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Be there for the group and promote enriching interaction

Mirjami
Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte

At its best and most genuine, facilitation creates change – it helps the group to open up, to build trust, to untie knots, to evolve. Building trust in a group requires being accepted for your feelings and being able to articulate them. This requires the facilitator’s genuine presence, sensitivity to the group’s situation and needs, adaptation to the group’s culture, and openness to the group.


Be there for the group and promote enriching interaction

Being present in the moment

No matter how well you prepare, you don’t know what’s going to happen until you breathe the same air as the group, until you look the participants in the eye and listen to their words, tiniest gestures and expressions. The facilitator can’t afford to ignore the constant messages coming from the group, but it also takes courage to pay attention to them and, based on this, to engage with people in a genuine way.

Facilitation means taking care of each and every participant. It means caring about and being genuinely interested in the topic. It’s about encouragement and confidence in the participants and the group’s ability to solve problems and to develop. In my opinion, facilitation cannot be done well if it’s not done from the heart. On the other hand, if you genuinely care, you can learn the technique. Preparation lays the groundwork for building trust, and even the small details in preparing a room tell the participants that you care. However, during the session, trust is built through interaction: by paying attention to the group and its participants, referring to previous comments, linking different people’s comments together and bringing them back in the form of a question, by always returning to an issue you promised to return to later or to a person you noticed earlier asking to speak. Because many meaningful things are gone in an instant, the facilitator must be constantly present and awake.

Listen to the group sensitively and from the heart

The importance of listening in facilitation cannot be overemphasised, so central is it as a tool for guiding discussion. Listening involves a technique that’s important to practise, but before that it’s important to stop at the most important element: being present and engaging with the group. Many times, I’ve seen technically competent facilitators and coaches completely ignore messages clearly being conveyed by the group through expressions and gestures. Perhaps it’s because of a genuine fear of engaging with the participants and their different thoughts and emotions, or a concern about the plan for the day getting mixed up. It’s quite understandable for facilitators to get nervous about this, but at the same time they’re passing up the opportunity to obtain much valuable information. The work will then remain superficial if the participants’ feelings are not dealt with. Facilitation often takes place in situations of change – and change naturally involves emotions.

I think that, in order to be able to accept the different emotions that arise in a group, a facilitator must learn to recognise and accept her own emotions. Even though the facilitator is ‘content-neutral’, she is not – or at least he shouldn’t be – emotionally neutral. Recognising your feelings also allows you not to let them control you.

With open questions, you get valuable information and can help to stimulate discussion.

Often, despite our good intentions to ask open questions, it’s often closed ones that come out of our mouths. Closed questions don’t create much room for discussion or encourage people to be open about their thoughts and feelings. At every event, my personal objective is to get the participants to speak as early as possible, and thus to stimulate a conversational environment. So-called ‘door-opening’ questions tend to do this: “How does this agenda sound?”, “What are your thoughts on this?”, “What has stuck in your mind…?”And then silence. And, if necessary, a little more silence.

Observing people’s expressions and gestures, and asking about them, will help you to make use of unspoken messages.

Just as important as the verbal comments by participants are the non-spoken messages that the facilitator can see through expressions and gestures:”Peter, you look thoughtful. It would be nice to hear your thoughts on the topic.”

Asking about facial expressions and gestures helps to gain a great deal more useful information, the views, experiences and feelings of the participants, which can be used in the process if you know about them. Expressions and behaviour that signal frustration, criticism or indifference towards the topic or situation at hand, are a direct message and an opportunity not to be missed. Even if an issue or concern is not directly related to the objectives of the event, if it’s not dealt with, it can be a barrier to achieving the event’s objectives. When feelings are raw – for an individual or group – listening is always the right tool. And often listening is enough. The group doesn’t expect you or the event to resolve their concerns, but talking about them allows you to focus on the real issue.

In your own words, tell the participants the message you have understood.

Sometimes, the facilitator’s own words about what she has understood about the situation or the topic at hand based on what the participants have said, helps to move the discussion forward. So now it’s about pulling together the substance of the debate, whereas before we were talking about articulating emotions:“Let’s see if I’ve understood correctly…

Sometimes, in complex discussions, it’s a good idea to draw what you have understood on a flip chart or whiteboard. Seeing the subject visually will help you to analyse your thoughts and take the discussion forward. However, it’s important to make sure you don’t add your own interpretations or opinions to the discussion, but maintain your own neutral role as a moderator and facilitator.

