Top Five Learnings from the D+A Facilitating Engagement Workshop

For two days over a beautiful, sunshine-filled June week in Vancouver, I was immersed in the D+A Facilitating Engagement Workshop, led by Jessica Delaney. I had been looking forward to this course for months. My expectations going into the course were high, hoping it would both inspire me and teach me practical skills that I could immediately use. It delivered on both fronts, and I was happy to have spent my time this way, even with the gorgeous sunshine outside competing for attention.

Here are five (of the many) things I learned in this great workshop:

  1. A facilitator is best set up for success when you separate the roles of content and process

A content “authority” has knowledge of a particular body of information. This element is essential to have at meetings and engagements for obvious reasons – it is the substance of the conversation. You can’t talk about bus routes without a transit expert there, because you will likely start assuming details or stall the discussion altogether.

In contrast, a process authority has expertise in the how of the meeting –in creating and maintaining the space for the meeting to proceed successfully and achieve its goals. This role is likewise essential to a session’s success:  this role keeps the meeting on track, ensures everyone is heard, makes sure that the feedback collected is accurately recorded, that the meeting objectives are achieved (and that objectives are defined to begin with).

I have experienced many meetings/events over the course of my career where the facilitator has worn both the content and process hats. My key take-away on this topic is that it is extremely difficult (and likely impossible in many situations) for a facilitator to wear well both of these hats.

  1. Facilitation starts well in advance of the meeting

Enter the dreaded iceberg analogy: there is a lot that needs to be done under the surface or prior to the actual meeting that can strengthen the facilitation of the session.

Before any meeting or engagement happens, there needs to be a clear decision statement: defining the decision that is to be made, and setting the scope and defining the limits of discussions. It is the big picture why we are here. Once this decision statement is developed, a goal can be defined for a particular meeting or session. And once the goal is defined, then a list of objectives can be articulated in terms of outputs and outcomes.

Defining the objectives, or what needs to be accomplished, sets the stage to embark on all the necessary pre-meeting logistical work, such as inviting participants, securing an appropriate space, and booking catering. There’s also determining the best timing and activities for the meeting (i.e. developing a detailed agenda), providing appropriate background information and materials, developing related communications materials, and researching and understanding people and issues that might arise: for example, reactions of participants, failures of technology, cultural barriers. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some examples to illustrate that there is a lot that goes on behind a good meeting.

  1. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable (a.k.a. managing conflict)

Something that really resonated with me was the idea that the source of conflict is unmet need. We discussed in the workshop that when people feel threatened or fearful, or like their values are being compromised, conflict often emerges. Humans share the same primary needs, and feelings are the indicators of needs.

From this vantage point, we also explored that, as facilitators and leaders of the group, we are responsible for managing emotions and making sure that we are moving the process forward in pursuit of the meeting’s objectives. I left this discussion with a real sense of our ability as facilitators to either de-escalate conflict or ignite it. What we bring to the table in this role can shape the direction the meeting takes, as well as the ultimate outcomes and outputs. This is part science and part art.

There are many needs that we can meet and control, certainly when it comes to the physical space: we can ensure that participants are fed, that they are in an environment that is comfortable in terms of temperature, outlook, room set-up, that they are appropriately prepared for the meeting so that they know where to come, and what to expect, and arrive set up for success.

Emotional needs can be much more complicated. Sometimes the best way to meet emotional needs is not the way that we might instinctively respond. Because conflict and outrage can catch us off-guard and pull our own personal triggers, we may be inclined to respond quickly to the conflict. But often, the best response is no response at all, but rather listening. A skilled facilitator knows how to manage conflict through the right combination of tools and techniques at the right time. Examples of these tools include: active listening, showing compassion, skillful questioning, paraphrasing, and reframing to name a few.

  1. Trust is essential for good facilitation

Establishing rapport and creating trust are essential to the success of any session. Participants need to have trust in the facilitator on multiple levels.

The first is trust in the facilitator’s ability to protect the meeting. As the meeting steward, the facilitator must establish and guard the process. This can include operating values that lay out the expectations for behaviour and a clear framework for the meeting that participants understand (the timing, the agenda, the objectives or work to be achieved).

The second level is trust in the facilitator’s ability to protect the group as a whole. The facilitator needs to be unbiased and work to obtain the input of the group. In practice, this can require many different techniques. It can mean taking the comment of one individual and putting it back to the group to check if others also feel the same way or differently. It can also mean making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate. It can mean asking the right questions to dig deeper and get at common values between group members so that real dialogue can occur. Or it could mean giving the group an opportunity to see how its input is shaping up collectively – through voting, or theming or other reporting.

The third level is trust in the facilitator’s ability to establish personal rapport, between him or herself and each participant. This might mean listening to an individual who is upset, it might mean taking responsibility for ensuring that instructions are fully explained, or it could mean having done the pre-engagement work of determining what an individual needs to engage on an equal footing – perhaps providing a translator or being aware of a cultural difference that needs to be respected.

  1. A successful engagement does not mean reaching agreement

Getting to a place where individuals can have meaningful, values-based dialogue is hard work. It takes time (and skill) to peel off the layers and expose the values that lie beneath positions.  However, it is important work. Understanding the values that drive behaviour and beliefs can create the opportunity to recognize a shared value beneath opposing positions, or at least the possibility of understanding why someone holds the position they do.

Sometimes understanding values can lead to common ground and agreement. But sometimes not. The role of the facilitator is not to steer the participants toward agreement. It is to have respectful dialogue and shared understanding. Having the right information is essential to talking and thinking and possibly even acting together, and the right information includes not only information on a project, but also information on understanding what drives individuals at their core.

Overall, I learned that a facilitator is someone who is able to devote themselves to the role of process authority, through establishing trust on multiple levels and skillfully managing conflict.

I highly recommend this two-day workshop. It provided an excellent framework in terms of the key roles and responsibilities of a facilitator and was also filled with practical examples.

These examples were particularly powerful for making sense of a field that is part science, part good judgment, and drawing on the right skill at the right time in the right place. This was a fantastic course with applicability for anyone who plans and runs meetings in their professional and personal roles.

We are offering this course in Toronto, November 21-22, 2018. Click here for more info and to register!