Facilitate means ‘to make easier’. That encapsulates the role of the facilitator; he or she is there to help the discussion flow and to make the whole process as easy as possible to achieve good outcomes. With this in mind it is usually best to have someone facilitating a meeting who has no personal involvement in the topic. It is then possible to be completely ‘outside’ the discussion and merely to help people move from one aspect to another by monitoring how it is going and determining when all the juice has been squeezed out of a particular topic.
Prepare for informality
A discussion of this sort can appear to be relatively unstructured. Indeed, it is important that people do not feel constrained by a rigid structure since different people process information at different rates. As already mentioned, some are ‘internal processors’ whilst others have to verbalise their thoughts in order to develop their thinking. If the structure is too rigid the internal processors, particularly, will feel inhibited as they may not have time to assimilate their thoughts based on what others say and then contribute their own thoughts.
But apparent lack of structure and informality often require more thorough preparation by the facilitator than would be the case in a rigidly determined meeting with agenda and strict timetable. He must have in his mind a clear plan about how the discussion is to proceed, how long is required for each part and when to move on sensitively. Summarising what has been discussed and interim conclusions reached is a good way to help make these transitions from one part of the discussion to another.
I have already mentioned internal and external processors. But the facilitator must be alert to other dynamics, such as shyness or hierarchy. For instance, I like to have a whole team present if I am facilitating a Ministry Health Check. But some leaders can be quite dominant, even threatening, in the eyes of some of the more junior members of the team. Yet those junior members may be the ones who have greatest experience of the challenges in handling those they are trying to minister to with love and compassion. To lose their observations due to shyness or reticence would significantly reduce the value of the exercise.
The Action Plan and Timeline
Throughout the discussion careful records are kept, either written down by a designated record keeper or on the various displays that have been developed. In order to achieve effective outcomes these need to be combined into an action plan on a timeline. These are often best developed together ie who does what and when.
In discussing the action plan, which may be quite a lengthy process in itself and require a separate session from the creative discussion that has been held to this point, assessment must be made of the value of each of the conclusions that have been reached to date. Indeed, some of the ‘conclusions’ may need to be modified in the light of other priorities.
The timeline can be handled well using Post-its placed along a line depicting the total period of implementation, one year, two years, five years as appropriate. It should include clear dates on which monitoring and evaluation at appropriate milestones will take place. Monitoring progress must be frequent, evaluation of achievements and process should be at significant land-marks, maybe annually.
In this short series I have sought to show the value of and some of the techniques in facilitating discussion. It is a very rewarding process as everyone is involved. It is normal for a real buzz to develop through the period as people’s creative gifting is tapped. It should be fun and sufficiently flexible to introduce breaks, not only for refreshments but also for people to ‘unwind’ for a few moments. Above all, there should be clear outcomes with agreed actions on an achievable timeline.
I trust that you will now have many stimulating and fruitful discussions!