Take your team development skills to a new level

Tackling disruptive behaviour

In addition to providing useful information, intervening in non-verbal messages places the onus on the guilty party to answer when asked what their sighs, chatting with a neighbour or acidic comments were about. It’s really important as a facilitator to be aware that abuse of power and even workplace bullying often lie in small nuances of tone of voice, facial expressions, almost imperceptible comments and brief but significant glances. If you are an external facilitator, you must, however, be humble and understand your own limited role and chances of actually making a difference. At the same time, as a facilitator, you have the opportunity, at least on this one occasion, to show that you see what’s happening and to hold participants accountable for their own behaviour in a constructive way. This is vitally important in the creation of a safe atmosphere. If you ignore people swearing or insulting others under their breath, you are complicit with those people who are accepting it. Perhaps even a momentary intervention will sow the seeds of a small change and help group members to see an alternative to their own way of behaving. If the user of ‘negative power’ is the leader of the group, possibly even the person who commissioned the event or project, then it is of course time to assess what your potential for influence is and, if you don’t see the potential for improving the group dynamic, to assess whether you have the potential to continue working with the group or organisation at all. These are of course personal value choices, and sometimes making them requires observation and assessment of the situation over a slightly longer period of time.

The key thing is to be aware that negative influence often lies in small nuances precisely because they are difficult to address and are thus allowed to run wild. It’s easy for the perpetrator to deny that they meant anything bad by an almost imperceptible facial expression. Because of this, if you do intervene, you must be able to provide sharp detail about what you saw. Behind every impression is a word or even a small action that is important to capture:”Jane, I noticed you smiling when Alison gave an example of her own customer experience. I’d like to hear what you thought.”

In this part, I’ve focused more on expressions and behaviour that transmit negative feelings. By ‘negative’, I mean that if this kind of activity is ignored and allowed to continue, it will make it more difficult to achieve the objective of the event or process, the safe and confidential atmosphere of the event and, as a result, the motivation of the participants is likely to suffer.

Unfortunately, there are many workplaces where there is a bad atmosphere, bullying and the abuse of power at the expense of others. This is often due to deficient communication skills. If, as a facilitator, I can bring any of this out and also help a group or organisation to improve its cooperation and communication, I feel that my work has been meaningful.

Illustration of elements needed for catalysing group progress

Encourage positive group behaviour and celebrate progress

Positive feedback has great power. Because of this, it’s also worth utilising it as a tool in group development. Personally, I feel that the attitude of the facilitator and the fact that she shows interest in the topics being handled by the group have huge importance. Conversely, think about how it feels to work in a group where the discussion is facilitated by a person who is indifferent. Interest feeds curiosity, and helps people to ask deeper questions. It also conveys a feeling of appreciation of the work being done by the group. The facilitator can also help the group members to improve their own teamwork skills by highlighting when they’ve done something positive, no matter how small, and by giving feedback on it. Especially if the group has had problems in the beginning, for example in listening to others, staying on topic or even expressing their own different points of view, it’s important to give positive feedback as soon as you see progress: “You’ve really been considering each other and asking each other questions about the issue. This enables much more diverse discussion and the opportunity to exploit different kinds of viewpoints. Do you remember that previously this was hardly happening at all, so it’s great to see it now.”

The exemplary ways in which individual participants express themselves can also be highlighted in a way that draws attention to them. As long as you don’t focus too much on highlighting the same person each time:”Thank you, Sarah, for remembering the importance of staying on topic. This has been something that your group has needed to improve and, by constantly bearing it in mind, you’ve learned to focus on it. Now your meetings will be much more efficient and energetic.”

In other words, you could say that the job of the facilitator is to make herself redundant. That’s precisely how the group’s ability to guide itself and take responsibility increases.

The writer of this post is the founder and Managing Director of Xpedio, Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte. She has been working with facilitation and organizational development across the world for the last 18 years. Get to know Mirjami better here.

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