The Latin definition of facilitation is “to make easy,” but many people in the role of facilitator would likely use very different words to describe the task. Good facilitators guide, but don’t lead; they engage, but don’t direct. Attend a meeting with a practiced facilitator and you will walk out feeling heard, considered and validated.
Conversely, we’ve all been witness to a public meeting marked by long queues behind microphones, attention-demanding hands shooting up and waving in the air and questions shouted across the room from frustrated attendees. That’s when it is most essential for facilitators to have both a tried and true toolbox of proven strategies and a clear Plan B to keep meetings productive. It’s not hard to run a successful, impactful meeting once you have some well-tested how-to tools in your back pocket.
Before we share some proven techniques from the field that you can test out in your next community meeting, staff workshop or team discussion, it is important to understand what makes a good facilitator. A good facilitator doesn’t need to be a content expert; in fact, it’s often easier to facilitate when you’re not, as it eliminates the compelling urge to correct what you hear. A good facilitator is a great listener who engages others in the conversation and manages the meeting process to move the conversation forward toward a desired outcome.
Having a strategy, a plan and a framework in mind can turn a good facilitator into a great one, ready and able to handle the most contentious crowd. Here’s a three-step approach that I have found to be nothing less than transformative.
The facilitator starts by explaining the format of the question and answer session and then follows these three steps:
- The facilitator collects a specific number of questions from the audience, say, three;
- The facilitator writes the questions on a flip chart; and
- The facilitator asks the subject matter expert to answer each question, one at a time.
So, what is going on here, and why not have the audience just ask the questions of the expert directly? First, the approach subtly shifts control of the Q&A session away from the audience and to the facilitator. Second, it sets expectations for the audience both in how their questions will be answered and how long the Q&A session will last. Third, the transparent process creates trust between the facilitator and audience. And finally, the subject matter expert, who is no longer pummeled by the rapid-fire back and forth of nonstop questions, has a chance to think through answers and catch his or her breath before speaking.
Virtually every step in this approach affirms trust and builds confidence between presenters and audience. Even the act of writing the questions on the flip chart has relationship-building benefits, as questioners are sure their questions were heard correctly and everyone in the audience can see the question that will be answered, eliminating the frustration of being unable to hear questions before answers start coming.
When time is up, the facilitator fulfills the agreement made with the audience at the outset, thanks attendees for their participation and stops the Q&A. Just as important is encouraging a continuing collaboration by sharing ways to ask questions that may not have been addressed during the session. For example, attendees can submit questions on index cards given out prior to the session or send them via email for an FAQ or virtual Q&A that will be posted on a website or distributed back to attendees.
The method is efficient and effective, but it isn’t magic, even though tough situations can make it feel that way. Next time you are facilitating a meeting, use this Q&A tip and take three steps to engage your audience for more positive outcomes — because every voice counts.
Nora Madonick is CEO and Founder of Arch Street Communications Inc., a certified women’s business enterprise and disadvantaged business enterprise in White Plains. The firm provides strategic communication and public engagement services in the areas of energy, transportation, safety and environment for federal and state agencies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.