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Let’s Avoid Being the Facilitator from Hell

There we were, in a room full of smart, talented people. We’d been asked to give input for the strategic direction for an organization that we’d all been part of for many years. It was an invitation-only event, and people had traveled from all over the U.S. and beyond to provide assistance.

05-01 Straps Hyatt San Antonio

Don’t Tie Up Your Thought Leaders—Let Them Generate Great Ideas

As the meeting started, within nanoseconds, we realized this meeting was not going to go the way we had hoped.

In the spirit of learning from both good and bad examples, here are some things to do and also to avoid doing should you be facilitating a meeting full of experienced and well-educated folks.

Facilitator Do’s & Taboos

  • Yes, do go around and introduce yourself to people attending the meeting before it starts.
  • Yes, explain your role as facilitator, which is to stay out of the content and to enforce agreed norms (such as, everyone gets a chance to speak). Your role is to be there for process, not for content.
  • Yes, establish your credibility at the beginning of the meeting (quickly and without being abrasive or defensive).
  • Yes, set some norms about time commitments for the meeting.
  • Yes, realize that you must be flexible because things may not go exactly as you planned them.
  • Yes, do be respectful of your participants.
  • Yes, consider that your audience may know as much or more than you do about the topic at hand.
  • No, do not go on and on about your process of preparing for the meeting. Nobody cares. It’s not about you.
  • No, do not read slides to literate people. Nobody needs death by PowerPoint.
  • No, there is no need to be strong and domineering. In fact, that’s going to be counter-productive.
  • No, do not be condescending to people who likely know oceans more about what you’re talking about than you do.
  • If your audience gets feisty (possibly because you are going on and on about things they know already), do not try to exert a power play by insisting that you, in fact, have the floor. Again, this is not about you.
  • No, do not hold thoroughbreds back from contributing by grabbing the reigns and trying to keep them from running with good, creative ideas.
  • Yes, consider offering divergent and convergent thinking opportunities.
  • Before you ask people to “think out of the box,” consider whether thinking out of the box is what the organization actually needs. Don’t assume.
  • Do not be dismissive of the contributions that people make during the session.
  • Yes, employ active listening.
  • No, do not have foregone conclusions about what people should say in the meeting (or scold them when they don’t give you the answers you were expecting).
  • At no point should you initiate a power struggle between yourself and the participants.
  • When the participants explain that the information you are presenting is not new—that in fact it is similar to information that they have seen over the past 10 years or so—do not (since this is your first week with the organization) act like they are all wrong, bad, or stupid.
  • Yes, check for understanding throughout the dialogue during the meeting.
  • Yes, summarize the main points made during the session.
  • Yes, generate a list of potential actions that people might take once the meeting is over.

Facilitation, especially when working with senior people and/or those who have worked together for many years, can be much harder to do well than we might expect. Regardless of prior experience, facilitators should treat every new group with respect, leave egos and personal agendas at the door, and remember that the participants may be way ahead in their thinking, at least so far as their group or organization is concerned.

Many thanks to Dr. Clare Carey and Dr. Mary Norris Thomas for their insights and contributions to this post.

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  • Dr. Clare Carey

    You captured our experiences quite accurately, Jeanne! Well done.

  • Jane Sink

    Nice…I am sorry I missed out on this meeting! A learning experience…????

    • jeannefarrington

      Hi Jane! Great to hear from you.

      To the extent that learning from a bad example is a good thing, yes!