also serve to bring out dissenting opinions when consensus has not yet been reached. Either way, you’re helping the group to continue with purposeful discussion.

10. Evaluate your meetings, every time. Meetings are like any other process in that they can be improved over time, but only if you choose to evaluate them. Save the last five minutes for everyone on the team to jot down “what I liked” and “What I didn’t like” for both process and content (four topics total). Have them read, without interruption from anyone else, their thoughts. Then have them give their notes to the team leader or next facilitator, if the position rotates within the team.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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