The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. As a playwright and novelist, Shaw had a keen sense of the need to keep his audience engaged and the plot flowing, without losing sight of the underlying message.
For conference organisers whose task is to ensure that the message of an event is conveyed in speeches, breakout sessions and presentations, truer words were never spoken. Meetings facilitation, as it’s commonly referred to, can seem like an illusive art in which the aim and the outcome often appear worlds apart.
However, with the right tools and the right motivation, groups big and small can come together for conferences, seminars, and sales meetings, and leave feeling like issues have been resolved, goals have been accomplished, and clear communication has in fact taken place.
Internal or External?
In a traditional meeting setting, the role of the facilitator is key in moving the agenda forward, keeping participants on topic, and making sure that the tone of the meeting remains open, respectful and productive. As such, it is widely accepted that the facilitator should be someone who does not have a strong opinion to express on the meeting’s topic and who can remain objective. This can sometimes be problematic when using someone internally to fill the role.
Nigel Seys-Phillips of Fulcrum Business Management Solutions in Singapore explains: “Where you’ve got meetings in a variety of circumstances, people internally [often] have an agenda, whether they want to or not, and it’s really hard to throw off that impression. [Meeting participants] know you in a work environment, so it’s difficult to switch to being a facilitator and being completely objective.”
If it’s possible to use an external person, he says, “it gives people a degree of interest and commitment to the meeting. You won’t have as many people sending emails over BlackBerry, scratching their heads, or stirring their coffee”. But while using someone outside the company may seem preferable, Seys-Phillips notes “that doesn’t mean there aren’t really good people in a number of organisations that facilitate very well”.
Using an external facilitator would be most appropriate for a board meeting, or when dealing with particularly dicey topics to be discussed on a retreat.
But this is clearly not always feasible, nor would this be appropriate, in every situation. In that vein, for breakout sessions and meetings, asking an employee from a different department to facilitate may be a more suitable option. Conference and event organisers, who do not know the company staff, would be well advised to have a conversation with a company point person or with the event’s chairperson to source individuals particularly suited to or trained in the role of a facilitator.
Who makes a good facilitator? Again, the notion of the role and how it functions successfully can seem nebulous. Dr Jason Jixuan Hu and Wenjun Du, facilitator trainers at WINTOP Consulting in Shanghai responded: “The first important characteristic of a good facilitator is the ability to stay neutral and (avoid) taking sides in debates or discussions. In order to achieve this, he or she should have a sufficient level of self-awareness, awareness of others and awareness of group dynamics.”
Seys-Phillips adds: “I think your experience allows you to (facilitate well). For me, just that sheer life experience has a lot to do with it. It truly makes the biggest difference between a good facilitator and a not-so-good facilitator.”
Conveying the message of the event or conference, to the chairman and to the facilitators, is a point that cannot be overemphasised. At times, the chairman is someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to devote to the planning process, but that doesn’t mean he or she shouldn’t be involved. Dr Hu and Du adds: “A planning team that includes key persons as well as facilitators should come together (so they all) understand the goals in advance. Assign each facilitator a role according to the plan so that he or she fully understands his or her responsibility during the event. Here, planning and designing together is the key.”
When a plan is constructed as a team rather than being enforced from the top down, all participants go into the conference or event with a comprehensive understanding of the goals, and how they are meant to be accomplished.
For most conference organisers looking at a weekend’s worth of events, meals, meetings and activities, the notion of having to introduce participants to the idea of meetings that are democratic, and led by one person may not come to mind immediately. However, as Dr Hu and Du points out, this may be the case in certain circumstances.
They explain: “We work in the Chinese context where there was [until recently] no concept of facilitation in history. In order to promote this concept, we created a new Chinese word, “Jian Dao”, which means, ‘to constructively lead’, rather than using an old word ‘to lead’ as some facilitators did before. A facilitator is an expert in process rather in content, which is new to many Mainland Chinese people.”
People from different countries approach meetings and discussions from varying perspectives. In some cultures, the notion of a democratic system of discussion, led by someone who is not the most senior person at the table, is quite foreign. While globalisation in business has made these types of situations less prominent hurdles, if a weekend event is hosting delegates from countries around the region or around the globe, facilitators should be made aware that they need to explain their role more thoroughly before the meeting begins to avoid any confusion.
Every event coordinator knows that even with the best intentions, meetings rarely start and end on time. There are ways that meeting facilitators can utilise the first five to 10 minutes of a meeting without having to start again when latecomers arrive.
