Are you a Great Facilitator?

Let's Skip Lunch!

Let’s Skip Lunch!

Every now and then a breakthrough idea occurs to me, something that really changes my consulting life. The BIG idea (s) this week is that … great facilitators have groundrules and skip lunch.

Who owns the monkey? Facilitators are normally asked to work with individuals or groups who are struggling to resolve current issues (remedial agenda) or looking further out the road to unravel some future mystery (developmental agenda). In both cases there is a ‘task’ to be completed. It’s my job to help the client achieve their goal and, hopefully, to have a bit of fun along the way. Business does not have to be boring.

Unsettling Tasks: Now, depending on the task and the people in the room – topics can be quite confusing, even unsettling. For example, I was recently talking with a very successful guy who owns a large car dealership. He wanted to (big surprise here) sell more cars. But the fact that the Irish economy tanked had dinted his plans and there was no sign of relief on the horizon. As the size of the ‘cake’ is relatively fixed due to macro economic factors (outside of his control), I moved the topic onto how he might increase the portion of cake that his business gets. Among a range of topics, we discussed the role of social media in marketing, how ‘conversations’ with his current clients and potential clients might help him sell more cars in the future. Turns out that this guy, a mechanic by training, does not use a computer and is quite a technophobe. So, he found this part of the conversation ‘uneasy’ and did not want to discuss this at all. The ‘minutes’ of our conversation would read as follows: The Client: “Let’s just go back to the Celtic Tiger when I sold shedloads of cars without having to learn any new stuff”.

Underpinning Anxiety: At meetings to discuss today’s presenting issues or future problems, the debates are seldom linear and there can be all sorts of discomfort. When individuals or groups experience ideas that ‘challenge’ their current thinking (what psychologists call dissonance) their instinct is to ‘close the conversation down’. To ease the anxiety –they want to stop the debate or make a quick decision, anything that helps to move away from the discomfort of the topic. But, because learning often comes ‘close to the edge of the cliff’ – my role as a facilitator is to help the group to stay with the discomfort for as long as possible. How? I’ve found two techniques really work well – having groundrules and skipping lunch.

Having Groundrules: The idea of having some ‘groundrules’ for a meeting is hardly revolutionary –but it’s surprising how many meetings kick off without these being agreed in advance. There is no ‘single set’ of groundrules which works for every meeting – they need to be customised to the topic – but here’s a couple of ideas that I’ve found useful:

  • Being co-operative and non-competitive (company hat, not functional hat).
  • Creating a safe, supportive and trusting climate. Ok to say: “I don’t know”.
  • Being non-defensive about your area or your people.
  • Being vulnerable i.e. open to areas of chaos, confusion and lack of skill.
  • Participation in the workshop (under and over participation are both venial sins).
  • Adopting a spirit of enquiry without dogmatism and authoritarianism.
  • Enjoying ourselves. No ban on humour (as long as it’s not an escape hatch).
  • Confidentiality: Affirming, “We are in Lodge”.

You don’t have to arrive with a pre-cooked list; ask the participants to help you develop this at the front end of the meeting (if time allows).

Skipping Lunch: The 2nd rule when acting as a facilitator, is that I normally skip lunch (not JUST because of weight issues). I usually work through lunch to pull together the strands of the morning session, which I then present to the group when they come back. This allows the group to get a sense of the progress made. Sometimes it seems that we were ‘rambling all over the place’; pulling the various strands together helps make sense of the discussion and provides a sense of forward movement. I’m not confident enough to allow a group to really flounder and always feel that they are paying for facilitation (i.e. task accomplishment) not empathy. The market for “I feel your pain” is limited in commercial organizations. Results pay the bills.

A couple of weeks back, at the end of a particularly difficult 2-day session, one of the participants said to me: “You have such a handy job. All you do is show up and listen, get people to talk to each other and then summarize what they’ve said”. I smiled. Like good golf, when my job looks really easy, I know that I’m playing well.

Today’s Question: Are you a great facilitator? There is probably a brilliant facilitator in there, just waiting to get out. Release the beast. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you don’t need to get credit for this.


PS I was in the supermarket the other day when, completely out of the blue, Linda said to me: “You are one lazy Bas***d”. Honestly, I was so shocked I almost fell out of the trolley.

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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