7. Write It Down and then Discuss
One of my first rules or guidelines to new facilitators is
“Write down the first thing that someone says!”
Turn words floating in the air into something black and white (depending, of course, on your paper and pen colors). This almost always forces a reaction from the remaining members of the group you are facilitating. If not, ask for their reaction.
I always FOREWARN the group I am facilitating that this is exactly what I’m going to do. If someone will be so brave as to volunteer a response to my question or statement, I’ll write it down to prompt their reaction. Either it stays, or someone takes exception to it and the group dialogue begins. Do we have a consensus or not? Until I write it down, I’m not always sure. It’s the reaction of the group, verbally or nonverbally (those clues and cues again), that tell me.
I tell the group that today they are on the payroll to provide the inputs, per my process. They should all be okay with not being in total agreement, and they must be okay with questioning and challenging each other. We are usually in a hurry and need to accomplish plenty, and time is a wastin’. The best way to keep the process moving is to ask/seek what you’re looking for, write down the first response, and then ask for group confirmation, questions, comments, and concerns.
If the facilitator asks and then does nothing with the response, he/she seems to be waiting for the correct answer. That will tend to inhibit the free flow of inputs/responses that you may be seeking. I always write it down, unless it is so wrong that I don’t want to overly embarrass the individual who volunteered the wrong stuff. Then I rephrase my question so drastically, or shift gears and go into something that I may have forgotten, and then ask again (usually with an example or two of what I’m looking for and hope that the group doesn’t notice the swift move I’ve put on them).
Of course some may know exactly what I’ve done and will usually appreciate it. They bet that if they make a similar faux pas, I’ll help save their face, too. This fear-reduction technique is especially important when the group of people being facilitated are not totally comfortable with each other because they don’t know each other, or they do know each other and they don’t necessarily get along.
Again, this is not passive facilitation, which might be the appropriate route to take for your assignment. This is aggressive, confrontational, proactive facilitation. This is the quickest route to getting the most data out of a group process. You need to decide the situational appropriateness of this method for your needs and for your personality style. Again, it always depends. Sorry.
8. Use of Humor
Humor, done right, sets the stage. The message to be sent by humor (and can be said out loud to be declarative) is that while our goal is serious, let’s not take ourselves too seriously. Let’s loosen up a bit.
Self-deprecating humor is best. It offends no one, because you (the facilitator) are the butt of all/most of it.
Use of yourself as the “bozo on the bus” is effective because you can make points and laugh at yourself. And if you later inadvertently make someone else the butt of your jokes or points, you can recover by turning it back on yourself. For example: “Oh, that was smart . . . I guess you’re joining me in the duh-uh club. Hey, but I’m still president.”
When providing examples and non-examples, use yourself as the non-example and others in the room as the example. “Pete is competent and will get the training, and if he does well, he’ll get the raise. Guy is still screwing up, and if the training doesn’t take hold or he doesn’t use what he learns, he’s outta here!”
Don’t use off-color humor, sexist, racist, age-ist, or any non-PC (politically correct) humor. Make sure the butt of your jokes is most often YOU!!! Who could complain?
Then, after establishing myself as the biggest bozo on the bus, I often include others in my other jokes/wisecracks—but only if I am darn sure that they’ll be okay with it, because they have started picking on me (in fun of course), or they have made fun of themselves in some way. Again, this is tricky and you’ve got to be pretty darn sure of what you’re doing.
If humor doesn’t come naturally to you, try this first at your next family outing before you attempt to foist any humor on the next group or team you are asked to facilitate. See what kind of reaction you get (from people who know you and love you much better than this possible group of strangers who won’t be quite sure where you’re coming from).
9. Controlling the Process and Participants
The facilitator can never let one individual, or a small group within the larger group, dominate the meeting.
The best thing to do if this begins to happen to you is to thank the person for their input and then ask someone else for theirs. Then shift your style to aim specific questions at specific individuals. “Bob what do you think the next set of tasks are for this output?”
Take the offenders aside at the next break and explain that you need a balance of inputs to ensure a consensus is forming. While you appreciate their contributions, you hope they understand what you’re doing. Usually they get the message and back off. Maybe they’ll need another reminder or two. Sometimes none of these tactics work.
