4 Things I have learned about fruitfully facilitating a group process

I just spent the past 5 or 6 days facilitating a working group of people from 7 different cultures working in 4 distinct regions of the world and it was a great experience.

It was a time of strategising for common goals that would be achieved in each of our different cultural contexts, and even a few that were not represented within our group. These strategic group contexts can be hugely challenging (I know from personal experience). Two years ago I facilitated the same working group process (with mostly different people) and it was one of the worst leadership experiences I’ve ever had. Multiple times I felt like we were moving one step forward and then ten steps back; the group hopped around and couldn’t agree to a strategy and wording, and I completely lost control of the role I was given. I spent multiple times with my head in my hands up in my hotel room despairing for how I could lead the group in a way that would actually achieve anything like what we had set out to do.

This time was different, partly because that last time was so hard. I have given lots of reflection time over the last 2 years to that experience. It was also different because I’ve simply had more practise at facilitating groups. Finally, I think I have a much clearer understanding of how my values (which include thinking well, valuing people, and setting practical goals) actually get fleshed out in real life rather than just ideals in my head.

Here are a few things I learned (most the hard way) in the two years between the two experiences facilitating group processes;

1) People need to feel like People

Many of the people who we gathered with both times did not know each other well. Both times we were extremely pressed for focussed strategising time. Last time I monologued with vagary about what it was we were there to do, and then we hopped to it. I didn’t spend time helping people feel valued, and we didn’t cultivate enough relationship to get the task done. This time I used, even the short time we had, to go round, hear from each person what their context was, some things they had left behind to be there, something they needed prayer for to fully focus, and had someone who knew them in the group commend them briefly to us.

Secondly, all strategising process have a number of pain points; whether you invest some hours into an idea only to realise it isn’t worthwhile after all, or you get caught up in complexity and lose perspective, it becomes harder than you thought when you started out. People need to hear that you know that it is hard and that they are doing a good job.

Finally, everyone could have chosen to be somewhere else. Don’t ever lose the perspective that it is an honour that they would give their time, energy and focus (in our context without even getting paid for it) to work on this common goal together. Remember to thank people, value and recognise their contributions.

2) Share the rules up front and don’t apologise for leading

The biggest mistake I made last time was allowing a green-light thinking environment (an any-idea-goes) for too long. In my high value for having consensus and getting all the voices to be heard and find agreement, I let the process stay broad for way too long. Many of the people in our group last time were older and more experienced. I felt apologetic to make tough decisions and take leadership of the group.

Most of you reading this will not act like a professional facilitator who gets brought in from the outside to solely facilitate a process. More than likely you will be leading something that you have opinions about, responsibility for, but on an issue that it is important to get group input, ownership and participation in. Be clear about what is open for discussion and what is a non-negotiable for you. I used to feel much guiltier about articulating non-negotiable’s than I do now, now I realise it is far more honest to say upfront if there is something I feel strongly about that is within my leadership oversight.

Because this time the time we had was so short, there were moments where I had to ask us not pursue a line of conversation in order to focus on outcomes and becoming concrete. The times this worked best was when I asked at the beginning of the sessions whether everyone agreed to me asking us to move on if I felt like we were getting side-tracked and needed to make decisions. Outside of the emotional moment where someone was making a point they wanted to hold on to, everyone finds it reasonable that a facilitator can move you on, and so it gave me license to keep the group in momentum without anyone feeling that it was personal because it was their thought.

3) Narrate the process

People need to recognise the end goal up front. Even if you can’t articulate anything about the content, defining the type of end goal you want is important. So for example, ours was; These will be concrete do-able (by the people in this room) strategies which will have goals to be completed within 2 years. Every session I re-articulated that this is where we were going together. I also drew a funnel going from wider idea-collecting through to final action plans. A few times in the middle or towards the end of the time I drew a timeline marking a few dots of things we had accomplished and showing that we were often closer to an end goal that many of us felt. Strategic planning can feel like getting lost in a dense wood, so helping people at the beginning of a session getting a birds eye view is important. Finally, you may have some outside influences change the nature of your work, another working group or leaders over you, it is important to share these changes, but to also emphasise what has stayed the same. This helps people feel like they didn’t get pushed back to square one.

These may sound like gimmicky tactics, but it is incredible how helpful they are in creating a sense of trajectory, safety and momentum.

4) Break up into Smaller groups

Last time I had a group of 24. That is simply insane. This time around I attempted to limit it to 9, we ended up at 11. This worked well, but because the subject we worked on was something everyone felt strongly about (it includes the core motivation and outcome that our group is gathered around in the first place) we had to create smaller forums of discussion. In any group over 4 or 5 around 20% of the people will naturally feel more confident to contribute. I have observed that especially europeans (of which I am one) and north americans feel the most permission to voice opinion and disagree where africans and asians will often only raise their voices to help create consensus but will rarely articulate an opposing opinion or new idea in a larger group. Those are, of course, generalisations, but I have seen them play out a number of times now.

This dynamic is also true for external vs internal processors. Internal processors ironically speak less, but what they speak has been well processed internally. External processors (which is the group I lean more into) need to verbalise it to really know what they think (these, by very nature not well processed ideas). Once you get smaller groups (3 is a good number), you create more safety, more opportunity for airtime. Those from cultural background who feel more permission to make their voice heard and those who externally process still need to be encouraged to draw out those from more harmony-based cultures and internal processors.

Do you have a 5th thing you would add from your experience of facilitating group discussions or planning sessions? I’d love to hear it? Or maybe you have a question about facilitation, I’d love to interact with you in the comments..

2 Comments on “4 Things I have learned about fruitfully facilitating a group process

  1. This is really helpful, Liam–seriously, I’ve always struggled facilitating small groups and your observations are spot on. Thanks!

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