Take a moment to ponder all the important meetings and workshops you’ve attended throughout your career. This list isn’t your most cherished memory lane, I’m sure, but stick with me. What sessions stand out to you? Which were the worst or the best? What differed between a good and a bad meeting for you?
How many meetings did you attend where the purpose of getting together was clear, the participants and their roles were articulated, the logistics were well planned, and an agenda was made and communicated?
These are some signs before a meeting to know that it will be facilitated well.
How many meetings have you attended where a safe space was created for open dialogue, group dynamics were managed, data generation, analysis, and synthesis was laid out, that energy levels were high, and timing was precise?
These are some signs during a meeting that the meeting is being facilitated well.
How many meetings have you attended where the generated outputs and decisions were captured and documented? Was a follow-through on the stated next steps or feedback solicited to improve the next one? Were recommendations provided on what additional group work might be useful?
These are some signs after a meeting that the meeting was facilitated well.
Think again on those meetings that stood out for you—good and bad. Any chance the difference between your meeting experiences was because the meeting was facilitated well or not?
Were most of the meetings and workshops you’ve attended facilitated well? I’m guessing your answer is no. It’s my answer.
The most common reason I’ve observed is that the people running most of the meetings and workshops I’ve attended just weren’t great facilitators. More often than not, they weren’t trained facilitators.
We know well-facilitated meetings are better than poorly facilitated ones. We know trained facilitators are more likely to facilitate well. So then why don’t most of the meetings we attended have well-trained facilitators?
I think there are two reasons; The first reason is that most of us and our colleagues just haven’t done facilitation training or even read books on how to be a good facilitator. The second reason is that we don’t value good facilitation enough (or quickly forget the value after each great meeting). So, we don’t put the resources into ensuring a trained facilitator facilitates our most important meetings.
I came to this realization early in my career while I was working for the U.S. Geological Survey. I’m not sure I knew what a poorly facilitated meeting was until I experienced well-facilitated ones. The facilitator was one of the best I know of- Larry Susskind.
That experience was one reason that me-the-civil-engineer became interested in understanding group dynamics, participatory process design, and effective facilitation. I quit one Ph.D. program to work with an expert on group decision-making and participatory process design—my dissertation half-focused on these issues, particularly for science-intensive situations. I then became a contractor for Larry Susskind’s non-profit organization, The Consensus Building Institute, and other conflict resolution and public participation organizations. At Western Washington University, I taught facilitation within my conflict resolution course for eight years. And almost every year of my career since that great experience at the USGS, I have taken one or more facilitation training courses. I don’t think two months have gone by in the past 15 years that I didn’t facilitate some meetings.
I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m telling you this to give a sense of what it takes to become an excellent facilitator. I don’t know if I am a good facilitator in an absolute sense. But I know that I’m a better facilitator than most people who haven’t put time and money into training.
Do you have the motivation, time, and resources to become a better facilitator? It’s great if your answers to those questions are yes (and there are resources for you after this post). But I expect that most readers respond no to one or more of those questions. That’s fine: You have so many demands on your time and resources already. There’s no need to carve out that time for training, even if you want to.
Why? Because there are many trained, experienced facilitators who can support you in designing and running a productive meeting. If a meeting is essential and your team doesn’t have a trained facilitator, I believe it’s worth dedicating resources to bring a facilitator in for support.
The Impact360 staff members are all trained facilitators with years of experience and training, supporting groups of different sizes to meet the objectives I mentioned above. Jamie’s experience started in the Peace Corps doing community development work and was further refined at 18F in the U.S. General Services Administration, facilitating various federal project teams. Zane came out of the private sector as a consultant for local, state, federal, and tribal government projects. (He also was a student in my WWU conflict resolution course.) Daphne’s experience came from working at the National Weather Center, facilitating large public groups for weather awareness and education.
Impact360 offers facilitation services but only related to the application of our inclusive problem-solving toolkit called Toolkit360. We are happy to recommend facilitators to support your needs for meetings that aren’t for inclusive problem-solving to reduce natural hazards impacts and disaster risk. We also offer facilitation training workshops or can point you to others, including in the resources below, if you want to improve your facilitation and process design skills.
Useful Books on Facilitation and Process Design
Fisher, Roger and Ury, William. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. 3rd ed., rev. Ed, Penguin, 2011.
Fisher, Roger and Ury, William. Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations. Bantam, 1993.
Gray, Dave, et al. Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. First edition, O’Reilly, 2010.
IDEO. The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design: Design Kit. 1st. Ed, IDEO, 2015.
Kumar, Vijay. 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization. Wiley, 2013.
Stanfield, Brian. The Workshop Book: From Individual Creativity to Group Action. New Society Publishers. 2002.
Stanfield, Brian. The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace. New Society Publishers, Limited. 2000.
Wilkinson, Michael. The Secrets of Facilitation: The S.M.A.R.T. Guide to Getting Results with Groups. 1st ed, Jossey-Bass, 2004.