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The Beauty of Meeting Facilitation

Good meeting facilitation techniques will make almost any important discussion better and more productive.

What facilitation does is make sure that everyone is heard in an equitable way, that is, facilitation will usually prevent a meeting being dominated by a few very strong and persistent speakers. Facilitation also organizes people’s responses and thoughts in such a way that next steps are possible. This means that participants leave the meeting knowing what they have agreed on and how to proceed in the weeks and months to come.

Facilitation techniques break down meeting topics into workable parts. Then facilitation employs different strategies to both engage participants (make sure they don’t spend the entire meeting looking at their phones) and get the best out of them, their sharpest thoughts, and their real investment.

Training in meeting facilitation is available through the Institute for Cultural Affairs and the International Association for Public Participation. Critical ingredients to a successful facilitation include:

A well-prepared facilitator: A good facilitator is respected by the group, able to manage a discussion without tamping down participation, and able to mix seat of the pants adaptation and much thinking on one’s feet in order to consolidate the discussion and move things forward.

Sensible and diverse methods: If there are 3 or 4 different discussion topics, the facilitation method for each should be different. People get bored quickly unless there is a combination of individual and group thinking, three-word answers, and longer lists, on their feet and sitting down. But there’s a caution here: facilitation that are too fancy or too wacky will put people off. Only employ a technique that you, as a participant, would like.

Visual: Good facilitation is all about VISUAL. This means drawing circles on the board to ask people to come up with ‘spokes on the wheel,’ using big post-it notes to write short ideas that can then be stuck on the wall and arranged into categories, even drawing  pictures or using TinkerToys to illustrate a concept or plan.

Wilberg Community Planning recently designed the Facilitation Plan for the Milwaukee County Mental Health Redesign Working Forum held on March 5, 2014; and several facilitation techniques were used by four trained community volunteers Not only did the forum generate really good products that will move the Redesign effort forward, people enjoyed themselves and felt that their time was well-spent.

Take a look at the summary that was produced for the Working Forum. As you read through, you’ll get a sense of the facilitation methods that were used by each discussion leader. It might get you thinking about how to manage your next important meeting. If you’re interested in learning more about meeting facilitation or need help designing a plan, email me at jwilberg@wi.rr.com.

Mental Health Redesign Working Forum

 

 

 


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It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

 

There are things I’ve done to facilitate group discussions that, in retrospect, make me roll my eyes and yearn for witness protection.  Even more astonishing than the cockamamie things I asked people to do is the fact that 99.9% of the time, people would do them!

Without flinching,

  • The head of UMOS agreed to write a ‘pressing community need’ on a balloon and tack it to the wall to be popped later by the expert facilitator as we established need priorities.
  • Waukesha County’s budget director along with his key staff wrote their ‘most important outcomes’ on paper airplanes and sailed them at me and my co-facilitator in a flurry which had us scrambling around the floor trying to pick them up and read them.  (We planned pre-flight but not post-flight.)
  • A police chief used crayons to draw his favorite summertime memory as a boy which had him on his bike in the hills overlooking his town and then label the picture “Lucky.”  (This was actually one that worked pretty well – helping a new Youth Collaborative harken back to the golden days of freedom and playfullness of their youth.  Unfortunately, they then went on to plan more structured activities for kids.  Oh well.)
  • Emergency shelter directors constructed their ‘visions’ of how the Shelter Task Force should operate using (what else?) Tinkertoys.  (Didn’t work – they all looked like spaceships.)

In addition to this kind of stuff, I went through a period of taking little jars of Play-Doh to every meeting.  I probably have more Play-Doh in my office right this second that Milwaukee’s biggest day care — because, you know or maybe you don’t, that you really can’t use Play-Doh twice.  Has to be new.

Anyway, participants in a planning meeting will generally do whatever the facilitator asks them to do if the facilitator conveys a genuine commitment to the process and a real enthusiasm for the results.  If the facilitator equivocates, then people will hang back.  I witnessed someone at a large gathering not so long ago open the meeting by promising a great icebreaker and then, surprisingly, losing his nerve at the last minute.  If you’re going to do something different, you have to plunge in like you believe it. 

Now I pretty much stick with the simple and striking.  Like this ball.  This is possibly the most enticing ball on the planet.  So I use it to do introductions or I’ll just have it sitting on the table available for people to  pick up and fiddle with.  People like it that I thought to bring some toys; most people will get into it.  It helps them play while being serious.  Takes the edge off.  Gives them something to laugh about.  Makes the room warmer and happier. 

Sometimes, though, people gather to plan or discuss or strategize and they are just too up tight to pick up that ball.  The ball will sit there the entire session.  Like it was made of crystal.  Everyone is afraid of the ball, ignores it, looks at their hands.  When that happens, witness protection is looking better and better.


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