I’ve spent a lot of my time as a management consultant facilitating both client events and internal events. I’m actually pretty good at it…or at least that’s the feedback I get. I often get asked to run training sessions on facilitation skills and as management consultants its usually a skill that we are just expected to have. The first thing that people learning the skill find is that it looks easy. But in truth the easiest thing is screwing it up.
The challenge is that it’s a skill of many dimensions. Probably like most things. But after doing this for almost 20 years I’ve landed on one fundamental thing that all good facilitators have – The Secret Sauce. But we’ll get to that later.
The first thing is that good facilitators don’t talk about “workshops”. It would have to be one of the most overused and therefore meaningless terms in working life today. Use it and watch people roll their eyes. Find a new word – event, session, party – anything but workshop. It will help you engage people in the planning.
We hear a lot about storytelling in business. The ability to create and explain a journey, a feeling, an experience. And this is one skill that good facilitators must have. Think about an event you’ve been at. And the good ones are not a series of disjointed exercises that in and of themselves may actually be quite good. These good events are inevitably a story. The way the exercises come together to drive towards a destination is the difference. This only happens through clarity of purpose and good preparation.
Tip: Write the story, draw the story – doesn’t matter. But get it down on paper.
Preparation is not just about content. It’s about the content, process and people. The content bit usually comes easily. Facts, figures and research underpinning the topic are easy to get. With the outcome clearly in mind a good facilitator must design a process that needs to be able take people from virtually nowhere to an destination. While all the time making sure that the attendees own the end result. That means stress testing the process. Thinking of all the things that could go wrong, and all the different exits that each exercise might take, and planning for them. And expecting that at some point you are more than likely going to end up somewhere you haven’t planned for – and then also planning for that!
It’s difficult to know everyone at every event, especially with larger events. But understanding your attendees and what they will respond to will take you a long way towards getting the outcome you’re targeting. Speak to the people that are owning the session. Find out why people are coming. Discover and understand a bit about their history and their current work life. Understand the political factors that will inevitably play out. Design the process and interact with them in a way that will enable them to give as much as possible to the process and therefore the outcome.
Tip: Spend longer on preparation than you would in the actual session.
As part of presentation skills training I often do a session on “presence” – I have Kenneth Roberts to thank for that. Own the physical space but remember that you are only borrowing it. Make eye contact with the attendees. Listen to them. Really listen to them. Speak with authority but not arrogance. Use your physical presence as much as your intellectual and emotional presence. Don’t be scared to approach people to make the feel included. Use their names. Be completely in the moment. It’s the hardest thing to get right. And it hinges on the secret sauce.
What is the Secret Sauce? – Giving of yourself
Presence comes from within and the first thing you need to realise as a facilitator is that it’s not about you. Your role is to be the vehicle that carries the attendees to a destination. If you can do that with authenticity then the presence will be there. If the presence is there, the attendees will trust you to carry them to the finish line.
You must be completely selfless. At the end of any event you should be exhausted whether its 3 hours long or 3 days long. You should be spent. Because you have given of yourself. When attendees see you are immersing yourself in the event, and selflessly focused at getting them where they need to be……not where you need to be….where they need to be…then they will in turn give of themselves. And that’s when the magic happens. That’s when the process runs without conscious thought, where the contribution of the participants becomes almost automatic. This is when you get to outcomes that you dared not dream of in the preparation.
Facilitating can be one of the most satisfying things we do as consultants and the more you do the better you get at it. But like anything you need to step back and think about how you did. What you could improve? What new or different questions would you ask in preparation? Did the exercises or modules that you used work? If not why not? Take the feedback good or bad. You need to be your own toughest critic.
In the end if you only remember one thing, then remember that it’s not about you.