I have disinvited participants from my meetings. That means I asked them to leave. I’ve been at the point that their participation was so dysfunctional that I asked them to leave and when they resisted, I suggested that I would call their boss to insist that they be requested to return to the office. That’s when they either drastically changed their behavior, or they left. I had no choice. They were so disruptive that they were wasting the time and productivity of everyone else.
Of course, I was at the last straw on the camel’s back and it was broken. Prior to that I had taken them aside during a specially called break and warned them of my next move (asking them/insisting that they depart the process). Prior to that I had taken them aside during a regular break to discuss their participation style and the effect on the group and our progress. Prior to that I had tried to manage their behavior during the meeting by asking out loud that they let others participate more. Prior to that I had tried to get the group to help me self-manage the problem participant by asking for their opinions in response to the one individual’s points.
I had exhausted all possibilities. I had tried and I was done and so were they.
When push comes to shove, I have to shove back. I am the person that the group looks to control the process and continue our progress. I can’t blame their hesitancy to act. Otherwise, I am allowing someone (or more than one person) to waste all of our collective time and energies. Don’t let this happen to you. Take charge, take action. It isn’t pleasant, but it is the job of the facilitator—at least in my view of the role of the proactive facilitator.
10. Legibility Rules for the Flip Chart Pages
Another of my favorite rules is
“Neatness does not count, legibility does.”
Maybe it just suits my personality best, being somewhat messy. Those that know me usually think differently. I’m a very structured person—I love structure and hate chaos. But once I get on a roll with the group, or more importantly, once they get on a roll, I don’t take a lot of time to write down their inputs/responses so carefully that I slow them down. I try to write fast.
In fact, I write so fast and furiously that I have to make sure I don’t violate the legibility rule that means so much to whomever has to word-process my work afterward. Even when I have word-processed my charts later, I have found that I was not always able to recall what the words were in my attempt to clean up my own mess.
So if you can’t do both, at least be legible if not always neat!
11. Beware of Group Think and Push Back
Group think is a danger. It is usually caused by one or more variables.
• A single dominant participant who intimidates everyone else
• Multiple dominant participants who are aligned
• Sometimes this is a high-level manager to whom most everyone else in the room reports
• A docile, lazy group easily dominated and that doesn’t want to work too hard
• A group of timid participants, unsure of themselves, and afraid of going against the grain of the stronger personalities
The key cause could be poor selection of the group members for the meeting, which sometimes is avoidable and sometimes is not.
More importantly, it’s caused by a facilitator who has let go of their control of the process and has let someone else facilitate from the other side of the U-shaped tables. Bad. Bad. Bad.
When I feel/think that group think is happening, I stop the process and confront the group. I ask them to go over their last inputs and give me their personal rationale for their decisions. I tell them (being declarative of course) of my concern and ask them to speak for themselves. Then I back up and go over the last inputs/responses very slowly, and reconfirm their inputs and their rationale.
If that doesn’t stop it, maybe nothing will, unless we change the entire nature of the group process. It may be avoided initially by making sure that the folks chosen for the group effort are strong enough to not fall into this trap.
12. Assigning Parking Lot Valets
The use of a “parking lot” for issues that arise that may not be timely in a very structured process, is a good idea. Post a flip chart on the wall and write “Issue Parking Lot” or something similar on the top, and then add things that are premature or we don’t ever intend to address in the meeting, so as not to forget them. At the end of the meeting, or sooner as appropriate, address them and close them out. Those that remain open will have to be addressed and resolved some other time and some other way.
I usually have two parking lots, one for open issues and one for closed issues, so everyone can see progress in addressing those that can be addressed in our meeting.
But I hate being the parking valet! It seems that I spend so much time parking everyone’s issues that I run myself ragged from one flip chart to another. So I’ve hit on this device—an improvement if you will. We hand out “stickies” and ask everyone to jot down their own issues and self-park them. Then at every review/preview checkpoint, we review what’s new in the open parking lot, and we take the time to see what can be parked in the other lot.
Try it. It gets your group more involved, makes them articulate their issues/concerns themselves, and gets their butts out of their seats on occasion, which may be the most beneficial aspect of the self-parking lot concept.