Dr Hu and Du suggest an ice breaker to open things up, make participants feel comfortable with one another, and give stragglers a few minutes to come in. This way, they say, “the discussion starts on time and you’re moving things in a positive direction.” Also, remind people one day in advance what time the meeting starts. During the meeting, constantly check the discussion topic and refocus the group to keep the pace so that the meeting can end on time. Even if there are tension-filled issues still unresolved by the end of the meeting, tell everyone that it is common and that everyone can think more about it and that we will continue the discussion on these issues at another time. If the outcome contains unresolved issues, most likely the group is not ready yet and more “cooking time” is needed.
It is the facilitator’s responsibility to create a safe environment for open dialogue. The language a facilitator uses is essential to keeping the peace in a tension-filled discussion, as well as rephrasing points that have been made in a non-argumentative way. Paraphrasing, or what WINTOP refers to as “parrot listening” ensures that all members of the discussion are on the same page, and the meeting does not diverge into tangents based on misquoted statements. Dr Hu says: “This means when a facilitator hears a point, he or she rephrases it like a parrot to confirm that the original meaning is heard correctly by all.”
While the traditional facilitating method of setting an agenda, keeping to timetables, and reporting back what was discussed – together with conclusions drawn by the groups – work well, some in the industry are cheerleading a different way of conducting group meetings. Open Space has effectively been around since cavemen sat around a fire. The principle of sitting in a circle and discussing issues that are important to a group remains.
Seys-Phillips, who champions this style of “meeting” above traditional methods explains: “You bring everyone together and you ask: ‘what are the key issues that are important to you?’ Then, anyone who is interested and wants to raise a topic can put it up on the notice board.”
What results is, instead of the five or six topics that would be on the agenda over the course of a conference, attendees now have the opportunity to discuss a variety of topics.
Seys-Phillips adds: “Now every person has to choose the one topic per session that is the most important to him. It’s an issue of motivating people to involve themselves in the topics that matter most. And now you are going to get more accomplished in a shorter span of time because the issues are relevant and the discussions are personal.”
When it comes to timing, Open Space proponents don’t focus on having a set end time. “If you have people having a conversation that is productive, and will resolve issues that clearly exist in your business, why would you want to stop it?” asks Seys-Phillips. “You’re not going to get the same group of people, with the same motivation, around the same topics ever again.”
Open Space-style meetings have seen success in many venues, in a variety of settings, with groups ranging from 10 to 500 people. However there are situations in which it isn’t appropriate, and conference organisers should be aware of these. If the corporate culture is such that a strict hierarchy is unwavering, then giving participants a false sense of input is probably unhelpful. Additionally, if the aim of a retreat or set of offsite meetings is specifically to address an agenda set by the CEO or company director, then again, clearly an open forum isn’t the right way to focus on and resolve those issues.
Sending the Message
Whether companies choose a more traditional breakout-style meeting focused on a core agenda, or whether new methods of brainstorming and problem-solving are needed to get to the heart of what could make the business work better, the issue of sending the right message throughout a conference or seminar is still an organiser’s number one priority.
Unresolved issues can often have delegates feeling like the event or meeting was not a success.
But there are ways that facilitators can keep this from happening.
Event coordinators should make sure that facilitators have a clear idea of the goal of the meeting, and if it’s simply to talk through an issue, not necessarily to solve a problem, that should be clear to the group they are leading as well. Encourage meeting attendees to think more about the topic on their own, and start the process of setting up another time to discuss the topic as ways tof making people feel like action is being taken, not time being wasted.
For the most part, an event coordinator’s job with regard to meeting facilitation is to establish the goals of the conference with those who will be directly involved in meeting those objectives: the chairman, the meeting facilitators, and any other relevant players. Clear communi-cation on the part of a coordinator will spread clear communication throughout the conference.
10 Top Tips for Better Discussion
1. Paraphrase. Paraphrase what a participant has said so that he or she feels understood and so that other participants can hear a concise summary of what has been said.
2. Check for Meaning. Check your understanding of a participant’s statement or ask the participant to clarify what he or she is saying.
3. Expand. Elaborate on a participant’s contribution to the discussion with examples, or suggest a new way to view the problem.
4. Increase the Pace. Energise a discussion by quickening the pace, using humour, or, if necessary, prodding the group for more contributions.
5. Devil’s Advocate. Disagree (gently) with a participant’s comments to stimulate further discussion.
6. Give Positive Feedback. Compliment an interesting or insightful comment.
7. Relieve Tension. Mediate differences of opinion between participants and relieve any tensions that may be brewing.
8. Consolidate. Pull together ideas, showing their relationship to each other.
9. Change the Process. Alter the method for obtaining participation by having the group evaluate ideas that have been presented.
10. Summarise. Summarise (and record, if desired) the major views of the group.
Source: Active Training, www.activetraining.com