Using a facilitator is usually a good idea if you want to keep a meeting focused and productive. Can meetings be effective without a facilitator? Of course. Thousands of meetings take place every day without a designated facilitator. However, the perils of meeting without a facilitator are many, and often lead to a high level of frustration among participants. The dangers include drifting from the agenda, lack of participation, running overtime and many more. It has been my experience that once group members experience the benefits of well-facilitated meetings, they'll never want to hold a meeting any other way.

The two main facilitation options are to use an internal facilitator or hire an outside professional. When should you use internal person and when should you engage a professional facilitator for your meetings? As with most questions, the easy answer is, "it depends." For groups that meet regularly on project teams, staff groups, task forces, committees, department heads, etc., consider training several people in the skills of facilitation and rotate the job. Several of my clients have a cadre of trained people scattered throughout their organizations who are available to facilitate anything from a one-hour meeting to a full-day work session.

For meetings that have higher stakes, you may want to engage the services of a professional facilitator. Such meetings might include retreats, idea generation sessions, strategic planning and problem-solving meetings. A professional facilitator can also help your group get "unstuck", identify and focus on key issues, make decisions and move forward. Perhaps the number one reason people hire professional facilitators is the objectivity and "distance" they bring.

One of the biggest traps is for the group leader or senior person to assume the role of facilitator. This is an invitation for a dysfunctional meeting. Why? It's virtually impossible for the leader to be neutral on content issues, which is a prime requisite for an effective facilitator. When group leaders facilitate their own meetings, they often cross the line into control and advocacy for their point of view. In turn, this will shut down participation from others. Separating the leader and facilitator roles will help ensure that at least one person is focused on group process issues, e.g., staying on agenda and keeping people involved.

Whether you decide to develop facilitators internally or utilize outside consultants/facilitators (or both), knowing which skills to look for is important.

Skills and Traits of Effective Facilitators
Effective facilitators know the dynamics of group process and are skilled in using techniques for keeping the group task-focused, encouraging creative thinking, building consensus and keeping all group members involved. A critical skill is the ability to create and maintain a safe, open and supportive environment for all group members. Another is being able to recognize and deal with disruptive behaviors.
Skilled facilitators should always be "issue neutral" during a meeting. They should never advocate a point of view, regardless of their expertise and opinions on a given subject.
Listening and observation skills are essential for facilitators. They need to be listening and watching for nuance, content, body language and other feedback as well as anything else that impacts the group. They're always aware of a meeting on two levels simultaneously: content (what's being discussed or decided) and process (how the group is functioning).
The best facilitators blend assertiveness with tact and discipline with humor. They need to know how to effectively intervene when the meeting is veering off the subject or otherwise not moving toward accomplishing its purpose.

Growing Your Own Facilitators
For groups that meet regularly, it's smart to have several members act as facilitator on a rotating basis. It's not enough to simply appoint people to the job. Training of internal facilitators will ensure they know what is required to keep a meeting focused and productive, and will give them opportunities to practice these skills with an experienced facilitator/coach.

In the training workshops, novice facilitators should receive a lot of practice; videotaped feedback is one of the most useful learning devices. After the training, your newly minted facilitators should be given plenty of opportunities to facilitate meetings so they can build their skills and confidence. It's important that group members be understanding of new facilitators while they are honing their techniques.

Hiring Professional Facilitators
There are several places to look when you are in need of a professional facilitator, either to work with you on an important meeting or to train people in the skills of facilitation.

A natural choice might be a consultant who is familiar with your organization but who also has considerable facilitating experience. Why? A consultant is usually hired for his subject matter expertise and opinions. While this background helps him understand group issues and terminology, the group's effectiveness will probably be compromised unless the consultant is able to step into a neutral role when facilitating.

While many facilitators also do other things, the demand is such that some professionals are full-time facilitators. Most limit themselves to a few fields or types of meetings in which they have developed competence. The safest bet is to engage a facilitator who has experience in your industry or similar fields.

Where can you find a professional facilitator? One organization is the International Association of Facilitators (www.iaf-world.org), dedicated to the development of the facilitation profession. Its members include professionals and internal facilitators from many fields. While it is not a "booking agency" per se, the IAF may be a good place to start. The Innovation Network (www.thinksmart.com) is another source for facilitators, especially for idea generation sessions. Another organization, the National Speakers Association (www.nsaspeaker.org) has recently begun offering training workshops to its speaker/trainer members in the art and skills of facilitation. Regardless of the resource you use to find a professional facilitator, remember to always ask for references before hiring.

More Power to Your Group
The choice to use facilitators for your meetings, whether homegrown (internal) or outside professionals, can pay great dividends. At a minimum, you can expect shorter meetings that are more focused and productive. Group leaders can put their efforts toward substantive, while leaving process issues to the facilitator. Over time, group members will learn the skills of facilitation through "osmosis" and practice. Such awareness can only help the group perform more effectively in meetings and in any team endeavor.

About the Charlie Hawkins
Charlie Hawkins (seahawk@sedona.net) works with businesses and nonprofits that want better results from their meetings. He is the President of Seahawk Associates, based in Sedona, AZ and is in frequent demand to facilitate retreats, idea generation and strategic planning sessions. He holds an MBA from Columbia University and has over 25 years experience as a facilitator. Charlie is the author of First Aid for Meetings, a complete resource for running effective meetings (available at www.bn.com). For more information, call 520.204.2511.


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