April 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio April 1999 Current Issue
April 1999 Back to BasicsPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

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The Art of Facilitation

Hiring session leaders to steer meetings in the right direction

Every meeting manager wants attendees to walk away from educational seminars with something they can use on Monday morning. Yet, when workshop evaluations are littered with comments like “The speaker did not discuss the topic” and “I wanted to learn one thing, but the speaker covered a totally different aspect of the topic,” it is time to reconsider who is conducting the session.

A planner reviewing such evaluations probably scratches her head and wonders where the event went awry. The speaker came highly recommended, was knowledgeable and seemed thoroughly prepared. Or was he? Perhaps what the workshop required was a different type of speaker, one who goes beyond the standard, didactic lecture format. An advanced instruction technique called “facilitation” may be just what the meeting doctor ordered.

The term “facilitator” has been batted around a lot in training literature lately, describing everything from a small-group leader to a teacher using strategic, interactive methods.

In typical meetings, people play one of two roles: leader or participant. Sometimes, the leader is also a participant, but not when a facilitator is involved. He remains neutral, controlling the meeting and guiding it toward its objectives. A facilitator is a servant of the group, responsible for promoting discussions, question-and-answer sessions and in-class exercises. Some examples where a facilitator is desirable are focus groups, strategic-planning sessions and conflict-resolution meetings.

Knowledge of the subject at hand isn’t as important for a facilitator as it is for a podium speaker. The facilitator at a strategic-planning session for a real estate referral organization doesn’t have to be a real estate expert. He has to know strategic-planning concepts and processes and how to get the attendees to use their expertise to create a viable plan. He can learn the basics of the industry by reading collateral material and interviewing top staffers. The key asset he must have is a wealth of people skills that transfer to a group of any size or makeup. He has to adapt his instructional style to different situations; analyze group dynamics; interpret nonverbal messages; use competition, cooperation and behavior-modification techniques, and subtly direct the group toward its goal. The one rule to emphasize is that the group is the session’s reservoir of knowledge and creativity.

Not all of these characteristics are equally important. Many depend on the type of meeting being held. A facilitator handling a strategic-planning session needs to be a master at motivation and at keeping the session fun, because strategic-planning can be a dry process. Facilitating a workshop where a new subject is being learned requires the ability to use an open discussion method in concert with a flexible agenda.

Many of the same guidelines for finding a good speaker apply when looking for a facilitator. Start by getting recommendations from colleagues, auditioning candidates via tape or in person and checking references thoroughly. When asking how effective a facilitator was, planners should determine that the situation in which he was working was similar to the event for which he is being considered.

Here are some other elements to look for: someone who is comfortable in front of a large audience, is able to think on his feet and knows how to handle difficult participants. Look for a facilitator who can digest complex issues and industry-specific items quickly and who has great endurance, since many strategic meetings can go on for days.

Beware of candidates who want to implement their own programs before reviewing the group’s needs. A good facilitator will want to conduct individual interviews with some of the participants prior to the meeting. He will want to meet with the planner or other members of the management team to discuss goals and hot buttons, and to learn something about the organization and its industry.

Associations such as the American Society for Training and Development in Alexandria, Va., and the American Management Association in New York City are good sources for facilitators. Also, many large accounting firms have facilitators available through their management or organizational development departments.

Facilitators can bring the result that is the ultimate goal of every meeting: Attendees feel they have had a valuable experience, and the event’s objectives have been met.

Martha Jo Dendinger, CMP, is an independent meeting planner in Atlanta.

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